Rich Bradley, global market segment manager for Lubrizol Advanced Materials, said that the vehicle system is the heart of an ink’s performance on press, from runnability to a final film property perspective.
“In the constantly changing world of substrates, especially in the packaging area, greater stress is on the vehicle system to adapt and deliver superior adhesion and resistance properties,” Mr. Bradley noted. “And with regulatory pressures constantly evolving and limiting the materials available to formulate with, ink makers today face a challenging task.”
“The vehicle is the backbone of a lithographic ink, providing the key characteristics of the ink, i.e., gloss, rub, transfer, etc., and most importantly, the ability to print,” said Dan DeLegge, vice president of Inksolutions. “Varnish is classically called the overprint and it is there for protection, special effects, etc.”
Jerry Trauth, product manager ink applications, Kustom Group, said that today’s printers put more demand on ink makers than ever before.
“Vehicles are the highest percentage raw material in an ink formula, and therefore control most of the physical and application properties,” Mr. Trauth said. “So the pressure is always on the vehicle manufacturer to push the limits of existing technology.
“But new products are only one part of the puzzle,” Mr. Trauth noted. “Just as importantly, they expect their vehicle supplier to have product in stock when they need it, and in the right container. They expect you to carry both their high volume products and their one drum a month product. This is a service we have offered since day one at Kustom, with well over 1,000 active formulas in three different chemistries to date. Press runs are shorter these days, and Kustom has responded by recently expanding our small batch department capabilities. This has improved our response time on smaller orders and increased our efficiency and commitment to our many specialty product lines.
“Ink makers also expect a technical partner who is an accessible resource they can tap when needed, for formulation or press side assistance,” Mr. Trauth added. “Regulatory requirements are changing quickly, including new GHS Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and labeling requirements on the horizon along with other compliance issues. As a vehicle supplier, we try our best to lend support and guidance to our customers in any of these areas if needed.”
Mr. Bradley said that 2012 was a challenging year, with continued emphasis on cost reduction that travels down from the printer/converter through the ink supply chain, but the emphasis on the environment is offering opportunities.
“We see formulating trends placing more emphasis on regulatory and environmental issues, seeing the movement from solvent- to water-based systems gaining momentum,” Mr. Bradley noted. “In addition, the demand for higher definition printing in the flexo market requires much stronger inks at equal to, if not lower, viscosity to conventional systems. These factors all lead to opportunities to innovate in resin and vehicle technology. In the publication market, cost remains a key driver.”
Mr. Trauth said that not much has changed in the last 12 months concerning domestic ink maker’s vehicle purchases.
“The move of many ink companies to supply their U.S. needs from inks produced outside of North America continues,” Mr. Trauth reported. “This trend, along with other obvious factors such as digital printing, instant access to news and other information via the internet, and a mature market with reduced commercial and publication printing, will continue to shrink the ink market for all U.S. suppliers. In light of this, Kustom Group is aggressively focused on expanding our product line to supply more specialty products to the packaging, digital and other markets we see growing.”
Mr. Trauth added that the downward trend for ink manufacturers seems to have leveled off, but commercial and publication markets aren’t likely to return to previous levels.
“We see increased sales and interest for our specialty products across the board,” Mr. Trauth noted. “However, most believe that one-third of the domestic commercial and publication printing ink market is gone and not coming back. Because of this, we don’t expect a total recovery in the traditional sense. Our focus is on new products and opportunities in our areas of strength in all of our lines, including products for UV/EB, aqueous and oil-based chemistries.”
Raw material costs and supply have been concerns throughout the ink industry in recent years, and vehicle and varnish manufacturers havehad their own challenges. For the most part, prices have stabilized, although there are concerns over oils, as vegetable oil has gone up and petroleum oil will likely follow.
“Availability has been tight and we have seen that cause some spiking of raw material pricing in the past 12 months,” Mr. Bradley said. “Building blocks on the liquid inks side have shown a trend upward, and as they start to stabilize, many are at historically high levels. On the lithographic side, rosin and petroleum costs continue to be key drivers, with a similar trend of somewhat stable but relatively high costs, which puts stress on the vehicle market.”
To meet the needs of the ink industry, vehicle and varnish manufacturers are working on innovations. For example, the digital market is enjoying growth, and Mr. Trauth noted that Kustom Group is developing a wide range of coatings for digital printing, all formulated to achieve the proper lay and adhesion specifically needed to be successfully applied over digital printing.
Kustom Group also offers a variety of oil-based products for offset inks, UV vehicle and extender products, UV coatings that offer special textures and effects, and aqueous coatings.
“New development efforts are targeting key performance areas for resistance properties required in packaging applications where the resin system must deliver the functionality,” Mr. Bradley said. “The expansion of high definition printing is another area where resin technology will be key in providing low viscosity systems with very high pigment loads.”
“There has been a major emphasis on ‘compliant’ vehicles and low migration vehicles,” said John Jilek Sr., president of Inksolutions. “We at Inksolutions continue to respond to these new requests, and have developed several new products to meet these demands.”
The Coming Year
For vehicle and varnish suppliers, the decline of the commercial and publication ink markets are a serious concern, but they also offer opportunities for innovation as well.
“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. Trauth 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,” Mr. Trauth added. “We, like many others in our industry, need to be nimble in our approach to the market. There are parts of the graphic arts market that have stabilized and will be growing in the next 12 months. It is important to us to orient our company and its products toward those markets and chemistries.”
“We are optimistic for more unique demands in the litho market, which falls into Inksolutions’ business model,” Mr. Jilek said.
“We look forward to 2013 as year of change, and with change comes the opportunity to innovate and solve problems with our customers for their vehicle system needs,” Mr. Bradley concluded.