Printing Inks: More than Just Printmaking
Printing inks, centuries old, have witnessed numerous changes in printing technologies and ink formulations. Used to pass on information and to decorate objects, printing inks can be employed on numerous substrates from aluminium cans, plastic bottles, and papers to name a few. Printing inks are widely employed in publication and commercial printing and packaging. Pigment, carriers (solvent, oils and water), resins, and additives are key components employed in printing inks.
It is estimated that just over 3.5 million tons of printing inks were consumed worldwide in 2018. Gravure, flexographic, and offset lithography printing accounted for more than two-thirds of the total printing inks market. Digital printing is one of the newest processes and is projected to exhibit the fastest-growth. Customers are inclined towards new technologies that allow quick colour printing with consistent colours throughout the run. In the past few years, the market has observed a technological shift from analogue to digital printing process. Digital printing process offers the advantage of low-cost and short-run prints, which is driving its growth.
Analysts observe that Asia Pacific has become one of the largest producers as well as consumer of printing inks. Economic growth and increase in population have led to a sharp increase in demand for packaging and paper media. Countries such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are expected to be strong growth areas in the Asia Pacific region.
Gravure is still the dominant technology, however, flexography is making inroads especially in the paper carton field. Europe and North America have witnessed a decline in publication activities in the past few years, as newspaper printing remains on the decline. A persistent shift towards digital products is hampering the segment in significant ways. The loss in the publication printing segment is expected to be compensated by highly dynamic packaging segments in the regions.
Package Printing: Most In-demand Segment, Is it Worth the Effort?
The global demand for package printing is projected to grow strongly, driven by a wide range of factors. One of the leading factors is changing demographics. As consumer demographics shift so do their packaging requirements. This has been the major cause of change in the types of inks being used for printing packages, especially in the consumer goods sector. Growing urbanization is projected to shift consumption patterns towards packaged goods, e-commerce, and sophisticated packaging services.
As the world move towards digitization, a direct digital replacement for packaging goods does not seem to be in the cards right now. Furthermore, brands are also strategically using printed packaging in modern ways for product promotion and connecting with consumers. Despite being the most in-demand application segment, packaging is facing scrutiny due to its degradability with rampant use of materials such as plastics, metallised films, and paper amongst others. The negative environmental impact of inks used for printing packaged goods is making the end users and players question whether the effort is worth it.
Is Green Printing a more Sustainable Way to Print?
Oil and petroleum-derived products are essential raw materials for ink manufacturers. These substances often contain harmful metals and toxic chemicals affecting the health and environment. Manufacturers are focusing on biomass solutions to reduce environmental impact by using bio-derived materials. In recent past, leading companies have developed sustainable and eco-friendly printing inks from vegetable-based materials such as soy/vegetable and algae inks for flexographic and gravure printing process.
Green printing is a practice that uses renewable energy sources, reduces energy usage and GHG emissions and uses recycled materials. Growing health and environmental concerns among consumers are driving the development of new printing inks, processes, and technologies.
Regulatory Issue Still Remains the Major Challenge
Constantly changing regulatory landscape with regards to the usage of inks and coding and marking of products has caused significant challenges to ink manufacturers across the globe. Food-contact inks are the most regulated category. Regulatory authorities have restricted the usage of toluene, phthalates, and other substances. Europe and North America have placed stringent norms regarding the usage and type of inks for the packaging industry.
In the last couple of years, the prices of the raw materials have witnessed erratic and fluctuating scenarios. Manufacturers have faced shortages for key intermediates, pigments, and other feedstocks due to which the prices have soared. Even swapping the component or alternatives to paying higher costs are not viable, as additional customer approvals are required for reformulation of ink products. This has made customers are more concerned about the ingredients used in packaging.
How will Companies Prosper Amid Fierce Competition?
Manufacturers operating in the printing inks market continue to struggle with rising input costs and low-profit margins. Furthermore, there is strong competition in high-volume printing segments and small players are facing challenges to improve profitability. Eco-friendly, innovative inks are at forefront of the sustainable printing inks market.
Companies are focusing on developing ecologically friendly UV/EB products, bio-renewable inks, and water-based products. In 2020, Flint Group launched TerraCode, a new water-based, bio-renewable range of inks and coatings for packaging applications. The product range is designed with a high level of bio-renewable content and is reported as sustainably sourced.