The Ink Jet Ink Report

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 10.25.05

As new applications continue to emerge, ink jet ink manufacturers are developing new inks and complete systems that are creating further opportunities.

The ink jet ink market has been one of the brightest areas for ink manufacturers, and there appears to be no slowing growth as new applications quickly emerge.

“We have had good acceptance in the market,” said Ron J. Gilboa, vice president of marketing for Kodak Versamark. “Continuous ink jet (CIJ) is very compelling in high-volume markets. In 2003, Kodak printed the equivalent of 57 billion letter-size pages, and we have seen further growth since. Transaction and promotional applications have been strong for us, and we see opportunities in markets ranging from newspapers to packaging and industrial applications.”

“We have seen more sincere interest by end-users and OEMs in the past nine to 12 months,” said Mike Stoudt, president of Aellora Digital. “There has been a lot of curious interest in the past, but since SGIA ’04, we feel a measured increase in ‘intended action’ and serious evaluation.”

With the increasing interest in ink jet ink, there is more competition, and margins are coming down. Still, with ink companies becoming more involved in developing complete systems and new opportunities for digital technologies emerging, there is every indication that ink jet will continue to thrive.

Growth During the Past Year

For most digital ink manufacturers, the past year was strong.

“Collins had a good year last year,” said Lawrence Gamblin, president of Collins Ink. “We continue to grow, and it appears that growth will continue. Margins continue to drop as more and more companies try to gain entry into what they think are the lucrative ink jet ink markets. In spite of that, we seem to be doing very well.”

Jetrion, Aellora Digital and Sericol are among the ink manufacturers who have developed complete systems, and they reported excellent years.

“Jetrion’s ink jet ink operations are growing at a triple-digit pace,” said Dr. Kenneth Stack, Jetrion’s president. “In mailing and bindery, Jetrion’s aftermarket business is doing very well. Customers appreciate the level of support and responsiveness we provide, above and beyond the value and performance of the inks. The 3000 printer series, especially the Jetrion 3025 Inkjet System, has been successful, and that installed base is now consuming ink. And the wide format outdoor solvent and UV business is just exploding for us.”

“With a constantly growing install base of ink jet equipment, both in the Markem Solutions business and for Aellora Digital, Markem’s ink jet business is strong and getting stronger,” said Mr. Stoudt.

“Sericol’s digital ink sales experienced tremendous growth in 2004, building on the momentum established in previous years with the introduction of our Uvijet UV digital inks for Inca flatbed presses,” said Bob Linck, director of marketing for Fujifilm Sericol USA. “In addition, the launch of our Color+ series for third-party solvent-based superwide format printers has been a real success.”

The ink jet market is becoming more competitive, and China has become a force in the market.

“Our year was good, and our sales growth was on target,” said Bob Tarragano, director, sales and marketing, InkJet, Inc. “However, profits have been impacted by raw material price increases and the changing marketplace. Plants are closing up in the U.S. and moving to China. Everybody sees the growing Chinese packaging market as an opportunity,” Mr. Tarragano said, adding that InkJet, Inc. has distributors in China.

“The market has been increasingly competitive and aftermarket price points are dropping due to this, which is impacting margins,” he said.

Mr. Tarragano broke down the ink jet market into three key segments: industrial, which includes coding and marking; mailing and addressing; and graphics, including wide format, signage and textiles, and he said his company’s strategy is to offer a diversified portfolio for each market.

“There are new applications coming in each of these segments for companies that have imagination, time and resources to explore,” Mr. Tarragano said. He added that InkJet, Inc. has developed key OEM agreements, and is looking to develop alliances in new markets.

For companies that can provide complete solutions for printers, the digital printing market can be lucrative. With Kodak Versamark, Kodak has made a powerful commitment to the graphic arts, adding Scitex Digital Printing (which it sold to Scitex 10 years ago), Encad and NexPress, acquiring complete control over its Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) joint venture with Sun Chemical and proceeding forward with the recent announcement of its intent to acquire Creo, pending regulatory approvals.

“We have a robust digital portfolio at Kodak,” said Mr. Gilboa. “We see significant growth opportunities for the transaction, industrial, and graphic arts markets, and we have the digital printing solutions to accelerate this growth.”

