Ink Jet Inks are on the Rise

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 10.10.05

As digital technologies make further inroads into printing, ink manufacturers are becoming more involved in developing hardware and software systems to meet new requirements.

In recent years, the development of digital technologies has been the most positive area of growth for ink manufacturers. As printers seek to meet their customers’ needs for more personalization and faster cycle times, ink companies are working overtime to develop their own ink jet capabilities.

Considering the growth in consumption of digital ink products, the interest in developing inks for digital ink jet ink systems by conventional ink manufacturers is understandable.

“There’s a potential market share battle brewing on the periphery between digital ink jet systems manufacturers and ink manufacturers,” said Jonathan Phillips, director, OEM business development, commercial printing – North America, Domino Amjet, Inc. “Ink companies that traditionally have sold large quantities to offset printers are trying to figure out how to gain market share in the digital ink jet business. If there’s X amount of ink being used and there’s a 17 percent growth in digital, there’s less traditional ink sales.”

Recent Growth
As was clearly seen at Drupa 2004, ink jet has become more mainstream.

“I believe ink jet technology has transitioned from the novelty stage to a solutions stage, especially outside the wide and grand format world,” said Dr. Michael Stoudt, president of Aellora Digital, a subsidiary of Markem Corporation.

Dr. Stoudt said that a number of ink hurdles have been cleared with the introduction of hybrid UV-curable jetting inks, both white and process colors, as well as high quality fast UV-curable jetting inks, which are able to reach into commercial annotation applications.

“Interest in piezo drop-on-demand (DOD) ink jet technology is in response to the growing need for quicker turnarounds, shorter production runs and value-added offerings, such as personalization,” Dr. Stoudt added. “In addition, many industries wish to implement printing methods for security and tracking applications with digital technology and ink jet can allow these value drivers to be combined in one digital ink printing system, such as phone card serialization with a security feature.”

As Mr. Phillips noted, digital technologies continue to make rapid gains in the marketplace, and the ink companies that are well-positioned in these segments are faring very well.

“Sericol’s digital ink sales experienced significant growth in 2003, both in North America and worldwide,” said Bob Linck, director of marketing for Sericol Inc. “Our sizeable install base of ink jet printers using Sericol’s Uvijet digital UV inks has positioned us as the world leader in the supply of UV digital ink jet inks for wide format printing.

“The biggest change is the pace at which graphic printers are embracing wide format digital flatbed technology, especially UV curable digital inks,” Mr. Linck added. “We have been very successful during the past three years with sales of Inca flatbed digital presses, which now number more than 100 worldwide.”

Dr. Stoudt said Aellora is gathering information from its customers and test marketing product concepts to leverage off the technology base of its parent company’s core business.

“The response has been overwhelming, with interest coming from a wide variety of developing and emerging digital printing applications,” said Dr. Stoudt. In addition, our ability to demonstrate a reliable opaque white DOD jetting ink for multiple applications has sparked considerable interest in our products. Furthermore, our value proposition of providing both digital chemistries and digital systems has uniquely positioned us to tailor solutions to our customer’s digital printing desires.”

Dr. Stoudt said this two-pronged approach has been well received. “Worldwide, we currently have close to 100 installations jetting our inks and using our digital print engines in applications outside our core business of package marking and coding.”

“2003 and early 2004 have been a story of market recovery,” said Dr. Mike Nicholds, strategy and business development director, Avecia Ink Jet Printing Materials. “In the desktop area, business has recovered as consumer demand, particularly for the printing of photographs from digital cameras and the launch of the popular multi-functional printers, has driven the demand for ink jet inks.

FastJet, Sun Chemical and Inca Digital’s collaboration for the corrugated market, has a print speed of 3,000 square meters an hour.

“In the industrial ink jet market, demand has shown accelerating growth through this period,” Dr. Nicholds said. “This has been reflected in steady demand for our products used in the coding and wide-format markets. In the growth areas of packaging and electronics, applications placements of new machines by our partners Agfa-dotrix (The.Factory), Mark Andy (SPICE/Flexo) and New Systems (printed circuit board printers) during 2003/2004 has driven ink volume for our 100% UV cure inks. We expect installations of machines to accelerate after Drupa.”

