Solvent Printing’s Inkjet Journey: The Evolution of Solvent Printing
When solvent printers were first introduced, shops had to have dedicated ventilation to keep the VOC (volatile organic compounds) at a safe level. I have been in facilities where the ventilation wasn’t sufficient and seen the rubber feet from the back of a picture frame “bleeding” down the wall because the VOC levels were so high that the rubber was being dissolved.
Fast-forward a few years and “eco” solvent ink printers were introduced with much lower VOC levels and the dedicated ventilation was no longer needed. These newer “eco” solvent printers are still in use in many shops and several manufacturers are making great strides in ink formulations to reduce the time needed for these inks to outgas; expanded gamut colors such as red, orange, green, and violet; and in a few cases metallic inks.
But technology has changed and evolved. What applications are still a good fit for solvent printing?
According to David Lopez, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, print providers choose solvent printing as their print method when printing canvas reproductions, vehicle wraps, and stickers/decals “because of the high quality and color reproducibility that solvent printers can accomplish with a low total cost of ownership. The extensive range of colors and quality achievable with solvent printing gives customers the ability to print a variety of applications in the market today.”
“The application offerings in eco-solvent printing have grown into literally hundreds of common and niche applications,” says Daniel Valade, Roland DGA product manager of Digital Print. “The standouts that most PSPs provide are typical storefront signage, decals/labels, vehicle graphics, and POP or advertising displays. Of course, the industry saw an explosion in floor graphic solutions with the onset of COVID and social distancing requirements. In addition, while not exactly a ‘niche’ application, considerable demand for eco-solvent printing has come from the cannabis industry in the form of high-quality, eye-catching labels for their products. The ability to print onto metallic substrates for that extra ‘pop,’ as well as the expanded color gamut of [inkjet printers], has helped print providers fulfill the requirements of customers within this market."
When talking with PRINTING United Alliance printer members, I typically suggest they look to find a niche that they can fill in their area and then grow from there. If I’m using a solvent printer to do banners for local businesses, I’ll look for other opportunities that I can fill as well. For example, as Lopez noted above, canvas reproductions could be something to investigate as a supplement to the banner business.
Features and Benefits
With so many models and options available, there has to be an easy way to narrow down your choices — when either adding or upgrading existing solvent printers.
“Print service providers (PSPs) should look for a printer they can continue to grow with over time,” says Lopez. “Solvent printers have been in the market for many years and have demonstrated significant growth in their hardware and ink chemistry. There have been significant improvements in solvent printhead technology, which is especially important since the printhead is key to the quality and speed of output achievable.
Additionally, Lopez notes, ink technology is another feature that PSPs should consider when adding new printers to their shops. Some printers offer vibrant color and an extended color gamut, while others have ink systems that can achieve 98.2% of the Pantone color library, making it easier to print specific spot colors — something incredibly important to brand owners. “The ability to accurately produce a specific brand color, and do it consistently over multiple jobs, is key in today’s competitive digital print market,” he says.
Valade highlighted three main points PSPs need to consider when looking to add or upgrade solvent printers. For him, the throughput requirement is one of the more important factors to consider. “An existing business may require more throughput right off the bat, whereas a startup may be able to go with less throughput and a wider gamut inkset,” says Valade. “Volume isn’t as high for startups, and these PSPs can stand out from current competition initially by providing brighter, more vivid output. This will enable them to attract a customer base that one day, down the line, may end up requiring increased print speed and productivity.”
Business needs are another important factor to consider. A small shop with one to two employees may find an integrated print-and-cut device allows them to load jobs that need printing and contour cutting, while also giving them the freedom to walk away and focus on other parts of the business. On the other hand, a shop with more employees may find that having an independent wide-format printer and digital cutter enables them to keep the printer running as the cutting is physically moved to the standalone cutter.
Reliability is also essential. “In most scenarios, the printer is the ‘heartbeat’ of the business, and any downtime is very costly to the operation,” says Valade. “Choosing a machine that is known for reliability and a manufacturer that backs up its products, is crucial.”
To Valade’s point, service is one of those areas that many printers don’t consider until they have an issue. At that point, it’s too late to find out that the service wait times are three to four days, or that parts are not in stock for common repairs (think of dampers or captops). When looking to purchase a printer, PSPs should ask for two to three references that have owned their printer for at least a year. In that time frame, it’s not unusual to have called in at least one time for service and you need to know how responsive the service is for your printer in your area.
That New/Old Car Smell
“When looking to update older equipment that may be a couple of generations behind the latest technology available, many shops overlook applications like custom apparel, especially for special events and short-run requests,” says Valade. “A lot of users who may have printed banners, posters, or decals for special events are thrilled to discover that next-generation printers and printer/cutters, allow them to add custom apparel or accessories to those types of orders.”
Nowadays, most solvent printers require very minimal manual maintenance, as most of the cycles are automated. Depending on time between prints, some printers, like Roland DGA’s TrueVIS series models, only require manual maintenance once every 14 days. There are also automated reminders to make sure these periodic maintenance requirements aren’t missed. Epson’s newer printers have a maintenance station (user replaceable) that has a lint-free cloth on a roll that is advanced when needed to clean the bottom of the printhead (different than the rubber wiper in many other manufacturers). The lint-free cloth is a very clever way to make sure the bottom of the printhead is cleaned with a fresh “cloth” versus a potentially dirty rubber wiper.
Additionally, shops need to consider whether it is logical to keep older models — with older inksets — on hand when new equipment is added to the shop. Older inksets might not be as vibrant as newer insets or they might not have the option of additional ink colors.
“The improvement from our Eco-Sol MAX inks to our new TR2 eco-solvent inks (used by the TrueVIS series printers) was one of the bigger advancements in ink technology over the last decade,” says Valade. “Our customers really needed an ink that provided optimum image quality, while also allowing same-day printing, lamination, and shipping on install workflows for many applications (such as vehicle graphics). Having said that, Roland DGA does have its own online profile center, as well as a profile simulation tool, that make it easy for customers to match output from older devices to their new device.”
Something else to keep in mind: Having a good gray balance and understanding color management will also ensure that you can get very similar results out of multiple devices. Upgrading to a new device should not be a concern for the shop that understands this.
Solvent printing has come a long way in a relatively short time and there are sure to be more technological advancements in the years to come.
Ray assists association members with information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and the PRINTING United Alliance Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps as well as a G7 expert. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Ray was inducted into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2020. He also works with SkillsUSA to conduct the National Competition for Graphics Imaging Sublimation. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.