The ink jet printig market is enjoying tremendous growth. As the technology moves away from its traditional roots in the SOHO market and toward wide format and other industrial applications, there is plenty of opportunity for ink companies to enter the field.
Some experts believe that the large format market, ranging from 24 inches to 72 inches in width, is a $1.5 billion segment. Wide format is where much research is being done.
For their part, ink manufacturers are putting in increasing amounts of effort into R&D, and many are partnering with equipment manufacturers, suppliers and end-users to develop new solutions.
The innovations that are being synthesized today will have a major impact on the printing world of tomorrow.
Ink Jet Ink Business
It is difficult to determine the actual size of the ink jet ink market. Worldwide, the ink jet ink market is estimated at $15 billion, with $12.5 billion in the SOHO market, which is dominated by OEMs.
“Ink jet technology has shown strong historical growth in the desktop market (new printer sales at more than 10 percent per annum),” said Mike Nicholds, director of business development, Avecia Inkjet Printing Materials Business. “This rate is forecast by some analysts to slow as the market begins to show signs of maturity. Within the overall market growth rate there are segments of higher growth rate, particularly in entry level (less than $100) printers. Additionally new applications such as photo printing and ink jet replacement of laser-based printing devices for the office environment, offer the new growth.”
“In the non-desktop market the potential for ink jet is large given the total size of the printing industry,” Mr. Nicholds said. “Various forecasts have suggested that digital technology can take greater than 10 percent of the total current printing output in non-desktop within the next 10 years, of which ink jet could be the dominant imaging technology.”
“The wide format market continues to grow, although this is beginning to slow. There are a number of dominant suppliers of equipment and this has been consolidating,” Mr. Nicholds said. “Growth will continue in this area, particularly with geographical expansion into the Far East, and opportunities still exist for new ink technologies. In corrugated packaging we are aware of some activity in this segment, which we monitor because of its likely requirement for aqueous-based inks, but this activity is overshadowed by that in UV cure-based applications.”
Imaging, which branched off from its parent company in 1999, focused its efforts on wide format UV printers. It created Uvijet UV ink jet inks, and partnered with the Inca Eagle and Zund printers. These have been successful partnerships for Sericol.
“The signage markets are well established, but there is a continuing need for improved equipment and inks, that creates new opportunities,” said Dr. Joseph Raksis, Flint Ink’s senior vice president, research and new product development. “Packaging, photography, commercial printing and textiles are regarded as areas that will benefit from ink jet printing, but all are in their infancy, and the important applications need to be developed.”
Mr. Amerine sees many opportunities ahead for ink jet.
“The narrow web packaging market has a lot of variable data, and it could be a big market,” Mr. Amerine said.
Piezo technology has become the most dominant of the ink jet processes.
“Piezo is absolutely the choice,” said Mike Willis, managing director, Pivotal Resources Ltd., a Cambridge, U.K.-based consulting group. “In the mid- to late-1990s, large format printers borrowed technology from office printers, but now we have some real robust piezo printheads.”
“The most development is being done in piezo,” said Steve Emery, vice president, sales and marketing for American Ink Jet Corporation. “In addition, security inks are becoming more popular, as is adding different particles into the inks.”
“With solvent, the faster the printing, the faster you need the solvent to dry off, but it can’t dry in the nozzle,” Mr. Amerine said. “There’s only so fast you can run solvent without causing production issues. Piezo is absolutely the way to go.”
The Market for UV Ink Jet Ink
In particular, UV ink jet provides an opportunity to create improved properties while also increasing production speeds.
“Up until a year or two ago, ink jet had a problem of printing reliably on anything,” said Mr. Willis. “The only way to do so was to use solvent-based inks, but that does not work well on drop-on-demand. UV has not been easy to formulate, but it can provide a weatherable, durable image. The other amazing attribute is that UV ink jet inks just do not dry up in the nozzle.
“UV overcomes the reliability problem for ink jet, and all of a sudden many new applications become possible, “ Mr. Willis said. “We’re just at the beginning of high-growth potential. In some areas, UV ink jet will replace flexo and screen, but it can also go to new, diverse areas ranging from keyboard pads, dashboards and textiles to many others. The move has been from people considering printing data with ink jet to now printing decoration, such as wall and floor coverings, decorative laminates and other opportunities.”
Ink manufacturers believe that the properties created by UV will lead to numerous new applications.
“UV cure is growing in the conventional printing industry because of its ability to offer rapid fixing onto a wide range of non-absorbent substrates, and combining this with the short run benefits of ink jet opens up a whole range of applications,” Mr. Nicholds said.
“Significant development work is underway with UV curable ink jet inks,” said Dr. Raksis. “The drivers are faster ‘dry’ times, elimination of solvent emissions, the perception of suitability with a larger variety of substrates and, for some applications, greater resistance to solvents and cleaning solutions. Application areas of interest are signage, packaging, direct mail and smart cards.”
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries for new applications, at least one or two a week,” said Mr. Emery. “Right now, a major development project continues to be UV curable ink jet. We have two development paths. The first is 100% solids UV curable ink, and the other is aqueous. The challenge with aqueous is getting rid of the water before you cure the ink.”