Jetrion developed a host of new products, more than doubling its continuous ink jet (CIJ) product portfolio for Scitex, VideoJet, Domino, Willett and other printers. For drop-on-demand (DOD) inks, Jetrion launched a hazardous air pollutant-free ink set for Xaar printheads, a low viscosity UV ink set for Xaar printheads and Fast Cure UV ink for Spectra printheads.

“Jetrion had a very successful year in its ink jet ink operations in a variety of ways,” said Dr. Kenneth Stack, Jetrion’s president. “These new products helped Jetrion achieve record revenue performance.”

Growth Areas
Ink jet has made gains in a variety of segments, starting with wide format, where flatbed printers such as the Inca Digital Eagle have made inroads into the screen market. The future of ink jet is bright; the only question is which market will it move into next.

“We believe the greatest potential for growth will remain in the wide format graphics area,” Mr. Linck said. “Recent studies predict as many as 5,000 wide format flatbed printers will be installed worldwide over the next five years.”

John Law, general manager of SunJet, believes narrow web is a natural for fixed array systems.

“The logical starting point is in narrow web,” Mr. Law said. “The question is where digital will fit. It could be an in-line or a finishing system, as both are possible. The limitations are speed and versatility. For example, point of purchase (POP) at some point will go to fixed array, which will multiply speed by a factor of 20.”

Mr. Linck and Dr. Nicholds agreed that narrow web offers much opportunity for ink jet.

“Outside of graphics, we are looking at opportunities in digital ink jet technology that support our customers in other key market segments, such as narrow web and optical media,” Mr. Linck said.

“We believe that based on the current capability of ink jet print heads and associated systems that the narrow web label market has great potential,” Dr. Nicholds said. “The width of the printing substrate and the speed of flexo presses are ideal for the combination of ink jet into hybrid presses. This combination is an ideal solution to customer’s demands for short run lengths and fast response times.”

Packaging is perhaps the most demanding market, and ink jet is making gains.

“Packaging is a demanding market that responds to the high specifications set by the end-users,” Dr. Nicholds said. “In this market, it is encouraging to see ink jet making inroads and is a testament to the strides the technology has taken in quality. The penetration has been both ‘bottom-up’ with coding and marking solutions evolving to print increasing complex and colorful variable data and ‘top-down’ with full package printing solutions in use by some of world’s leading packaging converters. As the success stories of these lead innovators demonstrate the tremendous power of ink jet to deliver supply chain benefits and new marketing options for end-users, we expect an accelerating adoption.”

“Although digital technology will affect virtually all traditional printing to some degree, narrow web/label and packaging have the greatest potential for growth in the coming years,” Dr. Stack said. “Over the past several years, there has been an explosion in packaging driven by innovative marketing, new product security and tracking requirements and novel substrates. This explosion in packaging has forced package printers to adopt strategies for dealing with variable data, personalization and short runs, all challenges that digital technology is perfectly suited to handle.”

High-tech opportunities also abound.

“The opportunities for ink jet to offer unique capability in the fabrication of devices or placement of small volumes of fluids have mushroomed,” Dr. Nicholds said. “Ink jet is being used or actively tested for applications such as printing flat-panel displays for mobile phones, printing conducting tracks for circuit boards and dispensing biological fluids for rapid screening protocols.”

The Importance of OEMs
In the ink jet market, the role of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can not be overstated. For example, in the desktop ink jet market, OEM control is virtually absolute, and major ink jet ink manufacturers such as DuPont Ink Jet, Avecia and Sensient remain unknown to the public.

For OEMs, the model for selling consumables has typically been focused on limiting access to the aftermarket by independent ink companies through warranties. Mr. Phillips said that a new model has recently emerged that bears watching.

“Traditionally, ink jet printers manufacturers sold machines and consumables, which makes us profitable. The sale of consumables is essential given the rapid pace of development of this technology,” Mr. Phillips said. “In the digital press industry, we’ve seen a radical movement from consumables to a click charge, or charge per sheet, and the digital ink and digital toner are provided free of charge. Xerox is the classic example of this business model. Domino is in the high volume end of the business; we typically sell the ink and services for fixed costs and we sell the machines also.”

Outside of desktop, the influence of OEMs becomes less clear. Smaller entrepreneurial ink jet ink companies, including Lyson, Triangle Digital, Ink Jet Inc., and many others are supplying inks that run quite nicely in industrial ink jet printers. Major ink companies are also involved in these markets.

