As the wide-format printing industry recovers this year, technological advances in print head technology, print equipment and inks will help to drive the market forward.
As Alcan’s Masters said, “Digital printing is king.” As a direct result of our current economic situation, companies have shifted away from analog to digital technologies in order to accommodate short run jobs.
The print shops that were very specialized were hit a lot harder than those that catered to a variety of markets. Yet, it still remains that the large-format printing business is unquestionably a great business opportunity for commercial printers, quick printers and graphic arts firms. You can still get an excellent profit margin if you produce good work, develop your customer account base and deliver the goods reliably.
The expanded use of large-format inkjet printers is 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. The growing use of large-format inkjet printers has also been seen in the screen and digital print markets, sign shops and many others. But what inkjet printer do I invest in with so many printer options on the marketplace? It all depends on your application and the volume of prints you want to produce. Here is a breakdown of inkjet printers under the three main classifications.
Aqueous inkjet Printing
The worldwide wide-format aqueous inkjet market is a fairly large and mature market compromised of three primary market segments – technical, creative and production graphics. Aqueous inkjet is the most flexible wide-format print technology, especially in the technical and production graphics markets. According to InfoTrends, these three segments comprise a hardware, ink, and media market that is expected to grow to $5.98 billion by 2012.
The trend toward environmentally-friendly printing processes and the sustainability of print has also been gaining momentum, and there are no signs that it’s likely to stop anytime soon. Canon, Epson and Hewlett-Packard have all launched new systems to increase speeds and improve resolution and image quality as well as use new ink formulations to expand the colour gamut and improve outdoor durability. We are now seeing an emergence of durable aqueous inkjet printing systems from leading manufacturers, which will create a whole new opportunity for aqueous inkjet printers as an eco-friendly alternative to solvent and UV-curable inkjet.
It is expected that the worldwide market for large-format aqueous inkjet printers will continue to grow, driven by trends in the photographic, fine art, trade show, technical document, graphic design, prepress proofing 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.
These aqueous-based ink printers will appeal to commercial printers, designers, advertising agencies and poster printers as well as architects, engineers, including prepress/proofing departments, photo labs, professional photographers and internal marketing departments.
The new Canon imagePROGRAF printers have also targeted the general office printing needs 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 looking posters.
Solvent inkjet Printing
The main ingredient of solvent ink is a volatile organic compound, which are organic chemical compounds that have high vapour pressures. The chief advantage of solvent inks is that they are comparatively inexpensive and enable printing on flexible, uncoated vinyl substrates, which can be used to produce vehicle graphics, billboards, banners and adhesive decals.
Disadvantages include the vapour produced by the solvent and the need to dispose of used solvent. Prints made using solvent-based inks are generally waterproof and ultraviolet-resistant (for outdoor use) without special over-coatings.
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 the solvent printed media.
I.T. Strategies forecasted a 23 per cent decline in total solvent based printer sales in 2009 compared to 2008, but it is expected that sales will start to gradually recover in 2010 in solvent type printers.
There are many suppliers of wide-format solvent-based inkjet printers today, including companies like Agfa, HP, Mimaki, Mutoh, Océ, Roland, Vutek and Seiko, which are all continuously improving their solvent-based inkjet printing technologies. These printers can print on a media width size of 4-feet up to 16.5-feet-wide and have the ability to produce durable outdoor graphics at a reduced cost. Prices can range from $17,995 to $275,000 depending on size and features.
UV-based flatbed printers
UV-curable inks consist mainly of acrylic monomers (a small molecule that becomes chemically bonded to other monomers to form a polymer). After printing, the ink is cured by exposure to UV-light. The advantage of UV-curable inks is that they “dry” as soon as they are cured and they can be applied to a wide range of uncoated substrates.
Disadvantages are that these inks are somewhat susceptible to cracking if applied to a flexible substrate. As such, they are often used in large flatbed printers, which print directly to rigid substrates such as plastic, wood or aluminum where flexibility is not a concern.
This technology is rapidly developing and growing on the industrial side of inkjet printing. I.T. Strategies forecasted a three per cent decline in total UV-based flatbed printer sales in 2009 compared to 2008, before sales started to grow again. Indeed, there is no doubt that UV-based printers are changing the world of industrial digital printing.
Agfa, 3M, DuPont, Durst, 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. These new UV printers can range in price from about $50,000 to $500,000 and more.
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’s brand that will continue to invest in research and development to keep the products on the cutting edge.
This inkjet printing technology is here to stay. New volume of work will grow for these printers as it takes over from print volume, which may have been produced using other methods – offset or screen printed, cut vinyl or hand painted.
Wide-format digital printing will provide new revenue streams for those who 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.