Was the Smear Fair? Was it Relevant?
Well, sure, inkjet-printed discs can smear, but only under extreme or abnormal conditions, says Mark Strobel, vice president of sales and marketing for Primera Technology, Inc. Smear "is one of those issues that has always been in the background," he says, giving potential buyers a reason to shy away from inkjet printers in favor of thermal printers, even though thermal transfer printers that offer full-surface printing tend to cost about three times the price of professional inkjet printers and thermal retransfer printers can be nearly 10 times as expensive.
But fear of smear has always been largely unfounded. "In practical terms, people don't take their discs out in the rain, and they certainly don't take them in the shower with them," Strobel says. "Nevertheless, this concern has persisted in the back of people's minds--these discs aren't waterproof."
Like Strobel, Chuck Alcon, director of sales and marketing for Condre Technology, Inc. feels the smear issue is much ado about nothing. "If an inkjet disc is handled correctly," Alcon says, "the disc will not smear at all. But if you take a damp finger or a wet rag and rub the disc--depending on resolution, amount of ink, amount of disc coverage--there is some propensity for smearing, which has caused some pushback in some of the markets, such as kiosks and medical imaging," he continues.
"In 80 percent of applications that we work in, smear is not an issue, because the disc will print out and the user will put it in a sleeve, and the image will dry, and no one will ever take a wet rag or a wet finger and try to smear it," says Alcon. "But if you go into a retail environment such as a Circuit City where they are working with kiosks, the possibly of smearing has created pushback. But that's all about to change."
The New Waterproof Media
Both Alcon and Strobel think they've found the final solution to the smear problem, both in terms of perception and the somewhat more muted reality. Condre and Primera have recently begun reselling "waterproof" media for inkjet printers. Condre is selling the new AquaGuard discs from Imation, while Primera is selling both the AquaGuard discs as well as the WaterShield discs from Taiyo Yuden, as part of its TuffCoat line.
The Imation AquaGuard employs "fascinating nanotechnology," says Strobel, pointing to an Imation white paper that explains that today's ordinary printable discs are made with "polymeric inkjet receptive coatings" which absorb the inkjet image by swelling like a sponge. The ink carrier liquid then slowly evaporates leaving behind the colored ink material at the surface of the disc. Unfortunately, the slowness of this process leaves lots of time for the inks to smear if the disc is rubbed. According to Imation, it can take "many hours" for the image to completely dry. And perhaps worse, the swellable surface is susceptible to rewetting.
In contrast, the new AquaGuard uses a so-called "nanoporous," ink-receptive coating made from ceramic particles. This nanoporous surface absorbs the ink by capillary action, which helps the ink to dry faster as they bond with the "nanoparticles" on the disc.
The result, says Alcon, is truly waterproof media. "We can literally take a disc, put it in a kitchen sink overnight, come back the next morning and that disc will have no degradation, no smearing whatsoever," he says.
Although the AquaGuard's matte surface "doesn't have quite the same initial appeal" as the glossy surface of the Taiyo Yuden WaterShield, Strobel says, it tends to be a bit more waterproof. "We had discs in a waterfall at the recent CeBit trade show," he says. "They were just sitting there day after day for seven days, and the Imation media stood up just like a champ under water all that time. The WaterShield media after a day or two started to show some degradation, but nobody purposely puts their discs under water for two days. That's just not the practical test for a water-resistant media. A more realistic expectation would be if you happened to carry an audio disc out in the rain, you could brush it off on your coat and not have any degradation of the image."
Strobel believes the characteristic glossy surface of the WaterShield discs will make them particularly popular among those who wish to print full-color photographic images. People just naturally expect their photos to be glossy. "The matte [of the AquaGuard] is perhaps more appropriate for corporate applications," he says. "It doesn't give the same overall first impression as the glossy WaterShield, but it is equal as far as image quality goes. Which media customers choose will be a matter of personal preference. But so far, the customer reaction to both media has been very positive. People say, `This is the best media I ever used. I've been waiting years for this.'"
A Tuff Sell?
Alcon says he's been waiting years for this too, but he may have to wait just a bit longer. "The issue right now is that the price of the media is about 35% higher than that of standard inkjet-printable media," he says. "But we anticipate that that is going to change very quickly as the economies of scale and the volume levels kick in."
Right now, WaterShield and AquaGuard have an average street price of 80-90 cents per disc, says Strobel. Compare that with today's standard inkjet-compatible media, which ranges from 30 to 40 cents per disc for "cheap" discs to about 50 cents for a "good-quality, brand-name disc," according to Strobel. He also observes that both AquaGuard and WaterShield discs sell for a nearly identical price. "They [the manufacturers] seem to have priced the discs against each other," he says.