Kodak Versamark has been developing CIJ technology for more than the three decades, starting with narrow-format printheads in the late-1960s, desktop printers in the 1980s and now wide printheads that are the key components for its market success. Kodak sees a ripe opportunity to become a major force in the digital marketplace.

“Since 2003, we have made the strategic decision to invest even more in digital technology and to go full-throttle in strategic markets,” said Mr. Gilboa. “We have made significant technological advancements in printhead design, and we have become the dominant player in high-volume direct mail. As the market becomes more fully enabled, we are committed to being the trusted advisor to our customers and their digital future.”

Some markets have been slower to move forward.

“BCM’s ink jet operations focused on the corrugated market have been slow,” said Robert Callif, BCM Inks USA’s vice president of operations. “First, the current market is relatively small. It is growing but the volume is less than our initial estimates. Second, the corrugated market does not understand how to properly sell a short-run digital piece, as they are used to selling large volume brown boxes. Third, and most importantly, the warranties and service contracts from the OEM that tie into ink usage provide a roadblock for customers to use better and cheaper ink company alternatives.”

“Digital printing will continue to grow as technology improves, speed increases, and the market (consumer product companies) understands the benefits,” Mr. Callif added.    At Drupa 2004, Sun Chemical unveiled its FastJet digital printing collaboration with Inca Digital Printers for the corrugated market. The new press drew attention, and John Law, SunJet’s general manager, said that alpha tests are being prepared.

“Drupa proved the technology to the market, and now we are in the process of building the machine,” Mr. Law said. “Since Drupa, we have expanded the width for printing with our FastJet collaboration with Inca to 41 inches, or 1040 mm, and can now print onto corrugated sheets 1.2 meters by 1.7 meters. FastJet can print 1.6 meters/second or 300 feet per minute, which equates to 6,000 square meters (60,000 square feet) of output per hour, which meets the requirements of the corrugated print market. This new alpha machine will be placed at a customer in August.”

During the past year, some significant acquisitions impacted the digital ink industry, beginning with Fujifilm’s acquisition of Sericol in early 2005.

“We are excited about the opportunities we will be able to develop with the support of our new parent company, Fujifilm,” Mr. Linck said. “This partnership will improve on Sericol’s current position as a company that drives change in the print industry and will enhance our platform of bringing unique ink and printing technologies to our customers.”

In June, Dainippon Screen acquired Inca Digital, which has alliances with Sun Chemical and Sericol. Both Mr. Law and Mr. Linck said that this was positive for Inca Digital and its respective partnerships.         

“We are very pleased with Dainippon’s interest in taking the partnership forward and to make FastJet a commercial success for both companies,” Mr. Law said.

“We think that the relationship between Fujifilm Sericol and Inca will be further strengthened,” Mr. Linck said. “Dainippon Screen fully supports Inca’s current commercial strategies and their commitment to existing partnerships, including Fujifilm Sericol. Their investment in Inca is expected to provide more resource and growth opportunities for Inca, Fujifilm Sericol and our customers. Both companies will continue to work together to support the existing Inca digital flatbed platforms and the development of new applications in the future.”

Opportunities in the Digital Ink World

Getting into the digital ink market has been of great interest to ink manufacturers lured by the higher returns. However, as competition has increased, margins have come down.

“In the past five years, many companies have spoken about wanting to get into ink jet because of the high margins,” Mr. Gamblin said. “That has happened. Now the margins aren’t so high. It is a case study straight out of Economics 101.”

Working closely with key OEMs has proved to be a successful approach. Collins Ink has worked with Kodak Versamark and Hewlett Packard to develop inks. This fall, the company will be introducing wide format UV curable inks developed in partnership with T&K Toka.

An established ink company does have an advantage in bringing digital products to its major markets. Such would be the case with Sericol, whose leadership in the screen market gave it an opportunity to move forward in digital inks when screen printers began to move in that direction.

“If a company has an existing market share position within a segment, they may be able to use that position to build credibility around an ink jet offering,” Mr. Linck said. “However, they may find it difficult to compete against the many established ink jet companies doing business in these segments, who have already gone through the inevitable growing pains.”

While there are opportunities for smaller ink companies to develop niches in the digital market, there are also challenges, beginning with printheads and equipment.

