David Aynessazian, vice president sales and marketing, Kustom Group, noted that the entire graphic arts market was hurt by the recession.
“Although packaging printing fared a bit better than the publication or commercial printing markets did, they all printed less impressions,” Mr. Aynessazian added. “The bottom line for ink companies and suppliers to ink companies is that when there are less pieces printed then there is less ink, ink vehicle, overprint and coating sold. Twelve months ago was very close to the bottom for the market in volume and we have begun an uptick, but we are certainly not back to where we started in 2006-2007. We wish we could have more positive news but the outlook still looks cloudy. With unemployment at close to 9% and working people nervous about their job status, spending on material goods is a luxury that many can not afford and limits printing volume increases to a very slow increase through the end of 2011.”
“The sheetfed and web offset print markets did improve somewhat during the past year in North America and Europe from the deep recession lows,” Chris Halvorsen, global marketing manager, Lawter, Inc., said. “However, the economic recovery has not been strong enough to solve the bigger challenges facing the offset printing industry. The overall number of customers who buy vehicle and varnish has declined in the U.S. market.”
Richard Bradley, marketing manager, Lubrizol, said that the water-based ink market has enjoyed the most growth, as packaging remains strong.
“Although we have seen continued recovery in several areas over the last 12 months, the packaging inks segment has experienced the greatest growth, and while the water-based market is still regaining momentum, we have seen a good improvement,” said Mr. Bradley. “The market has not yet reached the demand levels seen prior to the recession.
“On the oil-based product side, the industry is under continued pressure to reduce cost and to maintain the high level of quality and product performance,” Mr. Bradley added.
“From our perspective, this market has declined even further then the prior year, partly due to water-base and UV coatings and partly due to the reduced customer base,” said Richard Ponx, president of Accu-Chem Industries, Inc. “We have not seen nor experienced any recovery in the last 12 months. To help compound this, raw material prices are going through the roof, and in many cases, several raw materials are difficult to get, sometimes waiting one to three months or more. Earlier this year, two of our resin prices alone doubled in price in a matter of two months, and we just can’t get our customers to accept this kind of increase in our finished products.”
Raw Material Concerns
Raw materials remain the largest concern for ink manufacturers. Raw material cost and availability are impacting vehicles and varnishes as well; Mr. Bradley noted that acrylic acid and its esters are a particular concern on the water-based side, while rosin resin is a major issue for oil-based products.
“The water-based market has experienced shortages and escalating costs for acrylic acid and its esters,” Mr. Bradley said. “These shortages have created an upward spiral on pricing with little to no relief seen for the remainder of 2011.
“The oil-based market is similar to water-based,” Mr. Bradley added. “The tightness in supply as well as price instability of the rosin resin market has been a difficult challenge to the industry.”
Mr. Halvorsen noted that vehicle formulations contain many of the raw materials that have been experiencing very significant inflation.
“Rosin, phenols and petroleum distillates have all risen dramatically in price and resulted in many price increases in the vehicle market,” Mr. Halvorsen said. “We have the ability to formulate around shortages or disruption of supply, but there is no way around the raw material cost increases.”
“Across the board, all key raw materials have been impacted by increasing costs,” said Dan DeLegge, vice president of Inksolutions LLC. “Raw materials are tight; however, we have been able to obtain all of our key raw materials.”
Mr. Aynessazian said that since the spring of 2009, raw material costs have risen steadily. Vehicle suppliers have traditionally been able to balance their raw material needs, but consolidation and allocation of materials have impacted that balance.
“Ink vehicle manufactures historically have learned to balance raw materials to achieve a technically acceptable product while having them relatively cost effective,” Mr. Aynessazian said. “In the past, this was done by switching to alternative chemistries at times where a specific chemical was very high in price. Unfortunately, there has been significant consolidation in many areas of raw material supply, leaving only two legitimate suppliers of certain material types. The result is that pricing from these suppliers of their products is no longer specifically tied to their underlying costs. They have increased their selling prices so as to increase their traditional margin and there is little we as vehicle companies and ink companies can do about it.
“In the last 12 months, high prices were exacerbated by allocation of some materials; the most widely known was rosin,” Mr. Aynessazian added. “These allocations have made supplying customers with product at any cost particularly challenging. Although it looks like the worst in rosin is behind us, we still see tightness for a while longer. But as rosin is getting a bit better, propylene, which is the main feedstock in acrylic acid, which makes water-based and energy curable resins, has gotten extremely tight. Increases in acrylic based materials are inevitable as a result. Lastly, with the floods of millions of acres of crop land around the world in general and in the U.S. in particular, there is anticipation that vegetable-based products like linseed and soya oils will be heading higher.