So far, the WaterShield discs have been easy to sell, reports John Westrum, vice president of operations and CTO for Microboards. "We've had great response from the people who have used this Taiyo Yuden disc so far and a great response from our resellers," Westrum says. "Quality media is always a tough sell, because customers always want to take the cheapest route. But these discs give you such a nice value-add and such a nice-looking result that there has been quite a demand out there for them."
Brad Allen, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Imation, isn't ready to predict how soon his company's AquaGuard media might ship in mass-market volume, or how soon the prices will fall. He points out that adding a waterproof coating to the discs adds an extra step to the production process. Consequently, this type of media "will always command something of a premium," he says. And he adds that his company is not pursuing the broad consumer market but rather "focusing on B2B."
Right now only the die-hards are buying waterproof discs, but if and when the prices do fall, there will be no reason not to buy them, says Strobel. Even people who don't really need them will be buying them. Water resistance will be "one of those extras you don't have to talk about anymore, don't have to worry about," Strobel says. "I think it's going to become the standard for inkjet media."
The Ink Spots
Also percolating in the background of this market (along with complaints about smearing) has been the promise that so-called "waterproof" inks were on their way to save the day.
Westrum dismisses this as merely a rumor. He says his company has an "extremely close relationship" with Hewlett-Packard that keeps Microboards abreast of all innovations in and developments this market. "We've heard about waterproof inks through the grapevine. and every time we go back to HP, they say, `Boy, I wish we did have waterproof inks.' But there's nothing they know of that's being done at their end at all."
Primera's Mark Strobel isn't sure that waterproof inks are even feasible. "Waterproof inks are almost impossible to jet out in full color," he says. "They've had waterproof inks for doing logos on bottles for a long time, but they are all solvent-based, and the problem with solvent-based inks on a disc is that you are printing on a plastic that can be harmed by solvents. I don't think waterproof ink for discs is anything that is going to be coming along in the near future," he concludes. "It would be very complicated technology and quite expensive."
"If somebody does come out with such a product," says Chuck Alcon, "the ink cartridge is going to be much more expensive, and I don't think it would be conducive to the marketplace." What's more, he adds, by the time waterproof inks become available—let alone affordable—"the waterproof media types should be at price points that are very competitive," which he believes would render the smudge-proof inks irrelevant.
Speaking of grapevine rumors, Alcon says he's also heard that other media manufacturers may soon be joining Imation and Taiyo Yuden in the production of waterproof media. "I don't think waterproof inks will be as much a subject of discussion in the future as they have been in the past," says Alcon. "When the waterproof media gets cheap enough, nobody is going to care about waterproof inks anymore."
When Waterproof Printing Really Matters
So to whom is smearing (or not smearing) important? Who will be willing to pay extra for waterproof discs, or willing to pay extra for a thermal transfer printer? Alcon has identified two obvious niches--retail kiosk applications (where the discs undergo a lot of handling), and medical applications. Thermal transfer and re-transfer have long been the technologies of choice in these markets. Rimage has targeted these markets with its Prism and Everest lines and rarely missed its mark.
"In medical imaging, what will happen is the PACS [Picture Archiving Communication System] will take an image of your heart, and then they'll burn the image to a disc," Alcon says. "It is then critical that the patient data that's printed on top of the disc (your name, date of birth, doctor's name, type of procedure, etc.) cannot be compromised. These new water-resistant printable discs," he continues, "will allow doctors and hospitals to integrate automated robotics systems at a lower price point and also at a lower consumables cost."
Alcon points to the legal profession as another potential niche. Water-resistant media will be important to "any type of application where the image on the disc cannot be compromised," he says.
Event videography will be another important niche for these new inkjet discs, says Strobel. "Waterproof media will be important for any content that you want to keep over time--wedding videography, for example. If you are providing discs to the bride and family, you don't want that disc to smear in their hands and you don't want anything to happen to that disc over time." He also feels that inkjet printers are more appropriate (than thermal printers) for printing full-color photos on disc surfaces, which is very popular in event videography.
"The primary place that waterproof media was really created for was the music on-demand marketplace, where they are printing their discs in a kiosk or a retail store environment," says John Westrum. "When customers are paying $12 or $13 for a disc, the product they get in their hands needs to have that kind of value to it. It has to look good and be durable."
Up until now all these market niches have been the exclusive province of thermal printers. But that situation is going to change, says Alcon. Thanks to waterproof media, he says, "We've got the solution now to address these markets." Mark Strobel agrees. "So with these new media and a $1,000 automated inkjet printer, you've got a really viable solution today for glossy, waterproof disc-printing--all these things that used to be the domain of thermal printers."
"The big benefit of these new disc types is that now we can move into medical imaging and retail kiosk verticals," Westrum says. "When buyers see the brilliance of the image, they will no longer have any objection to integrating our inkjet technology. That's why we're excited about it. We're going to sell more machines."
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