Still, having relationships with OEMs is one way to virtually guarantee a stake in the ink jet market and sell consumables as well. For example, Inca Digital, a spin-off from Cambridge Consultants, has been a leader in the growth of digital presses. Its model has been to co-develop a press with an ink company that is a leader in a particular segment. Sericol’s relationship with Inca Digital provided the ink company with tremendous benefits.

“The development of OEM relationships for Sericol is critical to our long-term success in the digital printing market,” Mr. Linck said. “Our highly successful partnership with Inca has provided credibility with customers, increased our learning curve and opened doors to developing further relationships with other potential partners.”

The ultra-high resolution Jetrion 2300 for both large and small character ink jet printing was developed specifically for quality-driven, high-value applications such as outer case coding, product marking and labeling, printing barcodes, sequential numbers, sell-by dates, text messages and logos.

Sun Chemical and Inca Digital recently announced a partnership to commercialize a fixed array ink jet technology for printing corrugated board, which Sun Chemical has dubbed FastJet. Due to its use of fixed print arrays, FastJet has a print speed of 3,000 square meters an hour, or approximately 20 times faster than Scitex’s Aprion system for corrugated, which Sun officials say is critical for printers.

“Inca is a group of very well respected engineers who have developed print engines,” said Mr. Law. “They lack ink, and that is where SunJet comes in. SunJet works in close partnership with leading ink jet system integrators and print head manufacturers to deliver optimized printer performance. Sun Chemical wants to provide printing solutions to our customers in the markets where it has the lead position.

“In corrugated packaging, there was no ink jet printing system that would satisfy the needs of printers at the speeds they require,” Mr. Law said. “For example, Scitex uses a scanning printhead that produces a print speed of 150 square meters an hour. FastJet has 128 printheads that are all functioning in harmony in a single array, and it reaches speeds of 1.6 linear meters per second, or 3,000 square meters of output per hour. As a result, FastJet received tremendous interest at Drupa.”

“OEM relationships are critically important in the world of ink jet because of the horizontal nature of the business,” Dr. Stack said. “Ink jet knowledge and expertise are widely distributed along technology lines – printheads, inks, controllers, printers, substrates – as well as along market lines such as coding and marking, addressing, wide format and others, and require a broad range of alliances to be successful. In order to break into new markets or take advantage of emerging technologies, companies must be very agile in developing relationships with key business and technical partners.

Developing Hardware Solutions
Having watched the explosive growth of desktop ink jet from the sidelines, many ink companies have concluded that having arrangements with equipment and printhead manufacturers is a strong model for themselves, the equipment manufacturer and customers alike. By doing so, the ink can be tailor-made to the machine, and consumable sales are more likely. Being able to reach more customers is also a plus.

Jetrion has launched its Jetrion 3025 DOD ink jet printing system, which features technology that delivers more flexibility, higher quality and lower cost digital printing capability. The system is ideal for applications that require the placement of durable images on high-gloss and film materials such as those used in labeling and flexible packaging, or for mail houses and direct mail printers looking for higher quality addressing on uncoated papers or printing on poly-bags, coated substrates and unique materials. In addition, the company introduced its Jetrion 2300 Ink Jet System, an ultra-high resolution coding and marking system.

“The development of complete systems such as the Jetrion 3025 Ink jet System allows Jetrion to design and deliver a fully-optimized solution to its customers,” Dr. Stack said. “From a customer perspective, a total system of hardware/software/inks takes the guesswork out of acquiring individual components and then trying to integrate them on their own. Customers can focus on their challenging business issues and utilize Jetrion’s systems expertise to provide them with a fully-functional integrated solution. Our combination of true ink expertise and systems engineering is quite unusual, and will give Jetrion the ability to deliver the right solution, regardless of technology, to the customer.”

“At Sericol, we believe offering complete solutions provides more value to our customers,” Mr. Linck said. “In addition to selling digital presses, we develop our inks in close cooperation with our OEM partners. This provides the customer with a custom solution that enhances the capabilities of both the ink and the equipment.

