Ink Replacement Systems

Evaluating ink options and replacement systems

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The red button below is a chart of ink replacement resources, suitable for printing.

There’s a simple equation when speaking about printing: Printers without ink do not function. A kindergartner could probably tell you that. But in the sign market it gets a little more complex. Questions arise based on each printing assignment. Which inks should be used and when? How much ink does a sign shop need based on production? What types of ink can the printer accept? These are questions that should be evaluated carefully. Especially if they are considering implementing an ink replacement system.

Ink Volume Considerations

Some shops produce a limited volume of printed signs-perhaps most work is in dimensional or electric signage and printing is only a complement to such work. These shops probably do not need such a robust ink solution for their operations. They do not change out ink very often, and production is rarely held up because of an ink malfunction.

Other shops depend solely on their digital printers to generate revenue. These shops go through high volumes of ink, typically running more than one printer at a time, and they demand the very best quality. Production is high, and there is no room for downtime during any part of the day.

What’s the difference between these two examples? Both shops still need ink but in the first example, these shops can probably get away with a smaller printer and a cartridge ink system. The latter would likely employ a bulk ink replacement system with more sophisticated ink delivery.

Size and production output of a shop are two of a couple of elements to evaluate with ink selection; type of ink, cost, quality assurance, and amount of maintenance are other considerations.

Ink Types

Of course not all print shops are the same. Some specialize in banner production, others in textile printing or printing onto rigid boards. There are a myriad of applications, and thus, many different inks.

“We manufacture inkjet inks for DOD applications such as OEM wide and grand format graphics, industrial applications, aftermarket inks, and toll manufacturing,” says Adam Tourville, vice president of sales, Ink Mill Corp., speaking to the variety of ink options they offer to various shops. “We make UV curable, UV-LED curable, eco solvent, bio solvent, full solvent, and water-based inks.”

This certainly runs the gamut in the print world, as ink manufacturers are making more options available for shops. And as printer manufacturers consistently update and improve their technology, ink providers must follow suit. For example, as green initiatives move forward, inks have trended in that direction too.

“The demand for alternative ecologically-friendly products has greatly increased due to the stronger awareness of environmental issues and introduction of high productivity eco-solvent printers to the market,” says Nufar Kiryati, marketing communications manager for Bordeaux Digital PrintInk.

“Bordeaux answered the market needs by developing a unique ecologically friendly ink,” says Kiryati, explaining the ink line’s fit with industry products. “Bordeaux’s FUZE Eco is fully compatible with Roland’s ECO-SOL MAX, Mutoh’s ECO ULTRA and Mimaki ES-3 ECO Solvent inks.”

Designing inks that work with an array of different printers can give shops viable options on the ink market. This is done by creating partnerships between the ink and printer manufacturers.

“Ink Mill has partnerships with multiple printer manufacturers,” Tourville says. “In these cases, the printer manufacturer takes the responsibility to test the inks to ensure compatibility and suitability of the inks in their printers. These inks, while manufactured by Ink Mill, would be branded and sold to the market under the label and name of the OEM printer manufacturer.”

Potential Issues

However, there sometimes is a challenge with pairing certain inks with printers. David Conrad, director of sales and marketing at Mutoh, warns of some obstacles with using inks that are not intended for specific printers.

“OEM ink is the only choice for the [Mutoh] ValueJet printers,” he says. “Using third party inks in your printer will void the warranty and can cause all sorts of service-related issues as it pertains to anything that is associated with the ink delivery system on the printer. It’s your business and your livelihood-you want to make sure you are running manufacturer’s ink in the printer at all times to avoid problems.”

As Conrad points to top performance and sidestepping service issues, sign shops should be cognizant of all types of obstacles when dealing with ink systems. As to the warranty issue, some third-party ink manufacturers offer their own ink system warranty.

Rising Costs

Any individual who has ever owned or operated a printer-whether for personal or professional use-knows that ink costs have a tendency to add up. For their part, ink manufacturers have developed new and creative ways to make things more convenient for the user, including subscription-based ordering and volume bundles.

In the sign industry, bulk ink replacement systems give print shops an option to keep prices down on readily-used ink products.

