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Spotlight On Ink3

This latest ‘Spotlight on...’ feature focuses on the state of the ink market.

UV growth continuing, aqueous installations shrinking and alternative ink revenues still rising

Whilst the worldwide recession has undoubtedly taken its toll on hardware installations – and in particular the aqueous printing market – things are still looking bright for higher-end, UV-curable ink based installations.

In figures* recently released by Lyra Research, the digital imaging authority, there was an installed base of 520,000 aqueous wide-format printers in 2008 and this figure is estimated to shrink to less than 470,000 installations by 2013.  This is indicative of aqueous ink hardware ‘retirements’ outstripping new installations for the first time since the wide-format print market was established.

Higher end printer installations are faring better – especially those using UV-curable inks.  Lyra estimates that 4,000 UV-curable printers will be shipped worldwide in 2013.  This demonstrates a compound annual growth in this sector of 10% between 2008 and 2013.

Interestingly, eco-solvent installations are also slowing, caused in part no doubt by the recession, difficulty in securing finance, and of course impacted by emerging technologies such as latex inks from HP. It appears that many prospective wide format printer purchasers are currently sitting tight, watching and waiting for the next 'standard' to emerge from the current hype and hullabaloo.

Whilst eco-solvent installations slowed, but still grew, it is perhaps more noteworthy that OEM eco-solvent ink revenues have declined by some 3% year-on-year.  The proliferation of less-expensive third-party alternative inks is deemed to be the primary reason for this revenue fall.

In the consumer desktop printing market, the majority of users stick with OEM inks.  However, in the more savvy wide format market – where business owners look to their printers to generate a significant proportion of their profits – there has been a sizeable shift towards less-expensive alternative inks. Most printer owners now realise that many printer manufacturers don't actually manufacture ink themselves – indeed Toyo (eco-solvent) and Sun Chemical (UV) are nowadays widely known to be the suppliers of 'OEM' inks to a number of the big brand printer manufacturers.

In what has been a tough market, where the recession has led to eroded margins and a tighter bottom line, wide format printer owners are generally more likely to adopt 'credible' alternative inks in order to realise significant savings and increased profits.

In the Lyra survey, which polled more than 500 wide format print users, approximately 12 percent of respondents had purchased third-party wide-format ink in the previous year, and another 17 percent considered purchasing aftermarket ink.  Print service providers and sign shops were the most likely to change.

"I don't buy petrol for my car from Ford, I buy it from any one of a number of petroleum companies who I can trust to deliver a reliable product - with due care taken, why should I treat ink for my printer any differently?" was perhaps the most noteworthy response to one question about switching from OEM to alternative.

In other more colour-critical markets – most specifically photographic printing – there is still a greater resistance to alternative inks with 64% of respondents remaining concerned about the quality and consistency of alternative inks.

Across all markets, 11% of respondents expressed concern that use of third-party inks would void a hardware warranty.  This is testament to the fact that the ‘use our ink or suffer the consequences’ message pushed by some printer manufacturers still creates enough doubt in the mind of the user to keep them on the side of the premium-priced OEM inks.

Of course every printer manufacturer has a right to promote its inks as the optimal solution - not least because of the significant spend they have made on testing and perfecting said inks for optimal performance – but to suggest that no other ink manufacturer is capable of doing similar testing or is incapable of producing similar results is increasingly starting to grate on end-users.

Resellers and end-users have expressed concerns that they felt they were being "exploited" by some of the OEMs.  Strong words indeed.  Yet, perhaps indicative that a fundamental change in attitude may be required by one or two of the printer manufacturers?

In summary, at the higher end UV-curable market continues its onward march. In the roll-to-roll mainstream wide format 'print for pay' market, aqueous is on the wane and eco-solvent currently rules the roost.  However, there is still some resistance to buying capital print equipment at present as users wait for the next de facto standard to become clearer.  Ironically, it is a next generation aqueous-based latex ink from HP that is causing much of this capitulation.

Ink-wise, it is increasingly apparent that end-user demand is for lower and some might say more realistic ink pricing, and it perhaps time for the manufacturers to accept that their wide format users cannot be retained simply by following the consumer desktop printer business model.  Should they persist in doing so, it seems clear that the alternative ink market will continue to grow at the OEMs’ expense.

* All statistics within this article were taken from Lyra Research’s ‘Worldwide Forecast for the Wide-Format solvent market, 2006-2013.’