The Most Versatile Print Technology
The world of print technologies is constantly changing and evolving. It used to simply be a matter of dye-sub or solvent, but recent years have brought an explosion of new options to the party, such as UV and latex. Solvent, however, hasn’t sat idle. A brand new sub-category — eco-solvent — has stepped in to provide the same quality that printers were accustomed to while eliminating some of the handicaps the technology carried in the past.
“Overall, the eco-solvent space has, despite the introduction of new ink technologies, continued to perform as the benchmark for the traditional signage market,” notes Matt McCausland, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America. “There are some great benefits to these new ink technologies, and they’ve driven some good growth in terms of what is possible in roll-to-roll printing, but eco-solvent still performs at a higher level in areas like image quality and print speed.”
Especially for the wide-format market, in particular, eco-solvent continues to be a dominant technology for a reason. It continues to provide the most outdoor-durable graphics and continues to be one of the most versatile ink technologies on the market, with printers able to do everything from decals and banners to vehicle wraps, all on one machine.
“UV is very rigid when it dries,” says Daniel Valade, product manager, Color Products & Cutters, Roland DGA. “You can’t do vehicle wraps with it, which is a huge part of the market, and we see growth in vehicle wrap space. I really think it’s the versatility of eco-solvent that is the big differentiation, and why people are still going with it if they’re going to have one machine.”
All About the Substrates
As Valade points out, when brands are looking for a “green” solution, the ink technology is one of the components that is examined, and there are quite a few “Green Guard” certifications out there to designate eco-solvent inks as being an environmentally conscious choice, right alongside other ink technologies such as UV or latex.
That said, many forget that to produce an environmentally sound piece, it takes more than just the ink — the substrates used are just as, if not more, important. And this is where eco-solvent inks continue to have an edge.
“The media itself is actually the worst part, it [doesn’t have as much] to do with the printing technology as it does which media it’s printed on,” Valade says.
In particular, he notes that when a job includes pieces that will go, for example, to a doctor’s office or a pre-school, or if it’s made of fabric or it is a toy that young children may have an opportunity to put into their mouth, it is critical to have both a substrate and an ink solution that work together to be safe and non-toxic, not just an ink alone.
“Eco-solvent has made incredible progress over the years in many areas from image quality to productivity and environmental impact,” McCausland notes. “There are multiple eco-solvent inks that have achieved full-room GreenGuard Gold certification, enabling them to be used in school and health care environments.”
This is where eco-solvent, in particular, remains a strong technology in any wide-format print shop. On a single device, the shop can move from printing vehicle wraps for one customer to printing fabrics that will be used to create children’s clothing, to printing signs or banners for outdoor use — all without changing anything but the substrate. It remains, arguably, one of the most versatile technologies in the print industry today.
The Next Frontier
So what’s next for the solvent space in general? First and foremost, don’t expect major shifts or innovations — McCausland notes that the one exception to that rule will likely be the drying time.
“In terms of eco-solvent, I see an improvement in ink chemistry leading to faster off-gas times and much faster times to lamination,” he says. “As production speeds increase, the time to lamination will be one of the only gating factors left in the production workflow.”
Valade has similar thoughts, noting that rather than looking for the “next big thing” on the horizon for eco-solvent, he is rather focusing on expanding what printers can do with the technology, and really driving home the versatility of the technology. This is especially important in an industry embracing the concept of convergence — as sign shops begin to move into other types of print work, having a device that can step up to the plate and produce any type of work thrown at it, for any type of situation, is a competitive advantage.
“You don’t have to outsource much at all with eco-solvent,” he points out. “You can pretty much take care of most applications all in one place.”