AT Inks that claims to be the largest solvent inkjet ink manufacturer in the world and the largest inkjet ink manufacturer in India, is a registered trademark and brand name of the products of Rex-Tone Industries Ltd. The company is a specialist in producing various grades of solvent inks, eco-solvent inks, ceramic inks, dye-sublimation inks, UV/LED curable inks, water-based inks and coatings (pre and post).
AT Inks is a Xaar Ink partner, Sacmi, EFI Cretaprint-approved, and is Fujifilm Dimatix (Spectra)-certified. Rex-Tone is an ISO 9001:2015-certified company, having a vast and varied experience of over 50 years in colour technology. Headquartered in Mumbai, the company’s production and R&D facilities are located in Vadodara, Gujarat. AT Inks is a specialist in manufacturing of inkjet inks for the past 17 years.
We at Sign & POP World met Neerav Goswamy, the company’s Director, to know various phases of evolution in the inks for large format and how the company is coping up with the rapidly changing market requirements. Excerpts of the conversation are here to follow:
For inks, how has the scenario changed over the years?
Inkjet inks evolve around the technological changes that happen in printheads. Today, piezo inkjet printheads are available such that provide greyscale capabilities as well as small drop sizes, which in itself is a remarkable technological change over the past 5-6 years.
Along with this change in printheads, printer manufacturers have adapted to and improved printing speeds, ink delivery system reliability and dot accuracy leading to practically very little differentiation between indoor and outdoor quality of printing.
As an ink manufacturer, we need to continuously evolve with these changes. Accordingly, we bring out inks, almost parallel to the launch of a new printhead in the market. We are bringing out newer inks for newer printheads and printers almost every quarter. Nowadays, most of the printheads are developed with compatibility quotient and can work with UV, solvent, eco-solvent and water-based inks – all in one.
Solvent inks are now well established in the market, while eco-solvent is struggling with both latex Inks and UV inks which together are squeezing its installation base. UV inks are actually evolving to more universal choice of substrates with one ink printing on almost all substrates with good to decent adhesion. At the same time, dye sublimation and direct disperse inks are exploding in the textile industrial printing arena, while reactive inks are now a common component in a cotton textile printing unit.
In today’s world, printing quality is no different for indoor or outdoor. Earlier, indoor application needed more specialised printing as higher print quality and resolution were required because of the placement of these signages at the eye level. All these concerns have now been addressed with the technological innovations.
What changes does the technological evolution bring?
Over time, there has been continuous evolution in technology, under the effect of which outdoor also has become as high in resolution as indoor. One printhead now can manage almost all kinds of chemistries.
Inks are becoming more and more common for various printheads. AT Inks has two inks, Quattro Grade which can run on 4 major printheads Xaar, Spectra, Konica and Seiko Printheads with drop size larger than 35 pl and it has Hexxa Grade, which is a common ink for 6 different printhead types i.e. Xaar, Spectra, Konica, Seiko, Toshiba and Ricoh with drop size larger than 6 pls.
Please comment on the uptake of eco-solvent inks in the market.
As we all know, eco-solvent is more expensive and slower than regular solvent. This emerges as the biggest bottleneck in the growth of eco-solvent technology. For instance, if someone is already running with one solvent machine of 5 pico litres, he would not really want to buy another machine of 2 pico litres. This shows that lot of people have stopped buying eco-solvent. However, it is also a fact that this technology is not dying, but doing well. Eco-solvent is not limited only to flex printing, but there are also quite a few textile manufacturers who are using this technology in their industry with Epson printhead for dye sublimation printing.
Overall, how this scenario has impacted the market for eco-solvent?
The role of eco-solvent as a concept is slowly but steadily changing. This is because nowadays the inks which are prevalent in the market offer almost all the features of eco-solvent. This has also changed the scenario for outdoors. Earlier, there used to be stronger solvents with much higher odour because faster drying and outdoor resistance were the need of that hour. Now, all that has been addressed as the new formulations come with minimal odour such as our PoColor Grade of inks. This is better termed as mild solvent, which has even improved the printing speed when compared with eco-solvent. All these developments are a barrier to the growth of eco-solvent.
