Everything Old is New Again
Don’t throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again
— Songwriters: Carole Bayer Sager
and Peter Woolnough Allen
There’s certainly some truth in the thought that if you keep a good piece of clothing long enough it will come back into style eventually. According to Vogue U.K., in 2022, there were more and more celebrities incorporating vintage into their day-to-day wardrobe. And it’s a trend that’s set to continue in 2023, as buying second-hand becomes second nature to more and more people.
It’s certainly true, then, that everything old is new again. The same could be said for aqueous inks.
Aqueous inks were one of the first ink technologies to come to market when wide- and large-format printing appeared on the scene. In the 1990s, digital fine art photography became an appealing application, and the Iris Graphics Model 3047 inkjet printer was the only available machine for this work. But this was only good for short-term graphics.
Photographers and artists joined the quest to solve the problem of lack of permanence in these aqueous inkjet prints. Some formed an influential group, the International Association of Fine Art Digital Printmakers, and in 1999, Nash Editions — founded by Graham Nash and his manager Mac Holbert — worked with Epson and became a beta test site for the Epson Stylus Pro 9500.
By 2002, the quality and appearance issues associated with aqueous inks began to see improvements, led by industry leaders, beginning with Epson and eventually including others like Hewlett-Packard and Canon USA.
In the last few years, wide-format print development has skyrocketed, and much of the focus has been centered on sustainability and high quality. This led to the creation of UV LED inks, as well as breakthroughs in aqueous inks, specifically durable aqueous latex and resin ink sets.
So, why is it that aqueous printers, which were wide-format’s first inkjet technology, are still around and, seemingly, doing better than ever? We asked that question — and others — to a panel of aqueous inkjet experts from some of the wide-format industry’s founding manufacturers: Canon USA, Epson America, HP, and Ricoh.
What is it that makes aqueous printers/technology still so popular today?
Marc Aguilera, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America: There are many advantages to aqueous-based printing. One of the biggest is the incredible color gamut users can expect, allowing them to produce outstanding professional quality photographic print, graphic art, fine art, proofing, indoor graphics, and décor art. These expanded aqueous ink sets make it easy for users to match client colors and hit specific branding colors, as well as produce some of the world’s finest photographic quality color and black and white prints.
Additionally, when coupled with the correct hardware and media, aqueous ink sets can produce output with permanence ratings up to 200 years for color, and 400 years for black and white. This is ideal for photographers, artists, and archivists looking to create prints that will last generations.
Aqueous print technologies also have an advantage due to the small droplet size. Smaller ink droplets typically produce the finest quality prints. Most fine quality desktop aqueous pigment inkjet printers produce droplet sizes between 1.5 and 3.0 picoliters, and most large format 24"-64" presses feature droplet sizes between 3.5 and 4.0 picoliters.
Rich Reamer, senior director, marketing, Canon U.S.A. Inc.: Aqueous inkjet technology is continually growing, and is expected to continue that upward trajectory. These devices, relative to other large-format printing technologies, typically have a lower capital acquisition cost, making it an attractive solution for price-conscious customers. The technology is also available in smaller widths relative to other large-format technologies, appealing to customers who work with restricted space requirements.
Many beginner-level users also tend to shift towards this technology since the learning curve is typically not as steep as other technologies. There has been an increasing trend in which many users who once outsourced prints are shifting toward purchasing aqueous technology, as it can help them recoup a return-on-investment.
Contributing to the growth in the aqueous technology sector is the vertical graphics markets, in which users are purchasing these devices for the first time instead of outsourcing due to ease-of-use and lower acquisition costs. In certain markets, such as the fine art and photography segments, the overall quality, color gamut, and image permanence of aqueous inks relative to other ink technologies reigns supreme and is enticing to advanced-level users as well.
Glenn Shull, senior technology portfolio manager, Ricoh USA Inc.: The primary reason aqueous resin inks are used today is the ability to laminate immediately after printing. They are highly flexible while maintaining color, making them very popular for applications such as vehicle wraps.
Tom Wittenberg, large-format industry relations and events manager, North America, HP: Aqueous printing technology is ideal for today’s market demands, particularly given the efficiency and durability of modern printers. The water-based aqueous ink is better for the environment, an increasingly more prevalent consideration for organizations deciding what is important for their printing, and more broadly, business needs. Aqueous printers continue to evolve and offer solutions to a range of industries.