“We believe that the vehicle manufacturers and ink manufacturers have done an excellent job in being responsible to the industry and passing along only a very small part of the increases that have been felt in the period from 2009 until today and should be commended for this,” Mr. Aynessazian concluded. “We have also witnessed industry responsibility in the timing of price changes to the market, with more on-going communications so price changes are less of a shock and can be as orderly as possible. This has been a help to the customer, making them able to plan their futures with some degree of clarity.”
Vehicles and varnishes play a major role in ink formulations, providing essential characteristics, and ink companies are looking toward vehicle and varnish manufacturers to develop products that will set their inks apart from the competition.
“Customers look for us to provide uniqueness and differentiating properties, enabling them to be perceived as interesting,” Mr. Halvorsen noted.
“As it relates to oil-based products, ink companies are looking for versatility in printing capabilities,” Mr. Bradley noted. “They want to print on a variety of substrates. Keep in mind, this versatility must be accompanied by excellent press stability, fast set speeds and high gloss retention. The water-based market has emphasized the need for better pricing vs. value. This stems from the pressure received from convertors.”
“Due to the tremendous raw material increases, everyone is looking for improved economics,” Mr. DeLegge said. “In isolated, specialty areas, there are opportunities where the ink company is looking for added value.”
“Ink companies seem to be looking for specialty products, items they can get better margins for,” Mr. Ponx said. “They all want higher quality products that give them value added results for their customers, and they all would like to see some stability in the raw material side of things with prices leveling off.”
“Ink vehicles (material for making ink) are looked at in two ways by ink makers, chemically and physically,” Mr. Aynessazian said. “Chemically, the ink vehicle must have the proper balance of solubility and compatibility to wet the pigment particle and yet not too much to cause misting and dot gain. In addition, the lithographic ink vehicle must have proper water balance to emulsify with fountain solution so as to take it to the printing plate in the lithographic process but not too much so as to dilute the ink and its print density.
“Physically, ink vehicles must also strike up a balance of flow and structure,” Mr. Aynessazian added. “They must have enough flow to transfer through the roller train of a printing press, but not too much flow or they will mist and have dot gain. The ink vehicles must have just the right balance of set speed (cure rate in the case of UV) making it set fast enough on the substrate so the sheets can be handled quickly after they are printed but not too fast or they will make the ink dry on the rollers of the printing press. Ink vehicles are all about giving ink the balance that it needs.
“When it comes to overprint varnishes and coatings, ink companies are looking for performance and consistency that they can count on,” Mr. Aynessazian added. “Most ink companies resell overprint varnishes and coatings, which means they are putting their name and reputation on the line on a product that they did not actually make. Key to the ink company is that the varnish will perform time after time and will not reflect badly on them at their printer customer because it is either inconsistently made or not robust enough for the wide variety of substrates, inks and press conditions that it will be used in.”
With increased emphasis being placed on ink formulation, vehicle and varnish manufacturers are developing a host of new technologies. In terms of new products, Lubrizol developed its Carboset 2989 acrylic co-polymer emulsion. Carboset 2989 is a water-based product with good physical resistances that was introduced for the gravure market. It can be compounded to produce inks where traditional polymers are not successful.
Lawter continues to expand its ECO-SET and ECO-WEB product lines to address specific customer needs. “We see growing demand for our phenol formaldehyde-free technology in many segments, including packaging and commercial print,” Mr. Halvorsen said. “Brand owners and print buyers are more concerned with risk a liability so a greener chemistry of ink is an attractive value proposition.”
“At Accu-Chem Industries, we are working on some new overprints that offer special effects and some new anti-offset compounds, both geared toward the growing package print market,” Mr. Ponx said. “The commercial market is still declining from what we have experienced.”
Mr. DeLeggge said that Inksolutions has developed a Back-to-Basic system, which is a 100% solids S/F and forms vehicle system.
“This fits into the green movement along with covering any needs for mineral oil-free inks,” Mr. DeLegge noted. “This vehicle package offers good economics, while maintaining excellent press performance. We have continued to develop and market our line of lithographic overprint varnishes. This excellent growth has come from unique product development along with packaging flexibility.