What impact does it bring in the outdoor applications?
Over time, the customers’ needs have changed especially when it comes to outdoor printing. Earlier, outdoors were long lasting for up to few years because of which not only highly concentrated inks were needed, but also high-quality laminated media were developed so that it can withstand the external forces and stay longer than usual. Contrary to this, today’s customers want outdoors for a rather shorter period, may be, a few weeks or months. This is except for shop fronts/names, which are there for longer duration. All the hoardings or outdoor signages have now moved towards use and throw.
How has this shortening life for outdoors impacted inks business?
This shortening life of outdoors has led to a drastic change in perception of the people. They are not eager to spend more on this front. The matter of fact is that the inks that were present 15 years ago have become redundant over time and that kind of concentration is not needed now. Even people will not agree to pay for that quality. That cost has now become unaffordable as people now want cheaper solution. Accordingly, costs have come down as the formulations/combinations have changed, which has automatically brought down the lifecycle of the inks.
What lifecycle does AT Inks offer?
Lifecycle of Inks is a very subjective question and depends on various factors such as temperature of exposure, latitude, longitude, direction of the print installed, angle of print installed, wind velocity, type of substrate used, lamination or no lamination, duration of exposure, density of printing, printer drop size, number of passes and finally the inks used.
Thus there are no easy answers to this question. Having clarified the above, AT Inks’ portfolio is very large. We have multiple formulations in our bouquet, 80% of which comes with a life time of less than one year, while rest 20% are of above one year. This is about outdoor print life. Shelf life of our inks is one year from date of manufacturing.
How do you see the introduction of UV inks?
UV is coming in fast despite certain limitations. For instance, the product or the media that are to be used should be UV-resistant because of it being exposed to UV light for curing purpose. However, UV is becoming a faster substitute, where longer life is required. Therefore, many printing applications which people want to keep for years are eventually shifting to UV. At the same time, backlit signage is rapidly picking up the pace wherein UV provides opacity adding vibrancy to the print, while solvent or eco-solvent offers transparency due to which the density of the print varies during day and night making it less appealing to the consumer.
How has this been impacting the cost of printing?
This question has to be linked to not just the ink cost, but the fact that UV Inks print directly on the substrate that is to be installed. So, there is an inherent benefit of no pasting costs in case it is to be printed on SAV and pasted onto a substrate for mounting purposes. This cost of pasting itself makes the UV printing economical when the substrate to be mounted is printable. This is because UV gives the option of printing over numerable surfaces that were earlier not available even for pasting and using.
However, it is true that as an ink to ink price comparison, depending on the OEM, manufacturer as well as type of Ink that is being used, UV is 6 to 15 times more expensive in when compared with solvent inks and 1.5 to 3 times more expensive to eco-solvent Inks, while print-wise the cost escalates by 4 to 5 times compared to solvent inks and similar in costs to eco-solvent OEM inks. But UV enhances life of the print. So, whosoever needs longer printing life, finds it affordable, while for rest it remains expensive as the cost of solvent is as low as 50-60p per square feet as compared to Rs. 2.5 to 4 per square feet of UV inks. Therefore, those customers who look for long lasting print, opt for UV ink as to them, cost doesn’t really a matter of concern.
Is this changing mindset help in defining the trend?
This is a very big change in the philosophy.It’s a change in the trend of systems. For outdoor/hoardings, which are front-lit for night visibility, the quality doesn’t matter to that extent.But when it comes to backlit, which is placed at the eye level, better quality printing with high quality illumination is required. Now, this high-quality illumination would become possible because of the invasion of LEDs into the world of signage. There is no doubt that rapidly increasing use of LEDs has further pushed the requirement of high-quality printing for backlit signage.
How is AT Inks coping with this changing scenario?