“Customers also benefit from Sericol’s commitment to both screen and digital technologies,” Mr. Linck said. “With the combination of digital equipment and inks we provide, as well as product and service solutions in screen printing, we have witnessed how our customers have transformed their businesses with the combination of these two technologies. In fact, we actively promote this synergy through a marketing concept called “Screen + Digital = Profit.”

The idea of developing a full systems approach is one that many leading ink companies are choosing.

“Sun Chemical wants to provide printing solutions in ink jet,” Mr. Law said. “Sun needs to develop complete systems because they don’t exist at present, and this necessitates developing partnerships to do this.”

For Aellora Digital, having Spectra, Inc., the leading printhead manufacturer, as one of its fellow Markem subsidiaries, as well as Markem’s own work on coding and ink jet for more than 20 years, gives Aellora a nice head start on technologies that have led the company to develop a variety of printing systems.

Aellora Digital’s SureFire Digital Print Engine is a fully integrated industrial ink jet printing engine for jetting opaque, solvent-less, UV-curable inks. It is qualified at print addressabilities of up to 1,200 DPI.

“If there is one message we have heard over and over, it is that customers value the fact that Aellora Digital has close to two decades of experience developing digital inks and reliable ink jet printing systems,” Dr. Stoudt said. “We have learned that inks and printing systems must work well together to ensure a robust implementation. We feel many who want the benefits of digital ink jet printing systems do not wish to be experts in ink development or print engine technology and will realize the value of finding this expertise in one company, the value of one-stop shopping.”

Not everyone agrees this is the best way for ink companies to pursue the market.

“This trend has been an interesting one that follows on from the launch by Sericol of their collaboration with Inca to develop and market a flatbed printer,” Dr. Nicholds said. “We now see Flint Ink’s subsidiary, Jetrion, offering ink and equipment solutions, Sun Chemical’s announcing the development, also with Inca, of a flatbed printer targeted at the secondary packaging segment.

“These moves, we presume, are designed to ensure the maximum retention of the ink revenue for these systems and leverage the extensive distribution networks of these companies,” Dr. Nicholds said. “Avecia has reviewed these options and believes that it can best service the market by sticking to what it knows best – the chemistry of ink jet inks. We prefer not to dilute our investment dollars, and focus all our research and development on things that are fluid and leave the equipment to the experts.”

Digital in the Future
It is difficult to predict what tomorrow will bring, not to mention 10 years from now. However, ink jet ink leaders say that there are possibilities that will almost certainly develop.

Mr. Linck anticipates that short run and customization will be ink jet’s forte.

“We expect digital ink jet to hold a leading position in the short- to medium-run length end of the graphics market, with increasing print speeds moving the cut-off towards 500+ prints.” Mr. Linck said. “Print buyers’ desire for customization will continue to drive this. On the other hand, we strongly believe that screen printing will remain a viable long-term print technology for medium- to long-run printing.”

The main limitations for digital technologies are speed and cost, and as ink jet improves in these areas, its growth will increase.

“In the next 10 years, I believe there will be much more penetration into screen printing and POP, where the key issues are speed and quality,” Mr. Law said. “In 10 years, 50 percent of the screen POP market will be done by ink jet, if not more, but high-end offset is probably the bigger threat. If we accept that ink jet technology will be a little slower and a little more expensive, then the market will need to recognize the value of the digital printing system.

“Speed and quality will be issues in other markets as well,” Mr. Law added. “Corrugated will be accommodating, as will folding carton for display and food applications and other packaging markets. For example, SunJet has been instrumental in helping OEM companies grow in the area of UV. Taking on conventional offset is at least 10 years off. Textile remains painfully slow, and ink jet can’t break into mainstream markets. Ink jet is also moving into the decorative market, such as wall coverings and doors.”

Dr. Nicholds said that increased speed and resolution of ink jet printheads are essential to the further expansion of ink jet technologies.

“This single trend will be the one that determines the extent to which ink jet penetrates the printing industry,” Dr. Nicholds said. “The community of industrial printhead developers have been actively developing faster, higher resolution and more reliable ink jet systems. At Drupa a number of developments from Spectra, Xaar and others were showcased. These high performing printheads require equally high performing inks and Avecia has been actively developing chemistry solutions that deliver the ability to print 100% UV cure inks for extended periods at high speed, and aqueous ink solutions for the new generation of high speed aqueous compatible ink jet printheads. This latter class of print heads is attracting increasing interest not only for variable data commercial printing but also in packaging driven by the environmental benefits that aqueous inks systems can deliver.”