“Small companies must have an understanding of how the printhead and integrators work, and that’s quite a complicated route to market,” Mr. Law said. “The ink needs to work reliably with printheads. You also need to work with end users to see how the entire system performs up to market needs, such as the case with low odor and migratables for food packaging.”

“I think opportunities are limited for niche ink companies because ink development is difficult without the knowledge of the jetting system,” Mr. Stoudt said. “Higher performing inks must be co-developed with the knowledge of how they will behave in jetting arrays, in the print engine and with ink handling technology. It is a systems development challenge and we believe it will require the applications knowledge and the history of developing and building production robust ink jet printing equipment. Aellora Digital, with its Markem Solutions connection, is following that pathway.”

“Without partnerships with OEMs or printhead manufacturers, it is difficult to be hugely successful ink jet ink manufacturer,” Mr. Gamblin added.

Still, the opportunities are there for companies to enter the market.

“It is definitely a growth industry, so opportunities will always exist for companies with the right business model and products,” Dr. Stack noted. “Jetrion’s rapid growth and success stem from our development capabilities in both hardware and inks. Also, Jetrion has brought in personnel who have built careers understanding the different segments, so customers can be confident that our products and support are provided by people who know their business.”

Future Areas for Ink Jet

In varying degrees, ink jet has made inroads in a variety of markets, most notably in screen. The question is in which printing segments will be the next frontier for ink jet. Not surprisingly, there are many answers to that question, with many industry leaders pointing toward packaging.

“We absolutely see significant opportunities in labels and packaging,” Dr. Stack said. “The short-run nature in these markets and the shift to UV printing make them prime candidates for both monochrome and color UV ink jet. Jetrion has a number of developments underway for these markets. And the Jetrion 3025 Inkjet System is being aggressively adopted for barcoding and variable printing in the label market.”

“Ink jet will continue to grow in industrial markets such as packaging and on demand printing,” Mr. Gamblin said. “Ink jet printing is getting better and more reliable. It is, and will likely remain, a complementary product to traditional printing in most industrial applications. That being said, there are a lot of applications that appear to be enhanced by ink jet’s ability to print variable data.

“There are many small niche applications,” Mr. Gamblin added. “Our strength is capitalizing on those small niches. To succeed, a company needs to understand the application, and in most cases be willing to nurture the product for an extended period while the applications develop. The other thing about ink jet is that the printers are very efficient when it comes to ink consumption. The volumes of ink that these niches will require will in most cases be very small.”

Mr. Callif said that short-run corrugated offers unique opportunities.

“As runs become shorter and shorter, digital printing will become an alternative answer to conventional printing,” Mr. Callif said. “I believe they will work co-inside with one another but digital will never replace conventional corrugated printing until the speeds increase dramatically.”

As an example, Mr. Callif cited the NCAA basketball tournament.

“After the March Madness brackets have been chosen for college basketball, a consumer product company might want to have a large display piece in stores before the first game tip-off,” Mr. Callif said. “That only gives a corrugated printer a few days turnaround so digital would be the choice. Also, if consumer product companies want to narrow their focus to do a promotion to a certain city or region, then it would be advantageous to print digitally.”

There are segments within the screen market where ink jet can also make further gains.

“We see a significant opportunity in screen and pad printing applications for ink jet, and especially for inks capable of performing on the variety of substrates used in these applications, such as plastics, glass and ceramics,” Mr. Stoudt said. “We also believe that hybrid UV-curable ink jet technology is a key enabler for industrial screen print applications due to substrate and process flexibility which is not currently attainable with other ink jet chemistries.”

“There is still ample opportunity for ink jet to develop further in the traditional graphic screen market segments,” Mr. Linck said. “As more printers become aware of the possibilities offered by flatbed UV digital, the rate of investment will continue to grow. Ink jet is also starting to be utilized with good results in the packaging and textile industries. For us, we see future opportunities to support our customers in various industrial market segments, depending on the benefits that ink jet printing can provide to them.”

Customization may be the key to future success in the marketplace.

At Print 05, Jetrion will make several major product introductions, including the world’s first custom UV ink jet ink series. “Our standard Fast Cure UV inks are extremely robust and handle 70 to 80 percent of substrates,” said Dr. Stack. “We will now offer a program that will customize them to deliver high performance on virtually any substrate a customer presents to us. Jetrion is the first ink jet ink company to launch a hardware company, and when customers buy our equipment, we can match our ink to their substrates and to the system in general. It’s a model that works very well, particularly for packaging and label companies.”