“We are working with about a dozen companies for UV curable inks right now,” Mr. Emery said. “UV curable ink was the hottest topic at the latest IMI Europe conference. UV has wide application in wide format, grand format, security, plastics and other rigid substrates, aluminum, three-dimensional, screen printing and labeling.”
“We believe that UV will become the primary ink for commercial applications, and because of its universality, it can be used on virtually any substrate,” Mr. Wishart said. “UV ink jet offers versatility, and it will be a big player.”
Similar Advantages To Conventional UV
The advantages that UV brings to conventional inks translate nicely to ink jet as well.
“The advantages of UV ink jet are similar to that of conventional UV,” said John Law, general manager of SunJet, Sun Chemical’s ink jet division. “It has very good printing performance. Printhead maintenance is minimal, and the head reliability is at a high level. The ability to instantly dry/cure on the substrate is also very important. With careful formulation you can ensure that UV jet inks are as safe and environmentally benign as possible as well as reducing the odor. Conventional UV inks are normally jetted at between 40°C and 50°C, depending on the printhead used. These are normally cured immediately after printing so ensuring excellent print resolution is achieved.”
“UV offers better outdoor properties, and shouldn’t need to be laminated, and fade resistance is supposed to be excellent,” Mr. Emery said. “Since it has no volatile organic compounds, it’s a greener process. There are fewer steps involved. More than likely, it would be pigment-based. We are almost at the point where we can show how we can print and UV cure on the fly.”
For ink companies, having experience in UV conventional inks provides an advantage in the ink jet market.
“Flint Ink is one of several companies providing the early generations of UV curable ink jet inks,” Dr. Raksis said. “Our long experience with conventional UV curable inks has given us an important edge.”
“It certainly will have a wide range of applications, which is the driver for its development,” Mr. Law said. “We have a number of projects, and we’re very busy. There’s a vast diversity of applications that touch on all the major divisions we have. I’d like to think that in terms of developments that we have had, we are further ahead of anyone else at this point.”
Mr. Amerine said that Sericol’s involvement in UV ink jet began when the company first entered the ink jet market in the mid-’90s.
“Sericol saw two models of entry into digital,” Mr. Amerine said. “The first was to emulate solvent inks, which we felt would not differentiate ourselves technically. We felt that digital would parallel commercial, where UV has replaced solvent- and water-based ink. We chose to focus our R&D efforts on UV to get ahead of the curve.”
Creating the right UV ink jet ink takes much effort.
“It is a question of creating the right UV ink jet for the market. The challenge is to optimize properties to meet end users’ applications,” Mr. Law said. “Viscosity has to be a lot lower than most conventional inks, and so the choice of raw materials is constrained.”
“Other paste ink systems have also been formulated,” Mr. Law said. “These inks are a paste at room temperature and are jetted at 70°C. On contact with the substrate these inks ‘freeze,’ so achieving exceptional dot resolution on a very wide range of media. Such inks are, for example, used in the Olec Tsunami direct to plate printer.”
“There are also water-based UV systems which allow the use of higher molecular weight materials to achieve different ink film properties while reducing the residual film weight of the ink film layer,” Mr. Law said.
“The key is to develop ink jet UV cure inks with formulations which enable them to fire consistently from the printhead, this requires low viscosity inks,” said Mr. Nicholds. “This is not simply a case of taking flexo or litho formulations and adapting them, but requires the development of novel materials.
“Avecia has been working in the area of UV cure inks for ink jet for more than years, firstly with Xaar and more recently with licensees of their technology such as Toshiba TEC, whose greyscale printheads are used in the dotrix machine,” Mr. Nicholds added. “We have access to proprietary technology in UV cure and have a large research and applications development team working in this area.”
Partnering with End Users, Equipment Makers
Partnering with equipment manufacturers and end users is a successful way to develop new opportunities.
“Many of our new product opportunities are with OEMs developing new equipment, often for new applications, and this ‘three stages of newness’ significantly lengthens the development cycle,” said Dr. Raksis.
“Ink/printer interactions are much more important in ink jet printing than in conventional printing, and co-development of inks and printheads, with extensive testing, is almost necessary to assure sustainable good performance,” said Dr. Raksis. “For example, the inks must not attack the many materials of construction in the printhead, during extended use. Thus, if an ink supplier is not working closely with a printhead manufacturer during the early development, it is difficult to become a qualified supplier later on. Also, to recoup their large development costs, printhead manufacturers favor business models that have them closely linked to consumable suppliers, and sharing in that revenue stream.
“Working with printers and printhead manufacturers is a way to optimize the performance of the ink at the end of the day, and as the applications for ink jet broaden, it is being directed to the end applications,” Mr. Law said. “For example, there’s a significant amount of activity in the graphics and packaging markets.”
