[The Note] Ink Pricing: 7 factors that determine the price of digital textile printing inks

6 August 2020 | Jos Notermans

When you are selecting a digital textile printing ink for your production process, from a financial perspective it might be tempting to go for the cheapest ink. After all, the differences in pricing can be significant and by selecting a cheaper ink you save a lot of money in the purchasing phase. But how much does this cost your company in the long run? What does it mean for the quality of your end product and the satisfaction of your customer?

To clarify that choosing for the low-priced option ultimately results in more expenses in the long run, I will discuss 7 aspects that determine the real price of ink. In this blog, I explain what information is actually hidden behind the price tag, so you can make a future-oriented decision when it comes to ink.

The history of ink pricing

To understand how the price of ink is determined, it is important to understand how the price of ink has evolved over the years. When SPGPrints launched their first digital printer in 1991, one kilo of ink did cost approximately €750. Because this price of digital ink was dominating the overall price structure, printing a square meter of textile was costly. That is why digital printing was only commercially viable for very high end products like silk scarves, which explains why the Como region in Italy, the silk scarves printing center of the world, became also the birthplace of digital textile printing. 

Over the years that followed, prices dropped tremendously due to technological developments and increasing economy of scale. Around the turn of the century a kilo of ink costed on average €125; between 2000 and 2010 the price dropped to approximately €50 per kg. Nowadays, a kilo of ink costs around €15-20 (and even lower at very large volume customers).

As you can see, the price of digital ink dropped over the years. Still, ink is not a cheap investment and some chemistries are a lot more expensive than others. What other factors determine the price of ink - and, more importantly, the differences between ink prices? 

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1. Different types of ink

One aspect that should be taken into account is the type of ink that is used for printing. For example, reactive inks and sublimation inks are most commonly used in digital textile printing, which makes these inks benefit from an economy of scale and more advances out of development efforts. Pigment inks, on the other hand, are a relatively new development within digital textile printing and are a lot harder to produce.

This seems contradictory, because in rotary screen printing pigments are one of the cheapest pastes to print, and that is one of the main reasons why over half of the world's rotary volume is printed with pigments. However, in digital textile printing, the pigment particles in the ink have to be grinded extremely small to fit through the small nozzle holes in print heads. This reduces the color strength, which is why special chemistries are required to provide the digital pigment ink with sufficient color strength. This process makes pigment ink in digital textile printing more expensive than pigment paste in conventional textile printing. 

Another element that has an impact on the pricing, is the dye in the ink. Dye is one of the most expensive components and the more dye is used, the more expensive the ink gets. A lot of cheaper priced inks (B-brands) use less dye to lower their price. As a result, the coloring strength is lower and more ink will be needed per square meter. Therefore, comparing the prices of A-brand and B-brand inks is like comparing apples and oranges. One should compare how much value of ink in EUR is put on a meter of fabric to achieve the desired color.

2. Different colors

Not only the amount of dye used, but also the color itself plays a role in ink pricing. However, these price differences between colors are smaller in digital printing than is the case in rotary screen printing. 

With rotary textile printing, people are used to different prices per color of  printing paste. For example, in terms of dye, black is relatively cheap where blue is one of the more expensive ones. These price differences also apply to digital ink, but they are partially undone by the concentration of dye the ink. In the example of black, in digital ink more black dye is needed because black needs to be as deep as possible. For that reason, the price difference of black and blue inks might be smaller than the price difference of the black and blue dye and/or rotary paste.

Another difference between rotary and digital printing, is that in digital textile printing always the same 6 to 8 base colors are used. With these base colors, the inkjet printer creates 16 million colors. As a result, the ratio of consumption of each of those base colors at a certain customer is relatively constant in time. So a differentiated pricing per color, like is done in dyes used for conventional printing paste, makes little sense in digital. As the usage is stable, it is easy to calculate the average price over the 6 to 8 base colors and that average price remains constant.

3. Purification process

Although the price of ink has declined significantly over the years, digital ink will never become as affordable as conventional printing paste. That hope is still existing at quite some digital printers, but this hope is a utopia. After all, digital dye always requires a purification process to remove natural by-products like minerals and salts. In conventional printing, these natural remains are no problem for the printing process. However, for digital textile printers they will cause corrosion in the print heads. As every little damage can cause jetting problems, dyes that are used for digital textile inks have to be purified. 

As this purification process can take a long time - varying from a few hours to even days per IBC - the digital textile printing inks can never become as cheap as conventional printing pastes. The cheaper brands might lower their prices by purifying the inks less thoroughly, but this also means that the chance of print head damages is a lot higher.