Rich Nickols, digital product manager for Nazdar, also recognizes the market for substrate-specific inks.

“There will be demand for inks that are substrate-specific, not a one-ink-fits-all product,” said Mr. Nickols. Nazdar is developing UV curable inks for flatbeds, and has also recently developed high-performance solvent-based inks for the Scitex XL Jet, Idanit 162AD and Novo printers.

Ultimately, market forces will determine where digital printing will be most successful.

“Ink jet is a dynamic business that will continue to be driven by innovation and the market,” Mr. Law said. “There will be plenty of niche applications for ink jet, but what will be the value propositions that will differentiate what space ink jet will occupy? For example, plastic cards are mostly printed by offset and screen at the moment, but can now be printed with high quality four-color ink jet by Impika. Even food can be printed on by ink jet. Narrow web is an intriguing market, but the value propositions will need to be developed further for this market.”

“There are opportunities in the mainstream print market, particularly in packaging such as folding carton and corrugated, and that is where FastJet is positioned for quality and speed,” Mr. Law said. “Print runs are becoming significantly smaller, even in secondary packaging such as corrugated. Ink jet offers operational flexibility, removal of prepress activities and can instantly print and avoids the need for the creation of plates. FastJet will lead to new markets being created due to its capability to add increased levels of complexity in graphics. Ink jet’s development has been based on the view that single pass arrays are the future, where jetting reliably is an essential requirement.”

The Growth of Hybrid Systems

Hybrid technology, where ink jet systems are added to traditional flexo or offset presses in order to customize print runs, is another area that has generated tremendous interest. For example, Kodak Versamark’s imprinting systems can run along with mail bases and finishing lines, as well as web offset presses, adding anything from addresses or messages to full pages of content, allowing printers to develop hybrid capabilities.

“We see hybrid printing as a great opportunity,” Mr. Gilboa said. “While it is not a new concept, we now have full-page printing capabilities. We can place four or five heads along the press and add full-page variable data, which allows the printer to add more relevant information thus adding value to the printed documents. You can only imagine the possibilities. For example, a direct mail application would run on a web offset press with an offset shell, and ink jet variable information. By printing the data right on the press, you have a more efficient traditional process that is augmented by ink jet.”

Ink manufacturers see opportunities ahead for hybrid printing.

“The movement has just begun,” Dr. Stack said. “Many folks in the industry are talking about hybrid systems, but few are actually implementing anything. Our Jetrion 3025 has been embraced by companies like Mark Andy, a company that is the first to integrate an ink jet printer into a quick change conventional press. Both end users and press manufacturers are approaching us to do more of these types of hybrid integrations.”

“There is always interest in bringing digital technology on-board with traditional technology in an attempt to get the best of both worlds,” Mr. Stoudt said. “We suspect there will be continued attempts with flexo and offset, or at least offset annotation, in a finishing/fulfillment mode. The key to success in these endeavors will be the ink performance, on flexible films or on containers, and the speed of printing and data handling for high productivity variable data applications.”

While the screen market has yet to see strong growth in hybrid systems, shorter runs are leading to greater interest in ink jet systems.

“Within our markets, true hybrid digital printing systems have yet to materialize, though there are some in development,” Mr. Linck added. “The Inca Columbia Turbo flatbed UV digital press has proven to be a good complement to the screen process, allowing printers to run small to mid-size jobs (up to 400 prints) on the Turbo, thus providing more production efficiencies on their screen presses.”

Ink jet ink companies have been working on a variety of hardware systems. Sericol and Inca recently launched the Spyder 320, the fastest UV flatbed press aimed at the mid-range market, according to Mr. Linck. “The Spyder 320, which was very well received at FESPA, has the right combination of speed, quality and affordability for those who aren’t quite ready to make the leap to a high productivity press, like the Inca Columbia Turbo,” he said.

On the printer hardware side, Jetrion released the 3000 series of monochrome ink jet printers for mailing and addressing and labels and packaging., and developed and installed its first custom full-color ink jet label printer.

Complementing ink development, Aellora Digital has also been demonstrating a new high resolution, high print output print engine for jetting its unique white and hybrid UV-curable ink jet chemistries, which is scheduled for commercial introduction, later this year.

