Roland Flexfire

Ink Maintenance: Driving Your Print System

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

Emily Dickinson once said, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.” At most shops doing large-format digital printing, there is a calculated process for taking care of one’s equipment and supplies. It sounds like a minor detail, but it couldn’t be more important.

Much like owning a car, you want the best performance possible from your printer—you clean it, keep it fine-tuned, and fix it when necessary. You even feed it; as an automobile takes fuel, a printer runs on ink. But printer functionality is a little more complicated than simply pulling into a service station and squeezing out $30 worth of gasoline. A print system needs routine care, and when it receives the proper attention, it can be a sign shop’s biggest asset and money maker.

“The overall ‘health’ of the printer is the foundation for achieving accurate color and high-quality prints,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, Textiles & Consumables at Roland DGA.

First Things First

Again, if you’re pulling your car up to the gas station, you typically already know what type of fuel to start pumping: diesel, regular unleaded or premium. Similarly, printers are compatible with specific types of inks, and shop owners need to know which ones to choose based on the project and scenario.   

“First off, I want to clarify that the different types of inks (eco-solvent, UV-curable, dye-sublimation, latex, toner) are not at all interchangeable,” Hunter says. “Once you select an ink set for use with a particular printer, you need to stay with it.”

Leon Davis, president of Standard Printworks, a print provider in Spokane, Washington, says his shop employs a range of printers. He has an EFI H1625, Roland XC-540 Sol Jet III, Canon 9400, Canon 8000, KIP 860, KIP 9000, Oce TDS 800 and Canon iPF 765.

“We keep our printers and monitors color calibrated as much as possible" as a means to maintain quality, he says. Specific to inks, “some of our customers like the output of aqueous printers more than our eco-solvent or UV-cure units so we’ll make notes to only run their projects on the machine that meets their expectations.”

Dais adheres to the select-and-stay-with-it method that Hunter describes and he says, “To keep colors consistent, we usually run the same job on one machine.”

“Users should also be aware that each of these ink types behaves differently,” Hunter says. “For example, with eco-solvent inks, the inks ‘bite’ into the media, the colors pop and you see the vibrant, detailed graphic results immediately. With UV inks, you can also see the vivid results right away, but the ink sits on top of the media and the UV light cures it. Unlike eco-solvent inks, you can actually feel the texture of the UV ink once it’s printed on the substrate.”

For these reasons, Davis likes to “test print the printers to make sure we have a good pattern, and with UV LED we keep the lights clean and heads freshly wiped before starting a new project.” And with respect to the differences in inks, “UV seems to require more attention to keep high-quality prints versus our eco-solvent. The aqueous printers—such as our 12-color Canons—print amazing colors and resolution, but the print speeds are much slower.”

Basic Guidelines

So, maintenance should not necessarily be viewed as a universally identical activity across all machines and inks. But there are some basic guidelines to observe. According to Jim Schall, founder of Budget Inks, there had once been a practice in place to conduct daily maintenance in the mornings; now it’s more commonly completed on a weekly basis.

“Eco-solvent and UV-cure printers are broken down into two sections: printhead maintenance and cap and wiper maintenance,” Schall says. “So now most digital printers typically require standard maintenance once a week.”

Schall says these regular inspections to the capping station, wipers and printheads are important to “remove any ink residue around the printhead, paying close attention to ink residue on the back side of the printhead in the direction the wipers wipe.”

EFI—which developed its line of LED-UV printers so users can print using less power, producing less heat and with a wider-range of substrates—has been very involved with printer maintenance education. According to Sean Roberts, manager of EFI's Global Customer Experience Centers, “The fact of the matter is that these UV printers are designed to run a very heavy volume cycle and the more you run them the more reliable they are. So with some very simple start up and shut down procedures and cleaning the printer just like you would have an oil change on your car; making sure you maintain those simple things will give you years and years of reliability.”

Schall says capping seals [to the printhead] are easy to clean but when they are not cleaned or inspected “it can cause poor printing results/banding. So to give the capping station a visual inspection is important and easy. Some shops do the regular maintenance and some don't do it at all.”

The next question is, why would a shop choose not to take these simple maintenance steps?

