Steamline ink

Considering Bulk Ink Systems

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at bschiffner@optonline.net.

Buying in bulk. The phrase brings to mind all the jokes of shopping at your local warehouse club and buying a three gallon jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, or remembering the time when the character Kramer got that big bulk deal on gigantic cans of “Beefarino” in the old "Marble Rye" episode of Seinfeld.

All joking aside, shop owners are always on the lookout for ways to save money on the production costs of their operations—and bulk ink systems can be an economical option.

One solution is to replace your printer’s cartridge-based ink system with a bulk-feed system. In this article we look at the pluses and minuses of bulk ink systems and other ink replacement systems, the advantages/drawbacks of going with bulk versus sticking with OEM ink cartridges, including printer warranty concerns, warranties offered by ink manufacturers, as well as how much print volume is needed to justify the move.

Can Your Printers Run Bulk Inks?

The first thing to find out when considering a bulk system is whether your printer is actually designed to run with a bulk ink system. For example, many grand-format machines use tremendous amounts of ink and many were designed with bulk inks in mind. Others offer a built-in ink reservoir ready to receive the inks.

Printer manufacturers such as Mutoh and Mimaki also offer their printer customers the option to install their branded bulk-feed ink systems on their wide-format units.

The next thing to think about is whether to use the OEM bulk inks or to use an alternative third-party ink set. Some industry professionals feel that decision is at least a little easier to make now than it used to be.

“Customers continue to search for ways to bring down their production costs,” says David Chen, president of Jetbest USA. “A few years back they were more worried about warranty issues from various printer manufacturers and about the quality of third party inks when the topic of bulk ink systems came up. Today the warranty issues are less contentious and the customers are more focused on costs, reliability and the consistency of the inks themselves.”

Four Types of Systems

Lynn Worley, sales development manager at Des Moines, Iowa -based Sun Chemical, points out that there are four types of bulk ink and other ink replacement systems on the market today.

  • Compatible cartridges
  • Sealed-bag type bulk systems
  • Refillable cartridges
  • Bottle-type bulk systems

Compatible cartridges and sealed bulk bag systems offer degassed inks, which leaves no chance of ink contamination or oxidation, Worley says. “Additionally, sealed bag inks perform well, even in high speed printers, and of course, they are less expensive than OEM cartridges. However, open bottle or refillable cartridges are less expensive than compatible cartridges and sealed bulk bag systems,” he adds.

Worley points out that refillable cartridges and bulk bottle systems work well with older, slower printers. “Once the system is purchased, the only additional cost is liter bottles of ink. The one drawback in using one of these systems, however, is that air bubbles can be created in the ink, which makes it messy and the need for more cleaning in higher speed machines. Another challenge comes with pouring ink in a bottle into the system or refillable cartridge.”

Worley notes a key trend that his is seeing is that original equipment manufacturers are increasingly embracing sealed-bag systems. “In fact, many printers come with optional bulk bag systems. Mimaki has their MBIS system. Mutoh offers one liter bag adapters for their newest ValueJet printers and Roland uses replaceable bags on their TexArt and TrueVIS systems.”

 More Advanced Systems

“As technology advances, we are seeing better, more advanced bulk ink systems hitting the market,” says Jason Meisner, account manager at STS Inks. "We have noticed that closed-bag systems are trending upward while the open-reservoir style systems are trending down."

He stresses that before buying a system, you need to to do your research and gain a good working knowledge of the system you are looking at, and understand the level of support the company selling the system is offering. The end goal is to find the system that will best maximize ROI and help boost your shop’s efficiency.

“The best systems will always be closed systems where the ink is in a refillable bag and the bag goes directly into a cartridge which is carried into the printer," Meisner says. "For example, Mutoh has a high-capacity one-liter bulk system where each line takes a cartridge, which clamps a one-liter bag. This is a preferable system as it is extremely user friendly and virtually maintenance free,” he adds.

Open Bulk Systems

Steve Igoe, sales manager, North America for Bordeaux Inc., says the simplest type of bulk ink systems are open bulk systems. “These are typically supplied by ink commonly available in one-liter bottles. It consists of a refillable cartridge that is filled directly through a small funnel. Additional levels of sophistication use an ink reservoir mounted right over the cartridge that feeds the cartridge (which is frequently fitted with a self-leveling device that maintains the ink level in the cartridge)."

