Here is a winning formula for wide-format print shops: Produce vibrant, high-quality graphics quickly and easily on a variety of materials and in a more environmentally friendly manner. What’s the catch? There doesn’t appear to be one, which is why latex printing is increasingly becoming the choice for many commercial and industrial printing applications.
The technology was developed by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Palo Alto, Calif., and first introduced in 2008. “HP wanted to find an alternative to solvent ink that has the same durability,” says John Stevens, business development manager for the HP 3000 Series Printers. “HP Latex Ink acts like a solvent, but without the associated odors.”
Latex ink starts with a base as natural as it gets—water. It is 66 percent water and contains pigment and a “latex” or synthetic resin co-polymer particle. During the printing process, ink jets deliver droplets of the ink to the surface of the media. Heat evaporates the water and melts the resin co-polymer, fixing the pigment to the material. Forced hot air dries the ink.
Less time, more color
Because the print dries inside the printer, the process is odorless and no off-gassing time is required, which means no special ventilation is needed.
This is a big plus for printers like Kauff’s Signs and Lettering, a West Palm Beach, Fla., shop that prints signs, banners and vehicle wraps. While the company used to use eco-solvent printers and ink, it switched to two HP 360 Latex Printers and found that the footprint required is relatively small. “I’m printing in my office in a space that is 15-by-15 feet,” says Justin Mesteller, vice president. “Before, I needed a larger, ventilated space.”
But perhaps more significant is the time saved. “With eco-solvents you have to let the print off-gas 24 to 48 hours before you laminate,” says Mesteller. “There is no curing time with latex. We can take the job right off the printer and laminate it and turn jobs around much more quickly and without delays.”
Mesteller prefers latex for the quality of the print as well. He says it holds the color when a wrap is being stretched across a vehicle and allows the color to stretch farther. The color stays in the material, and he doesn’t see the white marks he sometimes would get with solvents.
Plus, he says, the colors are more vibrant, more consistent—particularly grays, which can turn reddish or greenish with solvent inks. In addition, there are no banding issues that sometimes occur with other printing modes.
The HP 360 addresses banding that can occur if the printer is moving too slow or fast with a unique solution. Its Optical Media Advance Sensor consists of a small camera that takes up to 30 photographs per second and sends the information back to the printer, adjusting its media speed as it goes. “The camera manages the speed,” says Stevens. “You can just come in each morning and print.”
Kauff’s did need to make some adjustments to the shop to accommodate the latex printers. The heating element pre- and post-heats the material for drying and it gets quite hot, heating up the office quickly. Kauff’s installed a return vent to keep things cool. Also, the printers require a dual 220 outlet, as opposed to the usual 110.
ColorDirect, a Golden Valley, Minn., printer of large-format presentation graphics, also favors latex ink. “We prefer latex for things like banners that need to be flexible,” says Dave Simpson, president. “We also use latex for hand-held presentations. Readability is better because resolution is higher with latex.”
Environmental considerations were also a factor, and while Simpson also uses UV flatbed printers, he doesn’t use solvents. He estimates that latex represents 20 percent of ColorDirect’s print business currently, and he expects it to grow.
Media enhances message
Most media suitable for solvent or UV printing also work with latex, such as the 3M™ Controltac™ Graphic Film with Comply™v3 Adhesive IJ180 Cv3-10 film that Kauff’s uses for its vehicle wraps.
3M also manufactures laminates and offers its 3M™ MCS™ Warranty for shops that use approved components and “sandwich” the graphics using 3M film, laminate and pre-mask in their printing process. Latex print jobs can be finished with a laminate to extend their lifespan. For outdoor applications, latex has a lifespan up to three years unlaminated and five years laminated.
“We continuously work with equipment and ink manufacturers, and we have relationships with multiple manufacturers to develop full solutions for end users,” says Chad Klostermann, marketing manager for 3M’s Commercial Solutions Division.
Recently, 3M introduced a film, 3M™ Envision™ Print Wrap Film LX480Cv3, that is particularly suited to latex ink. It is a high-stretch material with a strong tensile strength that makes it easy to apply. It’s also PVC-free, making it a more environmentally friendly option.
Latex can also be used for printing on textiles, wallpaper, vinyl, canvas, coated and uncoated papers and backlit signage.
Something old is new again
While HP’s latex printers have become more sophisticated over the past seven years, the technology still incorporates some of the same concepts as the ubiquitous inkjet printer that at one time was attached to many home computers. The nozzle set that delivers the ink is the same design as that on a home printer. The advantage is ease of use. Latex printer cartridges snap in and out just like inkjet cartridges. Says Mesteller, “Everything is self-contained and easily swapped out—and operation is all touch screen.”
The advantages latex ink offers for a healthier workplace are a strong selling point. It is non-flammable, non-combustible and nickel-free. It generates low VOCs and does not contain Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs). HP Latex Inks are UL ECOLOGO® Certified and GREENGUARD Gold Certified for low chemical emissions into indoor air.
Other printer manufacturers have joined the latex movement as well. Mimaki USA Inc., Suwanee, Ga., entered the market in 2012 with the Mimaki JV400LX printer and JV400 LX latex inks. “The Mimaki JV400LX can be used in a variety of wide-format applications including posters and signage, interior décor, wall coverings, soft signage and packaging prototyping,” says Ken VanHorn, director, marketing and business development. The company was the first to introduce white latex ink and also offers orange and green along with traditional CMYK.
Ricoh Americas Corp., Malvern, Pa., also offers latex capabilities. In 2012 the company introduced the RICOH® Pro L4130/L4160 wide-format printer, which features seven-color printing including white, orange and green inks. “This is a market we see growing for RICOH as companies continue to migrate to latex ink usage,” says Bill Milde, wide-format product manager.
Julie Swiler is a freelance writer, editor and publicist based in St. Paul, Minn.