What you need to know about Aqueous Outdoor Durablity

Outdoor Durable isn’t just for Solvent, UV and Latex printers anymore

Wide format printing is constantly evolving.

Once upon a time, one-off wide format printing was relegated to the architectural and engineering fields where ammonia-based printers dominated the blueprint reproduction markets, and to the sign industry with screen printing and painting.

Then came the plotter, capable of holding pens and cutting blades which could draw clear images, sometimes with the use of several colored pens to add better detail to elevation prints and electrical diagrams. Its ability to accurately cut images and lettering made the plotter an instant hit in the sign world, and to this day it’s extremely popular for vinyl lettering and print cut decals.

The next era introduced a print head mounted on a moving carriage — first with hundreds, then thousands of nozzles — each mechanical improvement resulting in better image quality than the last.

But the equipment isn’t the only part of printing that’s evolved.

As the machines improve, so does the ink those machines use. Early inks were dye water-based and very susceptible to fading when exposed to UV light. This technology was consigned to short-term, indoor applications. Later, pigment aqueous inks were introduced that dramatically increased color fastness from months to decades.

Solvent inks overcame the outdoor durability challenge by using chemical-based solutions to deliver pigments while etching the media surface, substantially improving ink bonding. At first, these inks required the use of agents that were not exactly healthy for human exposure, but today industry improvements have lowered the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to more tolerable levels.

UV technology allows inks to dry instantly on just about any surface without heat. These inks aren’t very human-friendly either, but new delivery methods have introduced precautions to reduce user exposure.

Then there’s latex ink technology, a spin on aqueous and solvent technology that touts a more environmentally friendly solution with significantly lower VOCs than solvent while maintaining its outdoor durability.

So what works best for outdoor durable printing today?

These days, there are a few accepted generalizations when talking about these technologies:

  • Ammonia printers have gone the way of the buckboard.
  • Solvent ink printers currently dominate the market for vehicle wraps and most outdoor signage.
  • Plotters are used primarily for lettering and contour panel cutting in the sign, vehicle wrap and decal worlds.
  • UV is the chosen format for printing directly onto rigid materials.
  • Latex has proven to be a popular hybrid solution for those looking to penetrate various lower-volume markets (although there are high production models available at higher prices).
  • Aqueous is the king of high resolution with the largest color gamut and the technology of choice for the art giclée and photo reproduction markets. Aqueous also represents the lowest cost of ownership due to the reduced entry cost of the equipment and simplicity of operation. Plus, maintenance and operation do not require employees with specialized skill sets.

But did you know that pigment aqueous printers can now be used effectively to produce outdoor applications, sometimes durable up to 18 months without lamination — even longer with lamination? The key to achieving this lies in the specific ink technology, the quality of the media coating and the use of a good media profile.

Pigment aqueous inks are designed to be archival, meaning they won’t fade for years — Canon guarantees 75 years of color durability. So, if it’s true that the color won’t fade for 75 years even when exposed to UV light, why does it fade within 18 months outdoors?

The answer is this: They don’t fade, they ablate. Aqueous, unlike other ink technologies, requires an ink-receptive coated media to capture and hold the pigment. It’s the quality of this coating that dictates the durability.

As these medias are exposed to the great outdoors, wind, rain sand and sun wear down the coating until the pigment particles beneath the surface are exposed and are eventually blown away. It looks like the image is fading, when in reality, the media itself is thinning and the pigments are being ablated.

By using a proper profile that allows pigment particles to drop as deeply as possible into the coating pores, coupled with a media that has a good quality coating to start with, outdoor durability is immensely improved. Basically, the longer the coating lasts, the longer the print lasts. 18 months is very achievable on a good media.

The future of aqueous technology

As reliable as aqueous printing is, it’s not likely to overtake other ink technologies as the dominant choice for flexible outdoor signage any time soon. The cost per square foot on aqueous media is usually twice that of uncoated medias.

That being said, it doesn’t mean aqueous technology can’t be a player in the outdoor market. Most flexible outdoor signage campaigns expire within six months — well within the useful life of an aqueous based product. Plus, all Canon iPF and iPF PRO series printers come with a Media Configuration Tool which gives users the ability create profiles that will maximize the outdoor durability of any media.

Pigment aqueous technology is an excellent consideration when your market base deals in indoor art, photo or sign production, or has a moderate demand for outdoor durable prints. There are endless possibilities when it comes to aqueous printing.

Questions about your outdoor signage project, aqueous ink and media, or just printing in general? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below, or contact us directly and we’ll be happy to help!

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