“Our development teams work closely with all the major printhead suppliers and we are uniquely placed among the ink suppliers to the emerging industrial market in having major relationships with both the developers of printheads for the desktop market (HP, SEC, Canon and Lexmark, etc.) and also the independent printhead companies such as Spectra, Xaar and Toshiba TEC,” Mr. Nicholds said.
Another approach is to work with an integrator to develop markets. “Integrators work with OEMs to integrate into new markets, getting printhead manufacturers, ink companies and printers together and to sell into the new market,” Mr. Wishart said.
“While office applications and photo printing are still using mainly aqueous systems based on dyes, more and more wide format printers work with inks based on pigments,” Dr. Sieber said. “Pigmented inks are mostly based on solvents; however, aqueous systems show even higher growth rates in the already fast growing wide format segment. In the future we expect to see even more pigments in ink jet inks because of the higher fastnesses achievable compared to inks based on dyes.”
“The use of pigments in the desktop market has been primarily as a black colorant, more recently it has been developed for full color applications in photo applications where the ability of pigments to be more resistant to the mechanisms of fade are important,” Mr. Nicholds said. “Historically, the ability of pigments to resist fading has been one of their key advantages. However dye chemistry is catching up and a number of novel dyes have been developed by Avecia that give excellent light and gas fastness,” Mr. Nicholds said. “Our approach in the non-desktop market is to develop inks around the appropriate colorant that gives the required performance in a customer’s application. Hence we have dyes that give excellent brightness and have advantages over pigments in terms of operability because they do not contain particulate matter. Dye-based organic chemistry can also give a range of novel effects, as exemplified by the ability to fluoresce which can be used in security printing applications.
“In addition to our investment in UV cure technology, Avecia has a number of other colorant and ink technology platforms applicable to the non-desktop ink jet market,” said Mr. Nicholds. “These include oil and aqueous based technologies. One of our strengths is the capability to develop novel active materials for inclusion in inks, these can include infrared absorbing dyes for security applications, novel resins and additives to achieve superior performance in pigment systems and light emitting polymers.
“This latter technology has application in the manufacture of flat panel displays and formulating by Avecia of these compounds into an ink jet ink has enabled the development of ink jet technology as an electronic component fabrication tool,” Mr. Nicholds added.
“Clariant is the global leader in organic pigments and also a major supplier of colorants for non-impact printing (NIP) applications,” said Dr. Sieber. “We offer specified pigment grades, pigment preparations and charge control agents (CCAs) to the toner industry. For ink jet applications, our range comprises special dyes, pigment preparations and special pigments for aqueous- and solvent-based inks.
“Clariant is benefiting from our vast experience with colorants for conventional printing and other applications such as paints and plastic coloration,” said Dr. Sieber. “We have recently completed a study on the use of our pigments in UV inks. The results have been summarized in a brochure which will be available via www.inkpigments.clariant.com. Global availability and registration of the colorants are imperative for successful marketing of the colored inks.”
In particular, pigment companies are also becoming involved in the UV ink jet market. There are challenges that need to be met in order to create UV ink jet inks.
“The pigment particle size has to be very small and stable so it doesn’t flocculate, plus it also has to have low viscosity, which is difficult for UV systems,” said Dr. Bolle. “That is the key challenge. What people need to do is use highest reactivity systems at the lowest possible viscosity. UV flexo is, for many people, the starting point for UV-ink jet developments.
Cationic systems can produce the possible viscosities,” Dr. Bolle said. “There are some cationic UV R&D activities going on, and we are looking into this. I think cationic systems have a long-term chance, but it is more expensive. Another benefit is much better adhesion. As for the home market, it depends upon lamp systems, where there will have to be a breakthrough. It could be used for transparencies for better quality and higher speeds.”
“UV curing ink jet systems are still in their infancy,” said Dr. Sieber. “They are dominated by pigmented inks. The main challenges are the viscosity of the UV inks and their stability, which is a precondition for reliable printing. Both properties are usually (negatively) affected by the pigments. The obvious advantages of UV ink jet, particularly on nonabsorbing substrates, have triggered a lot of R&D in the industry to overcome these problems which will certainly show some commercial results soon.”
Other key suppliers to the UV industry are bringing their expertise to bear on the UV ink jet ink market.
“ViaJet will be introduced in early June for ink jet,” said Brett Johnson, UCB Chemical’s market manager, graphic arts. “ViaJet 100 provides high pigment load and low viscosity grinding vehicle. ViaJet 400 will be a letdown component.”
What can the industry expect from ink jet in the coming years?
“In the short term ink jet is penetrating markets where its current speed and resolution performance, when coupled with variable data capability, give it the edge over traditional technologies,” Mr. Nicholds said.
“For example, the new generation of flatbed printers is opening up the segments served by the screen printers such as POP output. The launch at IPEX of the dotrix printer will signal the penetration of the technology into a range of segments from labels to decorative printing (wood effect laminates),” Mr. Nicholds said.
“The next two to four years, with Drupa in 2004, will see the launch of a further range of ink jet printers based on printheads currently in development and will be targeted not only at the packaging segments, but also commercial printing for inserts, magazines and possibly even newspapers,” Mr. Nicholds concluded.