Avoiding Error

It really comes down to the history of the machine and the level of training/education of the printer operator. There are times when operators simply do not know what they’re supposed to do to properly maintain a print system.

“These shops were never trained (because) they bought the machine second hand or the operators are new to the print shop and there wasn't any cross-training,” Schall says. “And these machines will normally have some printing issues (i.e., partial to whole head dropping from missing nozzles), causing light to heavy print banding and it might just be from a dirty capping station seal.”

In other cases, print operators will perform unintentional actions that detract from a print system’s ability—whether that includes using inappropriate inks, or a result of insufficient testing. Let’s look at both of these pieces:

Use Appropriate Inks—There’s a debate between which inks are acceptable and should be recommended for each printer type. Hunter says, “Problems often occur when shops try to save money by using third-party inks. While the user thinks he or she is being economical, using these types of inks can result in damage to the printer’s ink system, resulting in expensive print head repairs.”

She also cites down-time with the equipment and decreased durability of the prints as more setbacks with choosing the wrong inks.

Schall suggests that “the largest problems sign shops encounter is the cost; most shops are paying too much for OEM products.” However, there is also a difference among third party inks and, as some shops have been burned by using inks that do not match OEM specs and underperform, “good third party inks like ours have been engineered to perform to match the specific printer’s printhead. And now many of our inks outperform OEM inks, by having better adhesion, better scratch resistance and higher gloss levels.”

Ultimately a shop is looking to achieve high quality production, so most importantly it should consult with the printer manufacturer for advice, research its options for each printer, weigh costs versus quality and expectations, and check warranties for printer-ink compatibility.

Testing­It’s a sinking feeling when a customer receives a finished job and says, “This isn’t what we ordered.” That’s why testing is vital to keep the quality of a print system at the highest standard.

“What we always suggest—to compare proper color—is to print a test pattern; and the one most shops use is the Onyx test pattern,” Schall says. “It’s a set of CMYK and RGB builds from 0 to 100 percent and also has a variety of color photo test patterns and B/W prints.”

Schall suggests that the pattern can be “used to quickly determine if the profiles are working with your printed media. Each media normally requires a different profile and sometimes prints are bad just due to the operator choosing the wrong profile.”

The test pattern, as Schall explains, is a fast method of matching the inks and profile to the media. “Once you have chosen the best profile for your media,” he says, “it's best to keep a reference print for future comparison.”

Finally, with UV ink, the print could be very light. Hunter shares that “UV printers should be situated and operated in areas that are away from sources of UV light, such as open windows” to gain the optimal color-matched results.

More Colors

Along the lines of ink and printer care comes the responsibility of accurate color management. New colors added to print systems over the years have made color management more complex.

“The set of standard colors (CMYK plus LC and LM) has been universal for years,” Schall says. “Some manufacturers add green and orange, and when you step out of the signage market into the photo market you find a variety of blacks and grays.”

Roland’s eco-solvent line offers light colors such as cyan, light magenta and light black which Hunter says “expand color gamut and help ensure high quality imaging for a variety of applications, including P.O.P. displays, backlit, photographic/fine art reproduction, and more.”

It’s important for print shops to know when and how to use these inks during a project to receive the best quality. White ink can be a real benefit to shops that go outside of traditional printing methods on different surfaces.

“White can be used to increase opacity underneath other ink colors, and is especially effective when used on clear substrates such as acrylics,” says Hunter. “When using white ink, you can adjust (increase or reduce) the opacity as desired to give a print different dimensions.”

Clear ink is something that’s also gained traction recently as a way for shops to offer something different to clients.

“We did launch orange and violet support for that high-end line, but what’s been very popular since bringing it to the marketplace is a clear ink on a few of our platforms that is pouring across our portfolio as we speak,” Roberts.

The clear ink, as Roberts explains, has been useful for cosmetic, spot varnish applications, but EFI customers can also use the ink to create a reflective finish on metallic substrates, for example.

Maintenance is a word that covers a lot of ground. Think about bringing your car into the auto shop to be serviced. The list of potential problems that might arise is daunting. The same is true with a printer if the right amount of care and attention is not shown. The actions of cleaning, monitoring, repairing, and managing your print system will produce the most preferred outcomes. And by taking care of these little things, bigger results will come.