“We are working with RETHINK, in the development of high solids, unique chemistry vehicles that provide extremely fast setting, hard dry and improved water balance,” Mr. DeLegge added. “These vehicles can be used in sheetfed, forms and 100% solid news inks, as an economic alternative to UV news inks. This also a solution to providing mineral oil-free inks.”
Kustom Group has been particularly active in R&D, formulating a wide range of new products covering the spectrum of printing.
For digital printing, Kustom has developed its KS-450, a high gloss UV coating for application over various digital inks such as HP Indigo, Canon, IGEN, and Konica. KS-190 Kentucky Shine Press Stable Gloss Overprint is an ink train overprint for various digital inks printed on paper and paperboard utilizing the inking unit of a sheetfed offset press. KB-3164 Gloss Sheetfed Litho Overprint and KB-3179 Satin Sheetfed Litho Overprint are formulated to achieve the proper lay and adhesion specifically needed to be successfully applied over digital printing.
In terms of oil-based products, Kustom Group has launched its KB-1016 - High Solids Sheetfed Gel Vehicle, a unique combination of excellent adhesion and oxidative dry with surprisingly fast set speed on both paper and plastic. KB-3071 All Purpose Sheetfed W&T OPVis their best combination of fast setting and high gloss with exceptional oxidative dry. KB-2009A Heatset Gelled Vehicle is a high performance gelled vehicle suitable for high speed heatset or forms ink. KB-512 Block Resistant Gloss Heatset OPV is a high melt point resin; a high percentage of PTFE give this OPV exceptional scuff, rub, and drying properties.
For UV, Kustom Group has formulated KS-492 UV release coating, which provides a fast cure, extremely low slide angle, which gives consistent release properties for most release applications. KS-552 Non-Skid, High Rub UV Coating is formulated to be applied over aqueous flexographic inks where a high slide angle and good rub resistance is desired. KS-351 Economical EC Polyester Gelled Vehicle offers litho properties that closely rival conventional systems, with a true viscoelastic gel rheology that improves press performance at the highest speeds. KS-203 High Viscosity All-In-One Photoinitiator is a liquid, economical, top and thru-cure P.I. with high viscosity. It will not affect litho properties, and is easy to incorporate.
For aqueous systems, Kustom Group now offers KS-9810 Textured Aqueous Coating, a special effect tactile aqueous coating for application to paper and paperboard, offering textured or sandpaper feel with excellent gloss. KS-9807 Aqueous Work & Turn Matte Soft-Feel Coating provides fast dry, higher rub, work & turn soft feel coating, and is an excellent choice for two-sided work. KS-143 Heatset Kentucky Shine Soft Feel Overprint provides soft feel in a heatset roller train overprint, with excellent matte finish and velvet-like feel, while KS-146 Sheetfed Kentucky Shine Soft Feel Overprint provides soft feel in a sheetfed roller train overprint, with excellent matte finish and velvet-like feel.
Expectations for the Marketplace
With all of this in mind, vehicle and varnish manufacturers see the potential for growth in the market, with new technologies and strong service being the keys to success.
“We believe that by continued efforts in R&D and dedicated service to our customers, we will continue to grow in the future,” Mr. DeLegge said. “We are also expanding our product base with new product lines, i.e. carbon black dispersions, metallic S/F inks and fluorescent ink bases.”
Mr. Bradley said that Lubrizol is optimistic that 2011 will show continued improvement in the market, driven by new technology and excellent service.
“Overall, we anticipate 2011 to be a good year,” Mr. Bradley said. “Our continued goal is to provide innovative and unique solutions to our valued customers while at the same time delivering best-in-class service.”
Mr. Aynessazian said that Kustom Group believes that the second half of 2011 and early 2012 will be a time of slow stabilization for the industry.
“There will continue to be significant economic pressure on all the companies in our industry, and further consolidation will likely continue to be the result, but many now understand the market we are in and have found ways to cope,” Mr. Aynessazian said. “Finding your strengths as a company and partners that you can count on will be more important than ever. We continue to remain optimistic about the future. There are many parts of the graphic arts market that will endure and prosper in 2012 and beyond. It will be important to figure which areas those are and orient yourself toward those markets and chemistries.”
Mr. Ponx noted that “hopeful” is the best way to describe the future.
“The hardest question to respond to relates to expectations for the coming year,” Mr. Ponx said. “We can only respond to that question in one word – hopeful, hopeful things will begin to turn around for all of us in the graphic arts business. This once giant of an industry really needs a break after getting beat up so bad for the last few years. Maybe 2012 will prove to be one of hope and stability so we all can continue to earn a living.”