Making the Switch

So you’re thinking about saving some money and installing an ink replacement system? You’re not alone. End users report savings of up to 30 percent when using non-OEM ink systems

Perhaps you’re looking at a bulk ink system for your cartridge water-based printer, or toying with the idea of using a less-expensive UV-curable ink set for your big flatbed. Well, before you make the switch, it would be a good idea to consider some of the issues involved — there are a number of pros and cons to take into account.

Some of the biggest concerns that end-users have, aside from actual performance of the ink, is the question of the printer warranties and service contracts. If the OEM ink set is replaced with something else, will the printer maker void the warranty or service contract?

The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on the specific printer and upon the specific verbiage within the warranty and/or service contract. And if the warranty is void, then what?

This concern is offset by reputable ink companies that offer warranties of their own, providing coverage in cases where the inks are proven to be the direct cause of a printer breakdown resulting in the cancellation of the equipment warranty or denial of service by the manufacturer.

These types of warranties generally cover any part of the printer where the ink may come in contact. If the ink causes a problem with dampers, for example, the ink company might offer to replace them or reimburse your out-of-pocket expense. Bottom line: find out whether the ink company is backing their product with some kind of written warranty.

Printheads, for example, are the single most expensive component to replace. If you go outside the printer’s warranty and are not covered by an ink company’s warranty, make sure you’ve done your homework regarding the compatibility of the inks you’re considering as replacements. Find out if the inks have been approved for use by the printhead manufacturer.

Safety is another big issue. It is highly recommended that you obtain an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for any new ink you purchase so you can determine any hazards associated with specific ink ingredients and can take appropriate precautions regarding handling, storage and ventilation. The ink supplier is required by law to provide one to you upon request.

Again, caution is the byword. It always pays to do your homework, read the fine print, and speak with end users who are using that product. The cost savings are very tempting, but be sure to take all other factors into consideration before taking the plunge.

One of the biggest issues surrounding replacement systems for aqueous inkjet printing is patent rights. Early inkjet developers created efficient, closed-loop cartridge-based systems that were closely patented. Knock-off cartridges have often been slapped with patent infringement litigation, though many of those battles are already fought and won.

To make replacement ink systems “legal”, some manufacturers have opted to remanufacture empty OEM ink cartridges, re-filling them with new inks and selling them at a reduced cost.

Pros - Cost savings. Aqueous-based replacement ink systems (both cartridge and bulk ink systems) are readily available from numerous sources. Quality of replacement inks can sometimes surpass OEM inks. Bulk ink systems are much less expensive to operate than cartridge systems. Dye-based inks are relatively easy to match.

Cons - It’s still rather easy to run afoul of OEM patents when using knock-off cartridges. Some printer manufacturers will void warranty and maintenance agreements if non-OEM cartridges are used. Pigment-based inks are difficult to match accurately. Replacing inks may require a system purge before new inks can be installed or color-shifts can occur. New inks may require a new set of ICC profiles.

Most, but not all, end users interviewed for this story say they’d rather have a less-expensive dead-on color and performance match of an OEM ink set than an ink set with a wider color gamut that performs somewhat differently and requires a new set of ICC profiles. For the most part, the thinking is that they want OEM quality, only cheaper.

Such is the case with Ed Greene, branch manager for the Ashville, N.C. location of Imaging Technologies, a graphics provider doing a lot of large-format water-based printing for service bureaus and design agencies. He has replaced his OEM pigment inks in his year-old HP 5500 Designjet printer with LexJet’s re-manufactured cartridge system.

“My main concern was what happens if the new inks mess up the machine,” says Greene. “Would this void our service contract? HP won’t honor anything that goes wrong if you’re using other parts or inks.” However, since the cartridges are actually HP’s, the printer warranty should still remain in effect. Even so, Greene says if problems can be traced to the new inks, LexJet says they will pay for repairs.

Greene says the transition went over without a hitch. “I was nervous at first,” he says. “Our clients demand very exacting colors. I thought we’d have to re-do all our ICC profiles, but we didn’t. In fact, we can’t tell any difference at all in color from the OEM inks.”

Greene also does a bit of giclée fine-art printing for artist clients using an Epson 9600 aqueous printer. Because of the quantity of ink consumed by the work, he decided to replace the OEM cartridges with a pigment-based archival bulk ink system from American Imaging Inks.

This conversion required more time and effort, including a system flush and some new parts that allowed the bottled inks to flow. In addition, this system required an entirely new set of ICC profiles, but he received ample help creating the new profiles from the ink maker, who also taught him how to read color profiles.

Greene says he’s had no trouble with this system — no ink clogging, no ink settling and no printhead issues.

Pros - Cost savings. Both cartridge and bulk-feed systems are readily available for eco-solvent systems. Cartridge systems for eco-solvent printers are not as tightly patented as with water-based systems, so patent infringement is not as big an issue. Re-manufactured cartridges may not be required to maintain legal standing.

Cons - Although cartridges are not closely patented, many printer makers have hard-wired security chips into the printer that must be matched in order to allow the inks to flow — and the codes governing these chips are changed frequently.

Unless new inks are an exact match, intermingling of new inks with OEM inks could result in color shifts. Caution needs to be exercised, particularly with bulk ink systems with eco-solvent printers, as the wrong setup could potentially damage printheads. Switching eco-solvent inks may require technical assistance and printer down time. New ICC profiles may be required.

Making the switch was relatively painless, according to Andy Soleimani, owner of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sticker City, a shop that mostly uses its six-color eco-solvent printer for vehicle graphics jobs using cast and calendered vinyl films from Avery.