Digital technologies continue to offer new opportunities for printing, whether it is in packaging, screen, coding, transactional or promotional applications or so many other possibilities. Ink companies are working closely with OEMs and customers alike to quickly develop the inks and complete systems that will help bring these new applications to the marketplace.

Web Extras

New Developments

Ink jet ink manufacturers have been developing a wide range of new products for the market.

Aside from its work with Crown Holdings, Jetrion has been active in a number of areas.

"We are very excited about our relationship with our friends at Crown, and the opportunities for assisting them in maintaining their market leadership position," Dr. Stack said. "They are a very forward-thinking company, and well-positioned to capitalize on the inevitable shift to inkjet printing."

"From an ink standpoint, we've been working hard in several areas on environmental responsibility," Dr. Stack added. "This means developing addressing inks with acetone, as opposed to harsh solvents like MEK. We also launched our hazardous-air-pollutants (HAPS)-free inks for wide format."

"Markem Solutions continually improves their hot melt ink jet offerings and introduces new functionality in many of their hot melts," Mr. Stoudt said. "Aellora Digital has commercialized their VistaSpec hybrid UV-curable process color inks. In addition, Aellora has demonstrated a hybrid UV-curable jetting ink which can be jetted on untreated glass, ceramics and metals. This should be commercially available in Q405. Aellora Digital's LightSpeed hybrid UV-curable is also generating interest as it has been formulated to cure very rapidly (>2 meters/second) on porous materials without need of an inert atmosphere."

"New inks, such as Aellora's hybrid UVC s for plastics, porous materials and even untreated glass will continue to ramp the conversion from traditional screen and pad printing technologies, to ink jet," Mr. Stoudt said.

"We are close to rolling out a brand new UV digital ink series for Inca presses, under the Uvijet banner, which will provide significantly improved ink adhesion on an even wider range of substrates," Mr. Linck of Sericol said. "In addition, we continue to expand the number of product ranges under our Color+ brand, each optimized to perform extremely well on a variety of OEM solvent roll presses."

"SunJet has been very successful in growing our business, particularly in the graphic ink jet market, mainly from the UV area," Mr. Law said. "We have been expanding our range of UV inks; for example we have launched products that provide excellent adhesion on a range of substrates without the need for pretreatment or primers."

Among InkJet Inc.'s new products are its Eggshell Ink, a red food grade ink for directly printing dates, export information or even advertising on eggshells; a white printed ink for black cable and wire marking that replaces a Videojet product; and its U Ink, a replacement for the Marsh Unicorn ink which is ideal for boxes and cartons.

BCM Inks and Collins Ink has also been active in R&D.

"Within the past year, BCM has developed a multitude of ink jet inks covering water-based and UV-based inks," Mr. Callif said. "These particular inks are more intense than the current OEM ink jet inks and cost significantly less."

"Collins has come up with a wide range of inks," Mr. Gamblin said. "For Kodak Versamark, we have come up with two new classes of inks that widen our portfolio and offer customers some reliable low cost alternatives to our premium inks. For HP, we have continued to develop ink sets geared toward the fast-growing industrial market. Collins has concentrated on making inks specifically formulated for the unique requirements of printers in those markets. This fall, Collins will be introducing wide format UV curable inks developed in partnership with T&K Toka. Presently there are three different chemistries. These inks appear to offer some technical advantages to the inks presently in the marketplace."

Kodak Versamark's integrated systems, including its V-series printing systems, print at resolutions up to 300 x 1200 dpi, speeds up to 1000 feet per minute, in monochrome, spot or process color and are well suited for digital printing of transactional documents, books, and a host of other commercial printing applications. The D-series printing systems print at resolutions up to 300 x 600 dpi at speeds up to 1000 fpm and are well suited for a full range of monochrome or color imprinting applications, such as barcoding, addressing, and other forms of personalization.

On the consumables side, Kodak Versamark specializes in CIJ aqueous ink; it also has developed UV drop-on-demand technology for plastic cards and specialty substrates.

"Once you move into color, the consumables business shoots up," Mr. Gilboa said. "Water-based inks are significantly less expensive than solvent or oil based inks, which means our customers have another compelling advantage in running costs. And, with increasing volumes and use of color, these customers should see continued improvements in running costs."

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