Green Printing and Product Life Cycle

Check out the latest trends in new products for and adoption of green sustainability in wide-format printing.

This article covers the trends in green wide-format printing, which are largely enabled by UV-curable inkjet printers. While I believe strongly in conservation, it would be a big stretch to call me a tree-hugger or sustainability freak. My take on sustainability is that there are a lot of very practical reasons for companies to undertake sustainability initiatives that are all based on the potential these initiatives have on growing the bottom line.

InfoTrends has done quite a bit of research on the topic of green printing and there seems to be some fairly basic findings that are important to describe. First among these is that there is no question, at least among the printing companies we have surveyed and interviewed, that there is growth in the demand for green wide-format printing among wide-format-print buyers. To be honest, I don’t know if this is an altruistic let’s save the planet kind of trend or if this is driven by the buyer’s desire to save on shipping and disposal costs. I am certain that another aspect of this trend towards green printing is brand-driven, with some of the big brand retailers and manufacturers driving the concept of sustainable printing.

Another core finding is that many wide-format-print-service providers are changing from solvent inkjet production to UV-curable inkjet production. Once again though, I think there is a real mixed bag when it comes to primary motivation for making this kind of transition. While there are definitely some companies that are deliberately going green by reducing or eliminating solvent inkjet printing for environmental reasons, many of the companies we have interviewed and surveyed reported that going green is more of a by-product of their investment decision than the primary motivator.

One of the companies we recently worked with knew for certain that they were going to buy a UV-curable inkjet printer to replace some of their existing solvent inkjet printers, but their motivation was most certainly because UV-curable inkjet printers are faster and offer capabilities such as white-ink printing. The green aspect was a nice-to-have, not a must-have, and I think we’re seeing this frequently. Companies tell us they are most interested in quality and speed when it comes to their new printer, followed closely by oper-ational cost and then environmental factors.

What is going on in the green wide-format-printing market is classic in the product lifecycle. Of course there were the early adopters who were among the first to go green. These companies have helped define, as much as possible, what that term even means when it comes to signage and graphics. The early adopters help manufacturers understand what the market needs. They serve as the beta sites, become the gurus, and frequently build a strong book of business based on their understanding of the applications and customer requirements.

For a few years now there has been a steady stream of new media products that are designed and manufactured with sustainability in mind to meet the needs of companies that have undertaken sustainability initiatives. This is absolutely vital to accelerating the growth of the market—creating the ability to replace many non eco-friendly signs and graphics with similar or comparable eco-friendly signs and graphics. However, the limitation has been that in many cases these eco-friendly substrates are more expensive or simply are incompatible with existing production processes. We have come up against the cost limitation from the outset as it relates to using new types of eco-friendly media, with signage and graphics producers reporting that they can’t or just don’t want to use these products because buyers will not accept a higher price.

LED lights up green curing
Although the development and production volume shift onto UV-curable flatbed inkjet printers represents an important upswing in the green printing market, InfoTrends believes that enhancements to UV-curable are required to reach new heights. Now, one of the big trends we’re seeing in the market that we expect will enable a greater level of green printing and greater adoption of UV-curable inkjet printing is LED curing. Curing inks using LEDs consumes much less power and throws less heat, which enables printing on a wide variety of media. This is the kind of very practical development that indicates an incremental technological improvement that will enable green production methods at operational cost advantage with the bonus of an upside in terms of the additional types of media that can be printed on. That is progress.

At the recent ISA show there were several new printer models launched that illustrate these technological advancement perfectly. At the low-end of the market (more on this in a minute) Roland introduced a 64-in.-wide LEJ-640. This sub $75K printer uses LED curing and promises enhanced speed and print quality even while providing a low operational cost. As I understand it, the LED curing lamp is more expensive to buy, but then operates for a lot longer and consumes much less power while doing so than conventional mercury arc lamps. These are not the first LED curing products in lower-end wide-format printers, but I think they are the lowest-cost LED-curing wide-format printers to come to market so far.

At the higher end of the market, EFI introduced a new model of its VUTEk 3250 called the 3250LX, which also uses LED curing lamps. This is the first production engine that I know of to use LED curing lamps, so it is a real test to see if LED-curing works as well in a production environment. If it does, then we will see a lot of other vendors incorporate LEDs as well.

Along the same lines, also at ISA, Océ introduced new models of its Arizona series UV-curable printers that use a new high-output/low-heat UV arc lamp that the company says uses less power and provides the same expanded media range advantages that the LED-curing companies are highlighting. Power consumption is a pretty big deal because of the rising cost of energy. I recently visited a production site where the company reported that it spends over $1,000 a month in energy costs just to run its high-end UV-curable printer.

Wide-format-print-service providers’ green involvement
In one of our recent survey projects, almost 85% of wide-format print service providers reported that they either have made some kind of changes to become more of a sustainable printing company or they plan to in the future. That could mean something as simple as using a different kind of media or different kind of printer, or something much more robust such as an enterprise-wide assessment and revision of operations with the goal of higher levels of sustainability.

As we look at the global wide-format market and even the national market here in the U.S., there are hot spots where green printing is much more prominent based on the demands of local buyers and the regulatory environment. InfoTrends believes that as these pressures increase, technologies such as improved curing methods and new ink sets will enable wide-format graphics producers to not only effectively produce these graphics, but also grow their business based on green printing principles.

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