Large-format inkjet printer investment trends

The large format inkjet business is unquestionably a great business opportunity for commercial printers, quick printers, and graphic arts firms, and the profit margin can be excellent if you produce good work, develop your customer account base, and deliver goods reliably.

The expanded use of large format inkjet printers has been due to the fact that they can be used in the graphics, photography, fine art reproduction, sign, and display markets, where the demand for shorter runs and quicker turnarounds continues to dominate. Large format inkjet printers have also been expanding their share of the screen and digital print markets, and are seen in many sign shops. But which inkjet printer do you invest in? With so many options on the market it all depends on your application and the volume of prints you want to produce. Here is a break down of inkjet printers under the 3 main classifications.

Aqueous inkjet Printing

With all of the attention placed on solvent and UV inkjet printing over recent years, one might think that the days of wide-format aqueous inkjet printing are numbered. But the bottom line is that aqueous inkjet technology is not extinct, nor is it quickly disappearing from the wide-format market. The trend toward environmentally friendly printing processes and the sustainability of print has also been gaining momentum through 2007, and there are no signs that it’s likely to stop any time soon. Therefore, environmentally friendly aqueous based inkjet printers have accounted for the majority of inkjet printing. I.T. Strategies reports that the worldwide retail value of wide format graphic prints was forecast to grow to almost $30 billion by 2007. Of that $30 billion, inkjet printing accounted for $29.5 billion, and of that $29.5 billion, aqueous printers accounted for $22.8. (77% of all inkjet printing is done by aqueous printers). Historically, the sales of aqueous based inkjet printers for wide-format technical applications (such as engineering /architectural printing) have been more than four times the sales volume of printers sold to produce conventional graphics. Today, the ratio of aqueous inkjets for graphics to technical printers on a worldwide sales basis is nearly one to one. InfoTrends expects the technical colour inkjet printer market to continue to grow as the applications that demand colour printing continue to grow.

The leading wide format aqueous inkjet manufacturers are Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard, and each of these manufacturers have their own strengths. Large format aqueous inkjet printers are the most common printers available on the market today. Their name reflects the fact that water is the primary “carrier” which carries the pigment or dye to the printed substrate. Aqueous inkjet inks require a treated substrate for best ink receptivity. From all the reports I have read, it is expected that the worldwide market for large format aqueous inkjet will continue to grow, driven by trends in photography, giclée art reproduction, technical documents, digital graphics, and the general office/business environment.

Wide format aqueous inkjet systems provide the fastest output with—typically—the highest resolution, yet with the lowest capital investment. Aqueous inkjet printers are used mainly for indoor printing, but with certain types of media, they may be used for short-term outdoor printing. With lamination, their outdoor longevity can be substantially increased. Aqueous printers rule the market in photographic and fine art printing, as well as trade show printing, graphic design, and prepress proofing.

The advantage of aqueous printers is their ease of use. The new Canon iPF series of printers boasts 12 colour / 12 bit printing, while the new HP printers offer a built in spectrophotometer. Epson has the K3 Ultrachrome ink set, which has been very popular. These printers will appeal to commercial printers, designers, advertising agencies, and poster printers, as well as architects, engineers, prepress/proofing departments, photo labs, professional photographers, and internal marketing departments. The new Canon iPF printers have targeted general office printing needs as well by including a variety of software applications such as PosterArtist, a template-driven poster creation software which allows just about anyone without experience to create beautiful posters.

Over the past couple of years we have seen the price of wide format systems decline significantly, down to as low as $1500 at the extreme low end, which makes it possible for corporate marketing, creative departments, and everyday office/business environments to invest in a wide format printer. At the high end of the aqueous inkjet market, Canon, Epson, and HP offer 24”, 36”, 44” and 60” printers geared to production oriented printing. The Canon iPF9100 12 colour, the Epson Stylus 11880 9 colour printer, and the HP Z6100 8 colour printer all sell for around $16,000.

