Ink, Glorious Ink

You have two choices: buy cheap ink and yield cheap signs, or buy quality ink and yield quality signs. Find out why ink makes such a dramatic difference in large-format printing.

Did you know that the quality of your ink is critical to the quality, durability and visual appeal of your signage?

Webster’s dictionary defines ink as a “black protective secretion of a cephalopod.” Webster was at a disadvantage because when he penned his dictionary the world of multi-colored, multi-faceted inks was futuristic.

Sign makers know that ink is part and parcel of large format printing success. Well, at least the most successful ones understand this. There are plenty of hard working sign makers who believe ink myths that prevent them from understanding why ink is such a critical component of the final image.

While the printer you select and the media you use are two important legs on the stool, the stool will not stand without the third leg: quality ink.

Merely providing color to a plain medium is only half the charge of today’s inks. The ink must also be durable to withstand sun and harsh weather elements. Major ink manufacturers appreciate the demands of the industry and spend millions of dollars to develop inks that meet those demands.

Make no mistake, the inks you use are vital to attractive, long-lasting signage. Customers are demanding photorealistic imagery ­ without the right ink that just won’t happen. Use cheap ink and your sign company could get a reputation for making cheap signs. Use quality ink and reap the rewards of work that lasts ­ and customers who keep coming back again and again.

Ink Mythology
One of the biggest misconceptions about ink is that all ink is pretty much the same. Others mistakenly believe ink is relatively cheap and easy to make; just mix dyes into a solution and call it ink. Such is hardly the case.

Developing ink is a science that demands trade offs. Ink that is both durable and colorful demands the trade off of higher prices because it is more difficult to develop. In short, cheap ink produces cheap results. Expensive ink produces visually pleasing, long-lasting results.

“There is a huge difference between ink you buy for $20 a liter and ink you buy for $200 a liter,” says Pat Ryan, general manager of Seiko-I Infotech Americas Business Unit.

“The difference between those two products is the attributes. Do you want a high-performance ink with strong attributes or cheap ink? Many in the industry feel that the expensive inks are a rip-off, but you get what you pay for. They believe the cheap inks are just as good, but they are not.”

Misunderstanding the pros and cons between aqueous, solvent, mild solvent and UV curable inks also leads to misconceptions about ink usage. Some also fail to appreciate that ink, print heads, printer and software all work as a system ­ using improper ink may not give the best results. The ink industry wants to set the record straight.

Ink: A Critical Component
Ink plays a key role in controlling image quality. This is perhaps less important in conventional printing than in digital printing, although color management is highly dependent on the ink in both cases, according to Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics.

“Color, crispness/sharpness, ‘pop’ and other aspects of image quality can vary significantly from ink to ink,” she explains. “The characteristics of the ink also affect whether it will adhere properly to the substrate, whether it will crack or flake, how long it will last, given a breadth of environmental challenges, such as solvents, dirt, water, UV/sunlight, and so forth.”

If you expect your technologically advanced printer and your top of the line media to carry photorealistic large format graphics, you need to optimize color management. That requires ink consistency to produce continuous tones and seamless gradients without those distracting little dots.

Inks are critical to color gamut smoothness of tonality. We’ll discuss more about extended ink systems as part of the photorealistic revolution in another article later in the series. For now, suffice it to say that the printer technology and media is available. Where sign makers fail to produce photorealistic imagery often lies with cheap ink.

Ink: The Key to Durability
Durability refers to a resistance to fading, cracking and peeling. Pigments and ink chemistry affect durability. The durability of an image results from a number of factors, including the material on which the image is printed, the ink which is printed, and any overcoat or overlaminate that is used.

In order to get a durable image, it is important to use components that have been carefully matched to complement each other. Because the colorants in the ink form the image, and the binders in the ink hold the colorant in place, the ability of those components to withstand the challenges of the environment in which the image is displayed is critical.

“A poor choice of colorant can lead to significant fading or color shift, and a poor choice of binder can lead to cracking or crazing of the image, chalking, fade, and color shift,” Bragg says. “Appropriate use of protective layers such as clears and overlaminates can extend the life of a graphic, but can’t make a non-durable ink equivalent to a durable one.”

Indeed, ink is a large factor in the final output. Without ink, you are left with white media. Ryan looks for several attributes in ink: image quality, color, smoothness, glossiness, durability, tactile feel, how it will react to various chemicals, cleaning agents, water, air, and light. “Ink is the most critical piece of the puzzle,” he insists. “It’s the main thing.”

Sign makers often spend hours of due diligence selecting the right large format printer ­ and they should. It is a major investment. The point these ink experts are trying to make, however, is that you can put cheap ink in a high-end printer and get mediocre results, much the same as you can put cheap gas in a Jaguar and sputter down the highway.

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