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May 6, 2002
Volume 80, Number 18
CENEAR 80 18 pp. 23-30
ISSN 0009-2347

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Inks and pigments business is growing through digital printing and from a desire for UV-curing and special effects in packaging applications


HOT OFF THE PRESS Use of wide-format ink-jet printers is gaining in the printing of large signs, posters, and banners.
Although Johannes Gutenberg is known for creating movable metal type in 1456, his contribution to ink is less often acknowledged. Inks combine a colorant, namely a pigment or dye; a carrying vehicle, usually petroleum or vegetable oils, solvents, or water; resin binders; and additives such as wetting agents, waxes, and driers. When Gutenberg found that waterbased inks were too fluid to print cleanly, his use of linseed oil as the vehicle set the course of printing.

More than five centuries later, water-based inks or those containing other environmentally friendly solvents have regained favor. Environmental concerns, largely around volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals in pigments, have compelled new chemistries and changes in formulations. Now, new technologies in both ink production and printing processes are presenting further challenges and added market opportunities.

Pigments make up about 10% by weight of printing ink shipments, but they account for a more significant share of the cost. In 2001, the nearly $5 billion worth of printing inks sold in the U.S. used about $800 million worth of pigments, according to the market research firm Freedonia Group. The European printing ink market accounted for another $2.7 billion.

Most major producers make pigments not only for printing--the largest end-use market, consuming about 30% of production--but also for paints, coatings, and plastics. Carbon black accounts for about 70% of printing pigment volume, while the more expensive organics, including azos and phthalocyanines, dominate in value. Specialty pigments, representing a small but fast-growing market, are used in part for creating specific effects.

INK AND PIGMENT producers say printing ink markets grow at roughly the same rate as gross domestic product and thus have slowed with recent economic declines. Still, a shift toward more expensive digital and energy-cured inks is fostering growth for these products. Inks for digital printing, such as ink-jet products, are expected to grow nearly 11% or more annually; however, they account for only about 5% of total demand.

"There is some optimism that a slow recovery will begin in the second half" of 2002, says Joseph B. Raksis, senior vice president for research and new market development at Flint Ink. Reduced readership and less advertising, along with competition from electronic media, are some factors negatively affecting the printing of newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and direct mail.

Flint Ink, with annual sales of more than $1.4 billion, is a privately owned producer of inks and--through its CDR Pigments & Dispersions business--of pigments. Together, Flint and Sun Chemical--which has about $3 billion in sales--along with INX International, are the world's leading ink producers. Sun is a subsidiary of Japan's Dainippon Ink & Chemical.

Like Flint, Sun's colors group also makes pigments and is a leading pigment producer, along with firms such as Clariant, Ciba Specialty Chemicals, BASF, and Engelhard. Most pigment manufacturers produce a range of organic pigments and dyes, while a few also make some inorganic pigments as well as finished inks.

The price-to-performance ratio is a critical aspect of the highly competitive printing ink and pigment markets, producers say. "Users are always trying to drive price down, and certainly the biggest element of that ink cost is the pigment," says Roland Valin, technical sales and marketing manager for the colors side of Engelhard's appearance and performance technologies division. Competition has also increased from pigment makers in China and India.

Consolidation has been prevalent on both the ink and pigment levels of the business. In the U.S. alone, more than 200 ink producers range in size from local mom-and-pop firms to large international operations. Many, especially Flint and Sun, have been built up through mergers and acquisitions of smaller operations over decades, if not centuries.

Two of the most recent deals were Sun's purchase of Bayer's organic pigments business in the U.S. and Flint's merger with ink producer Gebrüder Schmidt in Europe. In January, Heubach GmbH, a producer of organic and inorganic pigments, acquired Bayer's lightfast pigments line.

DAZZLING Clariant produces a broad range of azo, phthalocyanine, and polycyclic organic pigments. CLARIANT PHOTO
ACQUISITIONS HAVE been a key strategy to expand the colors business at Sensient Technologies, formerly Universal Foods. After selling its foods businesses, the firm used the money to buy SynTec in Germany and, just recently, ECS Specialty Inks & Dyes in Switzerland. The company's specialty inks and dyes business, which includes products for ink-jet and laser printing, has gone from nothing four years ago to about $125 million in sales projected for this year.

Producers anticipate that consolidation will continue. While cost saving is a factor, critical mass may be more important. "On the ink side, it's important to have a reasonable regional, if not global, presence," says Alexander Sieber, head of the ink pigments unit in Clariant's pigments and additives division, especially as printing and packaging customers themselves globalize and look for global suppliers.

Publishing accounts for only 23% of ink demand, whereas the largest end-use markets are packaging, at 36%, and commercial printing, at 33%, Freedonia reports. Gravure inks and lithographic inks, the latter for the most widely used process in publishing and commercial printing, are losing ground to flexographic inks, particularly in printing packaging materials.

"Packaging applications remain solid, as people continue to buy food and other consumables and want more functional and attractive packaging," Raksis explains. This market is also demanding higher quality color, which employs more of the higher priced organic pigments.

From a technology perspective, solventless energy-cured inks are becoming popular because they have faster setting times, higher gloss, low VOCs, and improved chemical and rub resistance. This ink technology also works on almost any substrate--especially nonporous ones such as plastic, glass, and metal that can't absorb traditional ink vehicles--by polymerizing the ink with ultraviolet or electron-beam radiation.

"Once you have applied the radiation, the ink is completely cured and the printed material can be handled immediately," Clariant's Sieber says. Easier handling, reduced downtime, and less waste and cleanup make these inks cost-effective.

"A pigment supplier is always being challenged to provide pigments that result in inks with good flow properties, high gloss, excellent color stability, fast transfer, rapid drying, and acceptable economics," says Peter A. Lewis, director of communications and regulatory affairs at Sun Chemical.

And new packaging materials or substrates always present new challenges, he adds. "If a suitable solvent/resin system is found, then we as pigment manufacturers have to be able to supply a pigment that will wet out and disperse in such a system."

Packaging customers also are calling for increased visual impact. "Everybody is looking for customization and product differentiation," says Stephane Rochard, global marketing manager for automotive and industrial markets in Engelhard's appearance and performance technologies division. Metallic, fluorescent, pearlescent, photochromic, or thermochromic pigments can create the desired special effects. New products include ones that give a "liquid metal" or anodized look.

Engelhard's special effects pigments, Rochard explains, are based on three principal chemistries: mica, bismuth oxychloride crystals, and borosilicate flakes. Beyond packaging, they are also used for wall coverings, specialty papers, and some commercial printing. And demand is growing for effects pigments in security applications and anticounterfeiting measures.


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Ink-jet Printing Moves Into Fabrics

Inks and pigments business is growing through digital printing and from a desire for UV-curing and special effects in packaging applications

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