The European Pigment Market

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.10.05

European pigment manufacturers are developing new product and software innovations to meet the increasing demand for color.

Suppliers of printing ink pigments in Europe should be fairly optimistic about their prospects because trends in fashion are moving in their favor.

A revival in the appeal of chromatic colors is being forecast to take place over the next few years as people take a greater liking for shades of red, blue and green. At the same time, metallic effects are expected to continue to retain popularity.

Some color specialists are predicting that the prevalent look will be strong chromatic colors mixed with a metallic hue.

“We are already seeing a swing to bright colors with a metallic edge in the fashion market,” said a marketing executive at one pigment producer. “Past experience shows that sooner or later what happens in the fashion world will spread into other sectors like graphics. In printing, we could see the first changes in trends in parts of the packaging market with a greater emphasis on clear, brilliant colors.”

A greater preponderance of color has become evident in the newspaper market, where color in display advertising has spilling over onto most editorial pages, particularly with high circulation papers.

“Coldset printing in particular is a growing market for color,” said Mike Mordente, Ciba Specialty Chemicals’ global marketing head, inks and imaging. “To stand out and gain appeal, newspaper publishers are increasing the number of color illustrations.”

In the wake of a more colorful graphics environment, pigment producers will be expecting higher sales, at least in volume terms.

However, much of the extra demand is likely to be for commodity pigments whose production has increasingly been shifted out of Europe into Asia, especially India and China.

Most of the leading makers of printing ink pigments now manufacture a large proportion of their standard products in Asia. BASF has a plant in Shanghai, China, which supplies commodity printing ink pigments to customers around the world including Europe, where some of the pigment goes to its own ink production plants.

The higher margins achieved from the switch to low cost production locations in India, China and elsewhere are being eroded by the aggressiveness of Asia pigment makers in their own domestic sectors and above all in international markets.

“The pressure on prices for commodity printing ink pigments is very high at present in Europe, because of undercutting by Asian exporters,” said a commercial manager at one pigments company.

“But the Asian producers are not entirely to blame,” he continued. “The weak U.S. dollar against the euro has contributed considerably to the weakness of prices in Europe. Margins are so thin on standard pigments at present that there is not much scope for innovation. We have to rely on growth in the market to push up sales.”

Innovation has to come through either the development of new pigment technologies or by putting more effort into the processing of pigments and finding new ways of mixing pigments within ink formulations.

Stronger colored inks are being achieved through higher concentrations of pigments which are often purer and cleaner than many bulk pigments. The methods used to disperse the pigments has become more important.

Clariant has been introducing innovative waxes which improve the effectiveness of pigment preparations by easing their dispersibility.

BASF is also marketing a range of polyethylene waxes and wax emulsions which both protect the pigments from effects of the mechanical action of printing presses and help to disperse the pigments efficiently. The objective is to obtain the maximum color strength with the minimum use of pigments.

The aim of BASF in many of its inks is to reach a high standard of dispersibility to boost the performance of the pigments. Often, the types of pigment can help increase dispersibility. In its Nova group of inks which provide a wide gamut of strong colors, the key component is the purity of its pigments combined with an efficient binding agent system. BASF said the Novaspace series gives offset printing with its four colors the tonal values of photography.

The company sees Novaspace, which is sold at a premium price, as responding to the growing demand for more concentrated pigmented inks which give more powerful and cleaner colors.

“The unusually pure shades and high levels of brilliance of the inks comes from the special purity of the pigments,” said Dietmar Oswald, product manager for Novaspace. “The magenta is exceptionally pure and is probably the most expensive item in the ink.”

Novaspace was initially introduced to the sheetfed offset market, where it was targeted at designers of brochures and other promotional material.

Despite being categorized as a special ink, BASF has recently been conducting trials of the ink with the objective of launching it in the heatset and coldset markets, where its access to a wider color gamut could be attractive.

The company has been among a number of other pigment makers who have focused on advances in production processes to develop innovative pigments.

BASF’s stir-in pigments, launched a few years ago, were based on the development of a surface coating which stopped the pigment particles from sticking together. This meant that pigments no longer had to be supplied in powder form which creates dust and can result in the pigments congealing into lumps.

Ink makers now often buy base pigments and then coat the products in order to ensure the correct dispersion or to achieve specific properties. This method of secondary stage manufacture is used in the development of pigments for ink jet inks to avoid the clogging of print heads.

However, the production of coatings and their applications have become so sophisticated that the supply of coated pigments is increasingly being restricted to the pigment makers.

Toyo Ink Europe improves the surface chemistry of pigments and employs cationic, anionic, nonionic and polymeric type additives to optimize particle size in pigmentation processes and raise the quality of pigment dispersibility.

“Pigment surface chemistry is the key for pigment effects and physical performance in dispersions,” said Daniel Gronier, president of Toyo Ink Europe.

The application of additives on pigment surfaces can inhibit their crystallization and agglomeration. It makes the colors stronger and increases gloss, wetting and flow.

A range of techniques have now been developed for the coating of pigments, particularly with polymers. These include treatments enabling substances to be absorbed or bonded to the pigment surface. Polymers can be grafted onto pigments through placing initiators or catalysts on surfaces to aid polymerization, although this can be a lengthy procedure.

Recently, systems have been developed for precipitating polymers onto the pigment surface through temperature control. Precipitation can lead to encapsulation of pigments with polymers which have crosslinked after deposition on the surface. The film thickness of the polymer can be carefully adjusted through repeated precipitations so that that it can measure from a few nanometers to more than half a micron.

One major advantage of polymerization of surfaces is that they can turn conventional, commodity-grade pigments into robust, versatile compounds with scope for further broadening their properties.

Probably the biggest innovations in pigments are being achieved through the introduction of technologies which help to shape and control the size of pigment particles.

Nanotechnology has opened up opportunities to reduce particles to a minute size to obtain high levels of consistency and uniformity.

Merck KGaA of Germany has developed a crystallization system for manufacturing uniform-sized pigments with particles of 10 to 30 micrometers in diameter and with a thickness of 500 to 800 nanometers. The company is using the technology to make metallic effect pigments which give a much greater depth and luster to colors.

“We consider this technology to be a significant advance in the manufacturing process of these pigments because previously you did not have full control over shape and size,” said a Merck executive.

Metal FX
In metallic effect inks, another option is to separate the metallic from the organic color pigments in order to achieve greater brilliance and clarity.

The conventional technique has been to tint aluminum, gold or other metallic pigments with organic pigments to gain polychromatic effects.

However, advances in computer software have allowed the development of systems under which the same effects are generated by applying four colors to a metallic base like silver.

MetalFX, Leeds, England, is marketing a computerized system which allows millions of metallic colors to be printed by adding a silver base to a CMYK mix. The two-year-old company has formed partnerships with Huber Group and Eckhart, both of Germany, and Wolstenholme International of the U.K. for the supply of standardized colors and metallic pigments to printers buying its software package.

“We think that printers and their customers can make considerable savings through our system while achieving better results in terms of quality and having a massive choice of colors,” said Andrew Ainge, MetalFX’s founder and managing director.

The key ink component in the MetalFX system is the metallic base, which is currently only provided in silver but should soon have a gold option. Printers can either buy a base with vacuum metalized pigments or conventionally milled pigments.

“We are continually working on improvement to our vacuum deposit technology to improve reflectivity, brilliance and shades,” said Michael Yates, Wolstenholme’s commercial manager. “The popularity of the MetalFX system may lead to a decrease in sales of polychromatic pigments because it does avoid the compatibility problems between metallic and organic pigments. But we believe that the end result will be increased sales of metallic inks.”

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