Aqueous: Still Going Strong
When it comes to wide-format inkjet technologies, there is no shortage of options. Solvent inks have been the go-to for many outdoor applications for years, but UV has made great inroads into those areas. And aqueous, once the purview of interior graphics and the fine art space, is starting to see a surge now as the latex or durable aqueous sub-category is starting to gain ground. For printers, this means having a much wider range of technologies to tackle anything and everything that might walk through the door on any given day.
But what are the trends driving this growth in aqueous applications? And how can wide-format printers take advantage of those trends?
All About Substrates
First and foremost, one of the major forces driving the explosion of aqueous printing is the growth of the number and quality of substrates that work with those ink sets. The devices themselves have matured across the board when it comes to speed and quality and the next logical step was to improve the variety and versatility of the media they can print on.
“From most of these machines, the level of ink development isn’t moving nearly as fast as substrate development,” says Dan Johansen, senior manager wide-format, Commercial & Industrial Printing Business Group, Ricoh USA, Inc. “Five years ago when latex started to take off in the roll-to-roll environment, there were only a limited number of substrates that printed well, so it was limited to customers who would use those substrates. In the years since, with such a big focus on substrate diversity and so many companies making compatible substrates, it’s the final product that is driving the market dynamic.”
Print buyers today aren’t educated on the difference between the various print technologies, their limitations or what makes aqueous better or worse than solvent, for example. What they do care about is getting the job they want completed, on the substrate they prefer, in the time they need it done. The explosion in the number of substrates that work with aqueous technologies has meant that printers can be less dependent on a single machine.
That includes the increase in the number of projects printed on rigid substrates in recent years as well, as more printers look to print directly on the substrate, rather than print on films or other materials and then apply it separately.
“We’re seeing a shift from more legacy technology to aqueous and latex, and away from solvent and UV,” says Dave Prezzano, VP Americas Graphics Solutions at HP. “Part of that is innovation around latex for rigid substrates. People associate rigid with UV inks, and we’re breaking that paradigm.”
With rigids, one of the things latex offers that UV doesn’t, Prezzano goes on to mention, is the ability to allow more of the substrate show through. He gave the example of an old wooden door — with latex, the graphics will pop, but the grain of the door will show through as well, giving the piece more of a dimensional feel without needing to add it artificially with coatings. The same graphic printed with latex inks on a metal sheet and a wooden board will have a different look and feel, which in turn means designers can get far more creative with their projects.
Beyond substrate growth, another driver of aqueous and latex technologies is the package printing market. Many modern printers are looking to diversify the types of services offered, with traditional wide-format shops beginning to offer things like package prototyping to their client base. This convergence of markets means individual printers form deeper, more lasting relationships with customers as they are able to produce a much broader swath of the work any single brand might require. But to do so means having the right technologies in place.
Michael Maxwell, senior product marketing manager for Mimaki USA, notes that package prototyping is one of the places where he has seen latex technology really take off — especially when paired with white, orange and green ink options. The ability to produce a wide range of brand-specific colors, on a wider range of substrates including clear options, has made it an attractive technology for printers to have in their shop, he says.
Packaging isn’t the only vertical benefiting from latex technologies. Prezzano notes that as latex technology continues to improve, its versatility will only get more impressive. “We have roll-to-roll as well as rigid [on one device.] One moment you’re printing signage polyester, then cotton, then backlit, then a vehicle wrap, then a wood door — all on the same product. People wanted more flexibility than latex offered before, and now we have it. We definitely see a trend in that direction, where people like the idea of doing all that on one device.”
Textiles is also an area that aqueous and latex inks are starting to make further inroads into, Prezzano says. Dye-sublimation inks, of course, work well with polyester substrates, but doesn’t always print well on linens or cottons. New innovations in inks have opened up new areas of décor, allowing for applications, such as personalized home textiles with patterns or colors personalized to a company, a brand or even an individual.
“We’re seeing an explosion in interior décor,” Johansen notes, “where architects and designers are looking at every surface in a facility as a potential art board.” He cites examples of hospitals and doctor’s offices buying more wide-format printing than ever before, using these technologies to cover every available surface, including elevators, walls, floors and other surfaces to help communicate messages everywhere a visitor might look. “We’re seeing a real explosion in the use of this type of inkjet.”
The Sweet Spot
Like with any other technology, aqueous and latex devices aren’t necessarily going to be perfect for every application. This is why it is important for a shop to really understand what they want and need before investing in a technology, explains John Kaufman, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America.
“Customers want bigger, faster, cheaper — that’s the holy grail,” Kaufman says. “Customers want to print bigger, and they need it faster because turnaround times are getting shorter and shorter. We live in an ‘I need it now society,’ so turnaround times are key.” However, he says, bigger and faster can’t come at the expense of a high-quality print. And that is where knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each of the digital technologies is crucial to knowing where to send a job when it’s time to go into production.
In particular, Kaufman notes that for customers who haven’t dabbled in some of the applications such as textiles or wall coverings for example, going with a traditional aqueous printer is the best place to start. They tend to be in the $5,000 - $15,000 range, he says, so they make an excellent entry into the space to test the waters. But as volume increases, it might become more economical to switch to latex, UV or other options, depending on where the shop wants to go next, rather than just invest in more of the same.
“For us, latex is a jack of all trades, master of none,” says Maxwell. “It can do some soft signage, it can do packaging and prototypes, it can do some decal and interior graphics, but it doesn’t necessarily give us what we’re looking for when it comes to exterior durability.”
When it comes down to it, aqueous and latex technologies are a growing part of the digital opportunity for wide-format printers. There are more devices that are more productive and can print at production level speeds while maintaining the high quality the technology is known for. It’s not a perfect fit for every application, but for many printers, it is another tool that can be used to win new customers and expand the relationship with existing clients.
“Too often, to get production level speeds we sacrifice quality and vice versa,” Johansen says. That is where aqueous and latex have seen the most improvements — there will be more to come at the 2018 SGIA Expo, with several companies noting there will be new innovations to watch for at the show.
Aqueous and latex technologies might not be the newest kids on the block, but that doesn’t mean innovation has slowed down. Faster speeds, greater substrate diversity and lower costs are all compelling reasons wide-format printers should ensure this is part of their print arsenal.
Toni McQuilken has been writing and editing for more than a decade. Her work includes B2B publications – both in print and online – in a range of industries, such as print and graphics, technology, hospitality and automotive; as well as behind the scenes writing and editing for multiple companies, helping them craft marketing materials, write press releases and more. She is a self-proclaimed "tech geek" who loves all things technology, and she knows that she is one of a select group of people who get to do what they love for a living.