Ink jet offers a variety of benefits, although speed and price is a drawback. As a result, it is not for everyone.

“Sun Chemical sells to printers who want to provide value that can’t be achieved by traditional means,” Mr. Law said. “At the end of the day, if you look at a traditional flexo print market, it offers the lowest cost of print because of its speed. FastJet provides all of the benefits of digital – speed to market, personalization, provide short-run capability and the ability to reduce inventory. We are offering companies the ability to do more prototyping, and marry secondary packaging to primary packaging, which would provide tremendous value opportunities.

“FastJet is not for companies that want to compete on price,” Mr. Law added. “It is for companies that want to provide value to their customers.”

The rapid advances being made by ink jet opens more and more doors.

“Ink jet will grow quickly over the next 10 years, and in many markets/applications will be the digital technology of choice,” Dr. Stack said. “ Its substrate flexibility, cost effectiveness and broad applicability make it an ideal solution to many printing challenges. And, literally on a daily basis, major advances are being made in all aspects of the technology, including inks, ink components, printheads, printers, software, substrates and coatings. While traditional printing is not at risk of disappearing, we believe the world will continue to quickly move to hybrid solutions – the right combination of digital and traditional printing.”

The answer to ink jet’s future scope may be a very lucrative one for companies.

The Inca Eagle, Sericol and Inca Digital’s collaboration, has become a mainstay in the flatbed printing market.

“We believe that piezo drop-on-demand ink jet will represent a sizeable portion of the market, hence the reason why our company has made a number of strategic investments in this technology,” Dr. Stoudt said. “I think it is realistic to see ink jet technology representing 30 percent of the total printing industry in 10 years, if not more. The rate of growth will be dependent on the availability of higher quality reliable jetting systems with ink capabilities that can reach an even broader set of substrates than currently served by today’s ink technology. This is why we feel investing in ink chemistry, as well as the printing systems development, is essential to the transition to ink jet technology.”

“This is the millions of dollars question,” Dr. Nicholds said. “That ink jet will represent one of the leading output technologies in printing is not in question. How quickly this is achieved is a forecaster’s nightmare.

“Recovery from economic slowdown benefits the adoption of new technology,” Dr. Nicholds continued. “Not only do investment levels increase, but also the trauma of slow or negative growth forces industries to fundamentally appraise their business models. The printing industry is going through a dramatic shift to digital technology, and also in commercial printing, a focus on new services for customers. Both of these trends will benefit ink jet. In 10 years I think ink jet will be established as a complementary technology to traditional offset and flexo, utilized either in combination or as a stand-alone where short run length and variable data printing is required.”

It is certain that ink jet technologies will increasingly move to the mainstream of printing in the coming years. For ink companies, developing the inks and the systems that will meet these new demands will ultimately be the key to success.

Hybrid Systems
One particularly strong opportunity for ink jet is by developing hybrid systems utilizing on-demand variable data capabilities on traditional presses.

“There are clearly opportunities for hybrid printing systems,” Dr. Stoudt said. “The strengths of each of these technologies should complement the trend toward shorter runs or small percentages of variable information being added to an otherwise static page increasing the value of the job.”

“This is probably one of the key developments that will drive growth of ink jet,” Dr. Nicholds said. “A number of systems are in development or close to launch, in addition to those already on the market. As machine developers learn to combine the strengths of traditional printing process with those of ink jet, they can offer printers a truly flexible product with which to offer new services. A number of technology advances have taken place over the last few years to make these hybrid presses productive; increased width of ink jet print engines, faster and higher resolution print heads; ink jet inks that work on industry substrates which increasingly means the removal of special pre-coats, ink jet receptive substrates or post treatments.”

“Hybrid systems have a very bright future in printing, as traditional presses and new digital technologies will be married to offer the benefits of both worlds,” Dr. Stack said. “Hybrid technologies will allow end-users to combine the cost advantages of traditional printing with the variable data capability of digital printing. Initially, some of these marriages will take place at the low- to middle-end of the press speed spectrum, where digital technology printing speeds will be the limiting factor. But as can be seen with Jetrion’s introduction of the Jetrion 3025, on-press ink jet printing is definitely coming into its own as speeds of up to 400 feet-per-minute are now achievable with high quality drop on demand (DOD) printheads. Even higher speeds are capable today with continuous ink jet devices, albeit with trade-offs in image quality or substrate flexibility.