How have some of the newer technologies — specifically durable aqueous, latex, and UV LED — impacted this market segment?
Aguilera: Aqueous pigment ink is more durable than it was in the beginning. Users who have this technology are doing more than ever before by producing posters and prints that resist scuffs and are water resistant. While it’s not at the level of latex or eco-solvent, nor does it attempt to compete, users have pushed the technology and have added spray coating and even lamination for even greater durability. Latex has affected the market and has competed where the quality needs to be “good enough” for the application and where outdoor applications are necessary. Where aqueous continues to win is when true photographic quality is a must.
Reamer: These technologies have come to market at more aggressive price points in recent history, working to chip away at the aqueous printer base. But aqueous continues to grow in the vertical light graphics segment based on low acquisition costs. Increased output speeds in the technical sector have assisted in making a more popular choice for these devices to replace toner technology. Canon has one of the world’s most extensive large-format portfolios, offering a variety of ink sets including aqueous, toner, and UV, among others.
Shull: Newer technologies such as UV LED have had the greatest impact in the wide-format market in that it is nearly 100% solids and cured in print. No solvent or water evaporation is needed, resulting in less energy usage than the drying systems of aqueous resin and conventional UV that require mercury vapor curing lamps.
Wittenberg: Latex printing technology offers print service providers (PSPs) a compelling new printing alternative for a wide variety of outdoor and indoor applications. Latex inks also take on the characteristics of the substrate surface unlike UV LED. The result is a smooth surface with latex vs. a peak/valley feel to a UV print. Another point is that both solvent and UV technologies require an off-gassing period after printing before going to lamination or finishing. Otherwise, the prints will stick together if one does the finishing too early. With latex, the prints come out dry and you can move directly to finishing — a process which improves productivity and throughput and reduces the need for extra space when waiting for product to dry.
In terms of evolutionary developments, how has aqueous inkjet (including durable aqueous and latex) changed in the last five years?
Aguilera: Printer hardware has become more productive and includes features that help to enhance production by maximizing throughput. Innovations in the industrial design and engineering of large-format printer hardware have produced products that really benefit the print service provider.
For example, the latest generation Epson SureColor P-Series aqueous printers are more robust and have included features like auto switching dual roll systems, built-in take up rolls, and all front operation. Other SureColor P-Series printers have an expanded color gamut using a 12 color ink set. Printheads are also getting better and better. The latest generation Epson PrecisionCore printhead is simple in its micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) of incorporating an all-in-one chip design. It is smart in how it scales.
Latest generation Epson PrecisionCore MicroTFP printheads have 10 or 12 chips, and are designed to automatically detect if nozzles are clogged. These printheads are also clean in how they are designed for efficient ink usage and low power consumption. Epson has also developed a 44" six-ink Dual Roll printer with a 1.6 Liter Ink Pack System. This is a cartridge-free platform using an ink pack which contains no cartridge plastic. Larger ink packs mean less ink changes even for high print volume users.
Reamer: There have been significant enhancements in automation in these sectors. This has been well-received as the labor force in these sectors is typically highly specialized. From a maintenance standpoint, automation enhancements have contributed to reducing the time and cost traditionally required to maximize uptime. Additionally, significant usability enhancement with new automated functionality has been incorporated, evidenced by several of Canon’s imagePROGRAF large-format printer devices, which offer the ability to simply insert the roll media into the device and walk away. Once the user loads the paper, the device will auto-rotate, feed the roll, and automatically determine the media type, length, and width, with no user intervention and no barcodes necessary. It shifts through the extensive media types and sizes that can be used in these devices, saving considerable time and effort.
Shull: Changes in the last five years for aqueous inkjet include white ink and expanded gamut colors. White ink allows printers a greater choice of media and the ability to do more special effects. However, UV LED still has a better workflow for these applications, as it has been in the market for a longer timeframe. Print providers can benefit from expanded gamut as it allows for greater control in color management and satisfies buyers’ needs to accurately hit brand colors.
Wittenberg: The versatility of aqueous inks is something that has developed over the last few years, giving PSPs more opportunities to fulfill the potential of this printing technology. Transit signage, wall murals, billboards, and vehicle wraps have all developed considerably over the last five years. This outdoor and indoor application versatility that has been developed gives PSPs more possibilities to meet customer needs. Outdoor prints produced with HP Latex Inks now achieve display permanence up to three years unlaminated and are scratch, smudge, and water resistant on a range of media. Water-based HP Latex Inks also provide many of the benefits of solvent-ink technology without imposing the typical environmental, health, and safety considerations — something that wasn’t possible in previous years. This is also the case with odorless prints that now emit extremely low levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
How are print providers benefiting from these technological breakthroughs?
