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European Union Regulations Drive Ink Reformulations

And, what to expect from new LED UV-cure and latex products.



Alongside the rise of LED UV-cure and latex inks, print speeds are increasing even as print performance improves. According to an International Data Corporation report released in February, worldwide large-format printer shipments grew by 3.5 percent in 2014 as compared with 2013, but revenue declined by almost 1 percent, reportedly due to “very aggressive price promotions.” In other words, as printers try new applications and bring their work to new industries, rock-bottom prices on wide format continue to drive competition.

In general, current trends indicate increased placement of inkjet inks and print systems in developed countries. Some emerging sectors, such as production inkjets, are estimated to be growing at rates above the 20 percent mark, even as we’re seeing a decline in aggressive solvent-based inkjet printers in economically developed countries.

Inkjet ink consumption, on the other hand, is expanding. EFI Vutek reports that the volume of ink it ships for its wide-format printer base continues to grow at about 25 percent year over year. SunJet, DuPont, Inx Digital, Bordeaux, Fujifilm, Wikoff, Collins Ink, Sensient Technologies, and other inkjet ink producers for wide-format applications also report strong volume growth that is feeding both the existing and new technology additions to the wide-format placement base.

Staying Safe
With increasingly strict worker safety and environmental regulations in developed countries, strong growth is likely to continue for those inks and systems that minimize worker exposure to and environmental discharge of hazardous chemicals, and reduce energy required to cure and fixate inks, while still producing high quality print color and resolution. This has already driven a move from aggressive solvent-based inks to mild or eco-solvent, aqueous, latex, and UV-curable, and, more recently, LED UV-curable inks and coatings.

The proportion of print providers in both developed and less prosperous countries using dye-sublimation technology for soft signage has grown at a high rate. This is due to the popularity and cost-effectiveness of soft signage for exhibition hall displays and short-term event and promotional banners. Print providers in less prosperous developing countries, where worker safety and environmental regulations are not enforced, continue to use solvent- and eco-solvent-based wide-format inkjet systems along with low-cost, third-party solvent and eco-solvent inks. Why? Because solvent and eco-solvent inks typically provide vibrant and broad-spectrum colors, along with excellent adhesion to vinyl and other polymeric substrates for banners, decals, vehicle wraps, and signs.

Still, according to Nufar Kiryati, marketing communications manager for Bordeaux Digital PrintInk, UV and latex offer the highest potential for growth in the wide-format sector. “Eco-solvent inks are still growing but prices are eroding,” she says. “The market is inclined toward more eco-friendly solutions, which do not forfeit the printing quality or the application possibilities.” While UV mercury bulb curing has provided rapid curing, Chad Taggard, VP of marketing and business development at Phoseon, says that the European Union is likely to ban small-scale mercury use for UV bulbs by July 2016. This action would further spur development of LED UV products for wide format and other print formats now using mercury arc bulbs.


Europe Drives Regulatory Changes
In recent years, the EU has increasingly assumed the leading environmental and worker safety regulatory role, and its actions have led some manufacturers to reformulate their ink chemistries. For example, European concerns about a monomer used in UV inks to reduce viscosity and improve adhesion have led to the reformulation of some UV-curable products. And European concerns about mercury, including the mercury in fluorescent and UV-cure bulbs, contribute to the drive for the development of LED UV-cure inks. Kiryati says her company follows these regulations “meticulously,” but also notes that, “European regulation and particularly REACH posed difficulties on inkjet ink manufacturers by banning some of the widely used solvents used in most ink formulations.” Other ink manufacturers, such as Inx Digital, are also reformulating in response to the European REACH regulations.

Labeling Changes Coming in June
In addition to the challenges posed by the EU, the US and other nations have adopted the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia have already implemented this labeling standard. For example, OSHA now requires that hazardous solvents and ingredients, including inkjet inks containing them, be labeled using internationally accepted pictograms, a signal word, hazard and precautionary statements, the product identifier, and supplier identification by June 1.

This also trickles down to print shops: All Safety Data Sheets on file at printing operations must agree with the new labels. For the most part, ink manufacturers have supplied their customers with the necessary documents and guidance. Marci Kinter and her team at the Specialty Graphic and Imaging Association (SGIA) have also informed printers about the new requirements in articles and presentations. While wide-format inkjet printers and their inks are not a significant cause of death and injury, we can expect regulatory restrictions of ink and chemical hazards and a continuing move toward worker safety and, thus, growth in volatile organic compound (VOC) alternatives, like LED UV, latex, and other robust aqueous ink systems.

UV LED on the Rise
If Europe bans mercury bulbs, we are likely to see a rapid transition to UV LED, and growing revenue for the technology supports this. Significant cost reductions of UV LEDs, their longevity, and improvement in efficiencies and effective curing power also favor this shift. In addition, ink manufacturers have tuned their UV inkjet formulations to match the curing capabilities of the improved LEDs.

How does this work? Unlike mercury bulb UV that produces multiple points of peak irradiance across the UV spectrum, each LED produces only one point of peak irradiance, which must be matched to a wavelength where the photo-initiator polymerizes ink. As the production and placement of UV LED systems continues to grow, economies of scale will likely further reduce equipment costs and improve their competitive advantage.

LED curing uses less energy than other inkjet technologies. For example, most wide-format aqueous-based ink systems require coated media or a primer coating to control dot gain and ensure adhesion. They also often require heating to warm and prepare substrates and evaporate water and dry primer coats and ink. LED curing inkjet systems operate at relatively low temperatures of about 27 C (81 F). Latex printers, on the other hand, cure their ink at temperatures from 60 C (140 F) to 90 C (194 F). LED technology, however, is not without hazard. Print providers should avoid personal contact with all types of liquid-form UV-cure ink. Nor can users dispose of inks in landfills without first polymerizing them.


Opportunities in Latex
HP’s third-generation Latex inkjet systems provide wide-format print providers with a VOC-free and worker-safe product that provides performance and color quality associated with eco-solvent inkjet systems. The company’s Optimizer inline primer enables Latex to print a wide range of substrates while enhancing adhesion and durability. Reportedly, HP has placed more than 20,000 of its Latex printers, and print providers are continuing to adopt HP systems with the company’s advanced thermal inkjet (TIJ) printheads and substrates Latex ink system. Sam*Ink offers third-party latex inks for TIJ printers. Other OEMs are offering latex inkjet systems using piezo inkjet (PIJ) heads. For example, Mimaki offers its JV400LX and Ricoh its Pro L4000. Bordeaux Digital PrintInk, and Sepiax have developed latex inkjet inks for PIJ wide-format printers. Nazdar offers its Hydrocolor aqueous ink alternative to latex and eco-solvent for printing with PIJ printers. It contains no VOCs or chemical irritant hazards and offers the advantage of two-year outdoor durability.

Inkjet ink manufacturers are appealing to print providers with new capabilities that increase the types of substrates they can print with features that expand their business opportunities and their customers’ satisfaction. In addition, these formulators have added flexibility and stretch-ability, metallic and fluorescent pigments, improved adhesion, outdoor durability, and expanded gamut characteristics to their inkjet inks, while reducing or eliminating hazardous components.

Regulators, inkjet ink producers, and users in developed countries are moving toward eliminating VOCs and other hazards from the workplace and environment. Keeping print staff healthy, working, and productive while reducing environmental pollution, expense, and liability has become the smarter way forward.



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