Soleimani turned to an ink replacement system from JetBest when he began having issues with the manufacturer’s white ink option on his printer. After struggling with it for several months, he decided that the white ink option was more hassle than it was worth. He chose a CMYK, Lc, Lm eco-solvent color set to replace the CMYK 2 x white set that came with the machine. Now, when jobs require printing white onto a clear substrate, he subs the work out.

The biggest hassle? “Getting the files perfect was the biggest headache,” he says. “JetBest helped a lot by giving me profiles, but the files needed quite a bit of tweaking to get them exactly right.” The installation itself went well, he says. A technician helped him flush the printer and install the refillable cartridge system. Now the files are all set up and he says he’s satisfied with the change.

“I’m very happy I made the switch,” he says. “We can charge a little less for our jobs, and subsequently we get a little more business.”

The market for inexpensive replacement systems for true solvent machines is wide open. In fact, some say it’s positively saturated. Solvent-based digital ink is a highly price-driven segment, considered by some to be nearing commodity status. Prices for OEM true solvent inks for grand-format machines have come down over the years, and end users may, in some cases, be hard pressed to find a clear price advantage by switching inks. Further, market watchers say that solvent inks coming out of China, once they meet the higher quality standards demanded in the U.S. market, will push prices down even further.

Pros - Some cost savings. Chemistry for true solvents is relatively easy to duplicate and inks are readily available. Patent infringement is not much of an issue. A number of grand-format/true solvent printers are built with an “open architecture” that readily allows for alternative ink systems.

Cons - Buyer beware: a number of poor-quality solvent inks flood the market right now, and quality and consistency can vary greatly. Replacing a damaged grand-format printhead is exceedingly expensive. Replacing inks will require technical assistance and a system purge before new inks can be installed. Prolonged down time during transition must be considered. New inks may require a new set of ICC profiles.

However, not all true solvent machines are on a grand-format platform. Cheryl Beale, owner of Picture This Promotions, in Hollywood, Fla., has taken the unusual step of replacing the inks in two six-color eco-solvent printers with true solvent inks.

Beale says she does a lot of work for ad agencies and home-builders who are very fussy about color, especially when it comes to their logos.

“I found it was impossible to consistently hit the oranges I needed with the OEM eco-solvent inks,” she says. Her six-color machines were loaded with a CMYK, Lc, Lm ink set which she replaced with a refillable solvent-based cartridge system consisting of CMYK, orange and green inks from MegaInk.

“The new ink set gives me a much wider color gamut,” Beale says. The transition required replacing dampers and other elements in the ink line, and she had to set up her Onyx PosterShop RIP to deal with the new color set. Of course, a full new set of ICC profiles was required — which the ink company created for her.

Beale’s biggest concern in this process? “I was more concerned with performance of the inks than with warranty issues,” she says. But after running this ink system for about two years with no printhead issues and no ink settling or clogging problems, she says the warranty is no longer an issue, and she’s more than happy with the colors.

Beale says she was already equipped with an appropriate ventilation system in her shop because she had already installed one for her Mimaki JV3 solvent-based printers. For her, the increased color gamut was the overriding gain in making the switch to non-OEM inks.

UV-cure inkjet systems are much more sophisticated than other inks, since the inks need to respond to the specific UV-cure lamps on the printheads. UV-curable ink is a complex chemical soup consisting mainly of monomers, oligomers and photo initiators, which, when exposed to an intense source of UV light, cures into a solid polymer-based film. This is not your mother’s ink set.

Pros - Cost savings. There is a potential for wider color gamut and improved adhesion performance. Some third-party UV-cure ink makers have partnered with printhead manufacturers and become licensed and approved for use with specific printheads, thus taking a lot of the worry out of the process.

Cons - UV-cure ink chemistry is very exacting, which makes it quite difficult to create an ink that matches a specific printer. UV-curable ink replacements are not yet widely available. A technician is required for installation and system purge. Down time during transition should be considered. A new set of ICC profiles will likely be required.

Jason Burns of Vernon Display Graphics in Carlstadt, N. J. owns a NUR Tempo UV-curing flatbed printer. He made the transition to Triangle’s UV-curable inks about a month and a half ago. This is a high-volume shop that does a lot of P.O.P. work with its flatbed, but also serves a number of other markets with a range of printing equipment that includes screen presses and several digital printers.

“My biggest concern was that the new UV-curable inks wouldn’t work, or that they might damage our printheads,” says Burns. “I also had to be sure there was a good, consistent supply available and I wanted to be sure we could maintain or improve our color gamut as well.”

Burns says he did his homework and spoke with several other shops using this system before committing. Triangle brought in two technicians and a sales person to help with the transition, which only took a day and a half (though they were prepared for three days). They stayed for the entire process, including setting up profiles and testing. Transitions to non-OEM inks for the solvent-based grand format machines in his shop — done three years ago — required a full week of downtime.

Overall, Burns says he’s been very pleased with his new UV-curable inks. “We realized a tremendous cost savings and actually ended up with a much larger color gamut,” he says. “It really is a shocking difference. We’re able to use our same color profiles and get better color. And we actually saw some improvement in printhead performance.”

Triangle says it will cover any damage that can be shown was caused by its inks, but Burns says he doesn’t have to worry about voiding his service contract. “We never bought the service contract with NUR. We have our own technical help here. That’s the only way to go. We have four big machines running all the time and it doesn’t pay to wait for tech help.”

“Actually,” adds Burns, “the amount of money we saved by using third-party inks and not paying for a service contract more than paid for us to hire our own part-time service technician.”