Aguilera: Because printers are becoming more productive and smaller, PSPs can do more with less. They produce more output due to more productive print speeds without sacrificing quality. Dual Roll systems allow for less touch points, with the printer allowing for seamless switching from one media type to the other. And printers with extended color gamut can hit colors never before attempted.
Reamer: These improvements in automation are saving considerable time, effort, and resources, freeing up the time of print operators to focus on other tasks and leading to significant improvements in productivity and cost savings.
Wittenberg: Print providers benefit from new technological breakthroughs, such as durable aqueous and latex, because they open new possibilities. These technologies allow print providers to increase their print capacity and grow their businesses without having a negative impact on the environment. Technologies such as UV have some negative environmental issues and need to be classified as hazardous for storage— unlike latex. Generally, technological breakthroughs are becoming more sustainable while at the same time enhancing quality. These newer technologies are also developed to meet a broader range of customer needs, for example, with outdoor and indoor applications, so they are more versatile. Ultimately, print providers have more efficient technology that is better for the planet and creates more vivid, durable quality.
Recently, sustainability has become a larger concern for many. How has sustainability and/or green impacted this market segment?
Aguilera: Aqueous technologies are a good choice for users who are concerned with environmental impact. Aqueous inkjet technology is odor free and contains no solvents. It is also considered non-toxic. Users want a sustainable option for large-format. While aqueous ink sets are a good choice, media is also something to consider. More and more media types are becoming sustainable.
Reamer: These devices continue to be more eco-conscious than previous iterations since manufacturers are dedicating more resources to reducing carbon footprints. Canon has invested considerable resources toward improving sustainability and adhering to the kyosei philosophy, in which the company has followed steps to help ensure harmoniously living and working together into the future.
Shull: As sustainability has become a larger concern for many, it’s important to consider factors that impact it in the wide-format market segment. Aqueous resin inks have synthetic resins in them, and the phrase “water base” gives an environmentally friendly impression. However, the environmental impact in inks is in VOCs. Aqueous inks rate well in VOCs as do UV LED and many eco-solvent inks — and the most prevalent certification available today is GreenGuard.
Sustainability needs to be looked at from Birth to Grave to Birth mentality. No single component changes the sustainability of a print shop. As an example, a major producer of aqueous can use a disposable printhead which is replaced more frequently than a piezoelectric printhead like Ricoh’s. But the sustainability picture is more holistic than that. The most impactful consideration in sustainability is media.
Most major media producers today offer products utilizing recycled materials or lower content of phthalates, but the energy required to produce the print, disposal, and waste materials must also be considered. The most widely used certification in wide-format for sustainability is the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) — and printers can seek this out to highlight how they are a graphic communications supplier that meets the highest standards for sustainability.
Wittenberg: Sustainability is no longer just a concern for the wide-format print industry, it is a necessity. The printing industry — an industry reliant on paper, inks, and the constant development of new technology — needs to do more to ensure an efficient ecosystem and circular economy that will provide long-term solutions to climate change. Brands like HP are doing more to ensure that sustainability initiatives can be implemented to our technology and processes that will have a positive impact on the printing industry. By enabling improved economics, greater production versatility, and more sustainable packaging solutions, HP supports converters facing increasing pressures around their own sustainability credentials and supply chain management.
What do you see coming next for wide-format aqueous (including durable aqueous and latex) printers?
Aguilera: Next-generation aqueous printers and ink sets will continue to push the limits of color gamut, durability, and image permanence. Hardware will also become increasingly more productive, compact, and scalable. Printers will be easier to set up and start printing, and be easier to maintain.
Reamer: Continued improvements in productivity, overall quality, and an increasing variety of substrates that these devices will be capable of printing will be the future outlook. Thus, more applications can arise for these technologies.
Shull: Aqueous UV LED is a potential next step for wide-format aqueous printers — however, the industry can mostly expect to see the continued evolution of white ink technology and ways to reduce the energy to dry the inks.
Wittenberg: The trend in printers is in the direction of greater speed with quality, more sustainability, and positive health improvements, along with more automation and productivity improvements.
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.