When looking to replace inks for an OEM closed-bag system, he adds, "alternative ink suppliers have to be sure that they affix a fitting to the ink bag that is fully compatible to the OEM version. This can be typically with a one- or two-liter bag. Bordeaux uses ink bags that are fit into empty cartridges like containers that are available with re-settable chips or a permanent chip. Mimaki sells a bulk ink system in which an ink bag is popped in and replaced when empty. It uses a 600ml capacity ink bag.”

“Lastly,” Igoe explains, "some printers—like the Océ Arizona and Fuji Acuity flatbed models—typically use a two-liter bag that is affixed with an RFID recognition device."

Making the Switch from OEM Cartridges

Igoe says that they tell all their dealers that when they are speaking with their end users who are considering switching from an OEM cartridge (in a Roland or Mimaki printer, for example) that they should never go directly to a bulk ink system. “The first thing for them to do is to try our cartridges. When they decide they have run enough ink from our cartridges, the decision to go with bulk is mostly dependent on their volume. Printer manufacturers generally offer a one or two year warranty that strongly encourages the end users to stay with the OEM ink. As an alternative ink manufacturer, we can sell into both printers under warranty and out of warranty. Most of our dealers will approach out of warranty customers, because they are more open to switching and saving a significant amount of money to the bottom line.”

He notes that OEM’s are prohibited from enforcing an "OEM-ink-only" policy in the U.S.A. because of a Federal law passed by Congress in 1975 called the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act.

Bulk Ink Pros and Cons

Meisner says there are many advantages as well as drawbacks for shops going with bulk systems or sticking with ink cartridges. “Typically bulk systems are called upon for high volume shops to save money on ink consumption and also to keep printing after the printer has used more ink than is typically allowed, especially for overnight runs.

"There is a misconception that using inks other than OEM will void the warranty of the printer. This is inaccurate and can be backed up with the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Still, I cannot speak for other ink companies, but STS Inks will cover anything that the ink touches and absorb that portion of the warranty if the customer is still covered by the original manufacturer’s warranty.”

He says that the drawbacks with systems are typically more maintenance on the system itself and requires users to be a little more hands-on versus just using a cartridge. When customers switch to STS Inks, Meisner says, they already enjoy significant price savings, and if they qualify for a bulk system based on volume, they may enjoy an even more savings.

He says that volume needed always depends on the equipment the customer uses. “My general rule of thumb is if the customer is using approximately three sets of inks per machine, that may warrant bringing in a bulk system,” he says.

How Much Volume is Required?

Worley says that production shops that run at least four hours a day using a bulk system would use 12 cartridges a month and see a significant decrease in ink costs versus cartridge systems. “Additionally, bulk systems allow shops to print for longer continuous periods. That being said, bulk systems do require a little more maintenance.”

He says there are a few third-party service companies that can convince end users to purchase an extended warranty for most printers. Warranty from ink providers should include printhead warranty as well as an outdoor durability warranty.

Worley says that most of the choices for making a switch will depend on the printer being used. “For those with newer printers, it would be advisable to consider 1-liter or 2-liter sealed bags because of the increased print speeds. Printing for long periods of time will likely determine the need for larger ink options. Additionally, older printer models would be fine for cartridges that can be refilled. He stresses that shops shouldn’t buy because the inks are cheaper. “The main reason they should buy is because they are tired of changing cartridges. A good rule of thumb would be to move to a bulk system if you are running 4-6 hours a day or 12 cartridges in a month total,” he points out.

The Price is Right

Chen says there are no hard and fast volume requirements needed to justify switching over to their bulk system. “If you were to compare the price of our bulk system with empty cartridge and a 500 ml bottle of ink, to the price of a single 440 ml OEM cartridge, our customers can begin saving money right from the start. The only exception would be the extremely low volume users who turn on their printer only once a month, they would be better served with 220 mL cartridges.”

Igoe adds that the ultimately the decision to ‘go bulk’ depends on the size and cost of the printer, which will influence the type of bulk systems that are available for that particular printer. “Once the alternatives are determined and a replacement ink is qualified (usually by qualifying the ink used in a replacement cartridge), the next step is determining the relative costs of the cartridge-based inks versus the cost of the bulk ink system. If that comparison makes bulk look like a positive alternative, the next step is to determine if the bulk equipment can be maintained by a person who has only familiarity with plugging in and removing cartridges as compared to an operator working with a more technically sophisticated bulk system. The bulk system might require a more skilled printer operator,” he concludes.