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The Evolution and Opportunity of Alternative Inks

Have you been considering alternative inks lately? As the inkjet market matures and users become savvier, the trend of alternative inks is growing.

By Jennifer Chagnon, Director of Digital Imaging, Exopack Advanced Coatings

Simultaneously, the quality of alternative inks has improved to deliver comparable performance to OEM inks with savings of 35% to 40%.

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  • The promise of these substantial cost advantages has many sign industry professionals revisiting the use of alternative inks.

    Despite the interest; however, the adoption of alternative inks is still in its infancy. Such hesitancy is not new to the sign industry. In fact, when the wide format market began evolving 15 years ago, people were initially only using OEM media because they had a limited understanding of the products available. As the industry began to grow and become smarter and more comprehensive, people made the educated decision to move to alternative media. Similarly, the ink market is now at that point where it's evolving technologically.

    Misconceptions Associated with Alternative Inks
    Despite these advancements; however, many sign professionals remain hesitant to try alternative ink solutions because of some common misconceptions. The good news is that today's alternative ink options have come a long way in a few short years.

    Below is a list of some of the common misconceptions, as well as an explanation of how reputable alternative ink providers have overcome these challenges. There is an emerging class of alternative ink solutions on the market today that match the quality and performance of traditional OEM inks.

    • Moving from OEM inks to alternative inks requires production down time and system flushing: While this statement is true for offshore imports or poor quality ink options, high quality, reliable brand options are now emerging. These options allow you to do what is called a "plug and play" conversion, meaning (1) you can switch the cartridges out one at a time; (2) they can run simultaneously with the OEM branded ink; (3) no downtime or flushing of any kind is required.
    • There are few options available on the market for newer printers: : Producers of alternative ink solutions have become savvier and are up to date with the latest trends in the industry. An effort has been made by these suppliers to stay ahead of trends and come out with new ink options frequently to meet the latest printer technology advancements.
    • Alternative inks cause head clogging and other problems such as streaking: : While this remains true of some alternative ink, there is a growing list of experienced manufacturers that deliver thoroughly tested ink products designed to avoid such problems. These alternative ink suppliers continually conduct stringent testing to ensure comparable performance to OEM inks. Additionally as with OEM inks, the adherence to proper printer maintenance is critical in eliminating common issues such as head clogging and streaking.

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    Factors to Consider When Choosing Among Ink Options
    For those sign industry professionals intrigued by the promise of alternative inks, the next logical question becomes, "How can I choose a high quality alternative ink that works for me?" It is important for users to do their homework when selecting alternative ink and to choose inks that are backed, warrantied and thoroughly color tested by the supplier.

    Below is a list of factors to consider when shopping for alternative inks:

    • Cost Savings: Inks are one of the highest priced items in terms of productivity, so even the smallest percentage of savings can translate into big bucks. When considering ink options, ask the manufacturer about expected savings and request price comparison sheets. It is also useful to come armed with calculations of your current ink expenses so you can estimate how much you will actually save by making the jump to alternative ink. Other questions to take into account include whether any printer procedures will need to be changed or if the inks will work with existing printer profiles.
    • Performance and Image Quality: The promise of cost savings means nothing if you have an unhappy customer, so it is critical to choose an ink solution that delivers high quality and performance. Select an ink manufacturer that understands the complexities of the digital print market and has a history of delivering high quality products. Use dealers or colleagues as a resource to hear firsthand accounts of how the product works.
    • Testing and Qualification to OEM Standards: Just like OEM ink suppliers, reputable alternative ink suppliers should have testing and qualification results easily accessible. Look through the company's website for technical bulletins and comparative data that exhibits extensive testing, including results for color density, gamut and fade testing.
    • Warranty: Even if you have already decided to give alternative inks a chance, be sure to double-check your printer warranty. While some printer manufacturers will only honor their printers using OEM inks, a reputable alternative ink supplier should assume the warranty. Additionally, in instances where a printer has exceeded its warranty period, confirm that the alternative inks are backed by their own warranty. Not only do these actions protect you, but also they provide confidence that the alternative ink supplier will stand behind the integrity of their product.
    • ICC Profiles: No matter how promising an alternative ink solution looks, adjusting profiles can be a very timely process. Select alternative inks that work with your existing ICC profiles to avoid any unnecessary ICC profile changes.
    • Printer Availability: Today's alternative ink providers have become savvier and are up to date with the latest trends in the printing industry. Prior to signing on to purchase an alternative ink supply, visit the companies website to view the offerings that are currently available. Make sure that the supplier releases new ink options frequently and that they have ink solutions available for the latest printer technologies.
    • Usability with Other Inks: It's very rare that all your cartridges run dry at the same time, so it's important to consider whether the alternative inks will work in tandem with your current inks. By selecting inks that can be used with OEM options, you can avoid the need to toss existing ink cartridges. This provides flexibility and cost savings.

    Sign industry professionals are beginning to truly understand the ink options available to them and the best choices for their specific applications. As is the case when shopping for any ink, printer or media solution, performance and quality remains paramount. By following basic guidelines and selecting the proper alternative ink supplier, sign professionals can achieve comparable performance to OEM inks with substantial cost savings that translates into bottom line results.

    About the Author
    Jennifer Chagnon's digital imaging career spans over nine years in the industry. During her tenure at Exopack Advanced Coatings (formerly InteliCoat Technologies), Chagnon served several roles extending from product development to sales and marketing. In her most recent position as director of digital imaging, Chagnon has played a pivotal part in growing the company's award-winning Magic brand portfolio of digital imaging media, Magiclée® brand of digital fine art and specialty media, Museo® Fine Art brand digital fine art media and Jet Set® brand of products for the CAD market. Chagnon is widely recognized in the digital imaging industry as a thought leader, frequently publishing bylined articles in leading trade magazines and speaking at industry conferences. For additional information, visit

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