“Sign shops look at bulk systems to lower their cost per square foot of printed output,” Tourville says.  “However, if a wide format printer is designed to run ink cartridges, there are many pitfalls and problems with bulk systems.”

Sign shops should evaluate their regular print production levels versus ink costs to determine what the best option is for them. If they are burning through ink cartridges at a rapid pace, then it may be time to consider a bulk ink system or even a full printer upgrade. But, as Tourville explains, if print shops are performing well with ink cartridges, then there may be no need to move toward a bulk ink system.  

Again, Conrad reiterates that shops “need to consider production levels and usage. The higher the production, the more likely you will benefit from not only the convenience of having bulk ink or one liter bags versus cartridges, but also the savings per milliliter which can be substantial over time.”

Ensuring Quality

“Zero down time installation, chemical and color compatibility, and enhanced color vividness gives print shops – especially small and mid-sized ones-a real opportunity for business growth,” Kiryati suggests while identifying areas where shops can excel when using the appropriate ink set.

Many times the level of quality in a product is a direct result of the investment put into the work. This isn’t just limited to a dollar amount but investments in time, labor and general planning. To achieve the greatest quality, shop owners need to look at the full spectrum of their operations, including the type of work they produce, which inks are used most, and if their current printer or printers are compatible with specific inks.  

“In solvents and UV inks we see a trend of moving to printer-specific solutions,” explains Kiryati. “When an ink is formulated specifically to a machine and comes with the full package solution (packaging, chip, bulk system, etc.) the printing results are significantly better and there are close to zero technical difficulties. In addition, the simple installation of alternative inks is even more important to print shops, since every delay in this holds off on work and causes losses. Bordeaux’s printer-specific and Mix & Match ink solutions makes even the potentially hardest installations something that does not require a technician.”

Employing new technologies, such as the Mix & Match ink solutions mentioned by Kiryati, can greatly assist in improving not only quality but efficiency at a shop.

“Our Mix & Match technology allows a plug and print solution for a seamless conversion,” Kiryati says. “Our inks allow no need to flush or create new ICC profiling.”

Other enhancements may even open up new avenues for printing projects. According to Kiryati, Bordeaux’s new EDEN PG water-based pigment inks “mark a new era in digital textile printing, simplifying the printing process and allowing every print shop to print for textile applications. In addition, these inks mark a significant reduction in digital textile printing costs that allow textile manufacturers to print with one ink on any type of fabric, with equally great results.”

As more substrates are being used in print production, some inks have become more readily used – such as UV inks – which opens up more opportunities in print applications, and more potential revenue for print shops.

“Bordeaux offers high-quality UV ink and solutions that match the printer specifications, savings on ink costs, and support for the installation process to ensure customer satisfaction,” Kiryati says. “Our UV inks are PLASMA AR for Canon/Oce Arizona series, PLASMA AC for Fuji Acuity series and PLAMSA VU for EFI Vutek QS 2000/3220 series.”

Maintenance Requirements

Of course, as print shops change inks and make transitions to improve quality, there are some set-up and continual maintenance issues to consider.

“Switching from an ink has an inherent risk,” notes Tourville. “We at Ink Mill try to minimize that risk by making sure our inks are chemically compatible with the OEM’s. If switching from an alternative ink supplier, they always want to flush the printer. Always switch out ink early in the week because the longer the inks have to mix the more likely you are to have an issue.”

Flushing is a key function of the printer operator that involves using a cleaning fluid to rid the printer of the remnants of one ink when switching to another. Shops should also become familiar with cleaning the ink system to achieve optimal performance.

“They need to clean the bulk system to make sure that ink doesn’t build up in the system,” explains Tourville. “Also make sure that the system is in good operating conditioning. Because the printers are originally designed to feed by gravity from a cartridge, ink level, air leaks, etc. can cause printhead starvation during printing at high speeds.”

All in all, when evaluating ink solutions, print shops should carefully consider how their operations are currently functioning and if they need to move toward a more appropriately scaled ink system to fit with their work demands. Analyzing how much ink is being used/needed regularly, which inks perform best with each printer, and how to avoid ink-related obstacles on a daily basis will go miles toward increasing quality and efficiency in the shop.  

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Ryan Fugler

Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine and has been covering the signage industry since 2006.

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