We are continuously evolving. We are the only manufacturers in India for UV inkjet inks. We have full range of UV products for the signage industry. We offer our ultra elite range of inks for roll to roll, flatbed and hybrid machines with common inks for UV/LED curing systems. Our Credence range of ink is for flexible roll to roll and stretchable substrates.
We have a capacity which we believe is large but if whole industry turns into UV tomorrow, we can’t feed the demand. Nevertheless, we keep increasing the capacity as the industry grows. We already have plans to escalate newer areas for which newer production capacities are being created so that as and when the market reaches to that point, we can be in a position to cater to that increased need.
How does AT Inks ensure the quality of its inks?
Our highly qualified and experienced team has been involved in multiple aspects of the colour business. Owing to our long standing, we have acquired in-depth knowledge and experience in both impact and non-impact printing on various substrates like Paper, Textile, Flex, PVC, Vinyl, Backlit, Frontlit, Clear Vinyl, Reflective Media, Wet on Wet printing on ceramic glaze tiles and so on. This knowledge and experience is reflected in the quality of our products.
Besides this, we have a state-of-the-art standalone R&D centre wherein we employ a team of more than 25 highly qualified people, including 8 PhD’s who work only on development of Inkjet inks for various businesses that we cater to or want to cater to in the future.
We have a rigorous testing facility in our factories, wherein each batch of ink is physically printed to verify if the ink quality is adhering to the set standards. We have 15 in-house LFP printers for this specific purpose.
We have also back integrated into manufacturing some of the pigments for our inks. This we have done in order to have the best control on the quality of the raw material we use.
Apart from that we follow best practises and world-class systems to ensure each product that we manufacture goes through detailed, multi-levels of testing before it is sent out to our customers.
How do you see growth prospects for UV inks?
Literally speaking, the current state of UV is same as what the solvent market was in 2004. But if UV would reach to that point at which solvent has reached today, only time will tell. However, it seems that UV is growing and going the same direction.
What major changes are required if someone wants to use UV inks?
One of the biggest change while moving from solvent printing to UV printing is to understand the limitations of what you can print on and what you cannot.
In solvent, you print mainly on PVC substrates, whereas in UV you can literally print on any surface. However, the adhesion of the print on the surface depends on the type of Ink to be used. Thus, education on the adhesion results of the printer and the ink the printer is going to use is very important.
Another aspect is to understand the resolution need of the application. One should not go for the lowest resolution printhead and printer as the print quality will be better, but need to understand if the application for which these are bought really requires the lower resolution or not.
UV inks are more hazardous as inks and thus proper care should be taken while handling these inks. Also, various other factors including the printing machine’s speed, quality of print, curing time, over curing, adhesion, gloss, etc. should be looked at. And lastly, for the use of UV inks, printing machines have to be changed as none of the solvent machines can be upgraded to UV.
What changes in the existing setup are required when it comes to producing UV Inks?
UV ink requires a whole new setup in terms of handling raw materials, equipment used, and even the disciplines, because the process of manufacturing UV is quite sensitive. UV is actually a reactive system. It reacts with light. So, we have to be careful during the entire process. Storage of raw materials at the correct temperature, which are mostly import-based, is challenging as its shelf life is very short. So, the major concern for us is the planning/scheduling of production which, of course, is demand-driven.
What is the current capacity of AT Inks?
Total production is 5 million litres, and we believe that it will grow with a million litreeach year as time goes by owing to our huge capacity. We have our facility at Vadodara in Gujarat. In the same city, we are also manufacturing our own pigments, which we started in 2015 as a step towards backward integration. We even make our own bottles to help ourselves control the costing of final output so that customers can be at ease.
What is AT Inks’ growth mantra?
We often travel abroad for week-long conferences to speak to our customers, partners and distributors. This helps us gather feedback to improve our products and keeps us abreast of the best practices. Today, we work with the world’s top OEMs. As we believe that we can’t do everything ourselves, which is why we grow when our partners grow.
Where can we see AT Inks in a couple of years from now?
Two years from now, we would be having our 20% of total production shifted to UV, which today is only 3 or 4%. We believe that UV will grow substantially.