Solvent inkjet Printing

InfoTrends is projecting fairly strong overall market growth in the wide format solvent inkjet market, but mostly in the low end market. Because of the dramatic improvements in UV-curable inkjet printing equipment, higher end solvent printers will show a decline in sales. There are many suppliers of wide format solvent-based inkjet printers today. These include companies like Agfa, Colorspan, HP, GandInnovations, Mimaki, Mutoh, Océ, Roland, Vutek and Seiko, which are all continuously improving their solvent-based inkjet printing technologies. These printers can print on media from four feet up to 16.5 feet wide and have the ability to produce durable outdoor graphics at a reduced cost. The cost savings is three-fold: Solvent-based inks are less expensive than aqueous inkjet inks, media is less expensive, and in some cases you can eliminate the need for lamination, which saves both time and consumables.

Solvent inks are a versatile, long-life ink that are classified as hazardous, yet milder versions are available that produce less noxious odors. Since solvent-based inks are classified as hazardous they will require special ventilation to be installed. Eco or mild solvent-based inks are less hazardous but may not be as durable as true solvent inks. While it is certainly possible to produce indoor graphics with solvent-based equipment, we increasingly hear that certain types of print buyers resist solvent-based inkjet output, especially for indoor retail environments, because of the off-gassing that can occur from solvent-printed media.

It is unlikely that a corporate end user would invest in a solvent inkjet printer since these are not the kind of printers you would put in an office environment. From 2004 to 2009, the worldwide retail value of print produced from wide format solvent-based inkjet printers is expected to grow from about $9 billion to $18 billion. This represents a compound annual growth rate of almost 17 percent. Prices can range from $17,995 to $275,000 depending on the size and features.

UV-based flatbed printers

The technology that we believe is developing and growing most rapidly on the industrial side of inkjet printing is wide format UV-curable inkjet. InfoTrends is projecting better than 20 percent annual growth in the UV-curable inkjet market, with all segments seeing double digit growth over the forecast period. Indeed, there is no doubt that UV-curable printers are changing the world of industrial digital printing. These high production ink jet printers allow you to print on both flexible and rigid substrates up to 3 inches thick and use ink that dries instantly, which reduces your production times and ultimately saves you money.

With UV-curable printers, the drying mechanism for the ink is completely different than that used in solvent inkjet printing. When ultra-violet light hits curable liquid ink, it transforms it from a liquid to a solid on the substrate chosen. The downfall of the UV-curable technology is that the inks are not as flexible as solvent or aqueous based printers, so there might be a concern when printing on rolled media; we are still in the beginning stages of this new technology, however, and ink formulations are constantly being improved.

UV-curable printers offer many of the same features as solvent inkjet printers yet operate with less expensive ink sets. Users can print directly on materials such as wood, metal, ceramic, plastic, and glass, which opens a host of new possibilities in terms of applications and revenue streams. Agfa, 3M, Colorspan, DuPont, Durst, Gandinnovations, Gerber, HP, Inca, Mimaki, Nur, Scitex, Vutek, and Zund, among others, have jumped on the UV bandwagon with new machines designed to print on everything from wood to glass to vinyl.

UV-curable will have to improve its reliability and performance with flexible substrates if it’s going to overtake solvent printing in the roll-to-roll application. New UV printers can range in price from about $75,000 to over $500,000.

Assessing the Data

As we can see, there are many printing options available with many different suppliers. The key is getting the right printer for the right application and then investing in a manufacturer who will continue to invest in research and development to keep the products on the cutting edge. Inkjet printing technology is here to stay. Volume of work will grow for these printers as it takes over from print volume which may have been produced using other methods, either offset or screen printed, cut vinyl or hand painted.

Wide format digital printing will provide new revenue streams for those that adopt this technology. While there will be challenges along the way, wide format digital is a large and profitable market. Those that partner effectively and apply their creativity and expertise will reap the rewards.