“The rate at which digital technology will augment and/or replace traditional printing processes varies widely, and in many areas, digital and traditional technologies will be the perfect complements of one another for many, many years to come,” Dr. Stack added. “Given Flint Ink’s long history of providing products to the printing world and its investment in Jetrion, Flint Ink is well-positioned to help its customers navigate through this very dynamic period of technological change and provide complete hybrid solutions.”

China is another important area of opportunity for ink jet.

“The increasing importance of China to the world economy is apparent to everyone and presents some of the most interesting strategic questions for the industry over the next five years,” Dr. Nicholds said. “The Chinese market has rapidly adopted ink jet technology and to some extent is benefiting from the learning carried out in U.S. and Europe. Avecia sees this as an opportunity for industrial ink jet and we are seeing encouraging growth for our wide format products. Our strategy, at the moment, is to focus on delivering the ink jet inks for our partners whose main markets are North America and Europe. As the technology moves east, which is a certainty, we will implement strategies to support our partners and customers in these markets.”

New Ink Jet Ink Developments
Aside from new hardware and software, ink companies have been actively developing new inks for ink jet applications.

“During the past year, Jetrion has been very active in developing and delivering new products to the market, as well as making strategic announcements with key partners such as Crown,” Dr. Stack said. “In the wide format arena, Jetrion launched a set of CMYKcm solvent inks that are completely free of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) as defined in the 1990 Clean Air Act. This was in direct response to the demand for high-performance solvent inks that comply with some of the increasingly strict environmental regulations.

“UV ink development has been a very active area for Jetrion, and we have designed and delivered several critical products, including the innovative CMYKcm set of low-viscosity, low-temperature UV inks,” Dr. Stack said. “Not only does this ink set perform well for end-users by providing excellent color, gloss and adhesion properties, but its low-temp properties also aid inkjet printer manufacturers by eliminating the need for heated printheads and ink delivery systems.

“Another solution that Jetrion recently delivered to the market is its fast-cure UV ink, which is needed in high-speed applications that require instant curing,” Dr. Stack said. “Finally, Jetrion’s recently-announced joint development effort with Crown has resulted in UV inkjet inks that are flexible enough to withstand the harsh requirements of metal forming. Increasingly, we are encountering demanding, and sometimes conflicting, requirements for ink development that require novel approaches to deal with the potential trade-offs that are involved.

”Sericol is working on the next generation of our highly successful Uvijet UV digital inks, to provide adhesion on an even wider range of substrates, as well as work effectively at higher print speeds,” Mr. Linck said. “In addition, we have launched several solvent digital ink ranges under the Color+ brand that work extremely well on a variety of OEM solvent roll presses. On the digital press front, we have worked with Inca on two exciting developments: the Spyder 150, a high resolution UV digital ink jet press, specifically engineered for the photo-lab market and the Columbia Turbo, the next generation ultra fast wide format UV digital flatbed press.”

“Avecia’s main areas of development continued to be in 100% UV cure inkjet inks and aqueous industrial ink jet inks,” Dr. Nicholds said. “We are have been improving the reliability (extending the run time between maintenance), colour gamut, odor and substrate range of our UV inks. In the aqueous ink jet area we have developed new technology for printing at high speed on to paper substrates. Our range of fluids for the ink jet printing of printed circuit boards has recently been improved with an ‘inkjettable’ solder mask that has a much wider compatibility with downstream processes.”

Aellora Digital also has developed a wide variety of new ink jet inks, including its Hybrid UV-Curable Jetting Inks, which provides optimum drop control for high print resolutions without reliance on pre-treated surfaces or post UV pinning methods, allowing for printing of wet-on-wet.

Wuth Aellora’s BrightWhite HB Ink Series , opaque white digital images are a reality with more than 18,000 failure-free operating hours and no unrecoverable jet-outs. Dr. Stoudt said that Aellora is approaching 100 installations worldwide. The company’s LightSpeed Ink Series is a fast curing ink, up to 4m/sec using a single low-powered UV source, enabling the addition of variable information at traditional press and finishing throughput.


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