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4. Measurements: dimensions

A fourth determinant in the discussion on ink pricing, is the correct use of dimensions. The rule of thumb that is often used is that one kilo of digital ink is needed to print 100 meters of digital textile. But this varies a lot from design to design so if you don’t know your average ink usage then how can you calculate your cost price per meter of printed fabric? The cost of ink of course is an important parameter, but in the end 100 meters of fabric with 1 kg of ink means that each euro price difference in a kg of ink means 1 cent per meter of fabric. For that reason, instead of looking at the consumption for one design, I advise you to calculate the number of sellable meters of textile that you produced during a longer timeframe (6 months to 1 year) and divide that by the number of kilos of ink that you purchased. If you think like that, a lot of things that play a role in the totale price are included, like:

  • ink costs
  • ink consumption per design
  • ink waste 
  • failure costs resulting from rejected fabric

How many meters of textile can you sell with the ink you are buying? Besides that, failure and weary machines due to bad ink heighten your total costs. Always convert your ink usage to use per square meter, as the amount of sellable meters depends on the printing width of your textiles. Only square meters give a reliable picture of your total ink costs.

On top of that, a handful of suppliers sell ink per litre. 1 litre is about 1.1 kilo. So these suppliers have to sell for 10% higher price to get the same price per kg, but many buyers will just regard those inks as more expensive. Another reason to sell ink in kilograms is that dyes (powders) are also sold in kilograms. By using the same dimensions, amounts are trustworthy and we make sure that apples are compared with apples.

5. Volume and pricing

Now we’ve looked at differences in the ink itself, the production process and the way ink is measured and sold. Next, I would like to highlight that the volume of an order also influences the price of ink. With larger batches of ink, administrative costs are lower and logistics are easier to handle than with smaller batches.

That is why buying larger volumes results in more attractive prices than orders with very small amounts of ink. These differences in volume are quite big, as some customers order more than 100.000 kilograms of ink a year, while others order less than 500 kilograms a year. Some suppliers are also quoting the prices for small deliveries very low, but in fact often use B-brand inks for these type of orders. As explained in earlier chapters, these cheaper inks have many flaws, and can sometimes even damage your printers. Be careful with such investments.

6. Changing your supplier

Besides measurements and volumes, there are other elements of the selling process that influences the pricing of ink. One of the most important factors is the fact that changing your ink supplier is not an easy process. As a result, printing companies prefer not to switch ink suppliers, making them an easy crowd to deceive. Some suppliers will promise a lot of advantages, like attractive payment terms, long print head warranty terms and competitive prices. Once the contract is settled, they alter previously set preconditions. As switching back to the previous supplier means losing your face to your investor and customer, besides that it is a laborious process again. Therefore, printing companies often accept the new supplier’s breaking of promises.

But why is changing a supplier so hard? That’s because changing the type of ink you use, will also require you to create new color profiles. And even then, you have no certainty that you can print exactly the same colors as you did before. This can cause problems with collections that you need to print a second or even a third time. After all, you want to be able to guarantee customers identical deliveries within a collection. Changing ink suppliers between two deliveries can jeopardise that promise.

7. Warranty policy

The last factor that influences the price of inks is the way in which warranty of print heads is handled. The warranty policy determines what happens if a print head gets damaged. Often it is not possible to say with certainty what caused the damage: was it caused by the ink, by the user or by a machine deficit? Who is responsible and who bears the costs? If there is no clear policy in this respect, the replacement cost for the print head often land at the user, which may increase the total price tag considerably in the long term. Therefore, a warranty policy by the ink supplier is of great value.

For example, most manufacturers of print heads generally give a 1-year warranty on their print heads, but in order to do this they have to qualify the inks being used. Because the print heads end up as part of a machine, the print head manufacturers require that the machine manufacturer must also be a guarantor. That makes the warranty policy threefold and a complicated matter.

As a producer of machines as well as inks, SPGPrints is seen as a competitor by a lot of printer manufacturers. Therefore, they sometimes are not willing to confirm the safe use of SPGPrints inks on their machine and the print head manufacturer does not give warranty on their heads. Because of this, SPGPrints basically takes over the warranty responsibilities for the print heads with a document in which it is exactly stated what we guarantee and for how long. Be aware that some ink suppliers use warranty promises in order to persuade you. But what is important is what happens when something really goes wrong. Does your ink supplier really meet up to their promises?

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Considering the price tag properly

In short, there are quite a few factors that can influence the price of a kilo of ink. The 7 points I mentioned above indicate that solely focussing on the price tag is not wise. The cheapest ink might end up being the most expensive investment in the end. What conditions are attached to the supply? Do you need more ink per printed meter, because of the color strength? And does an ink supplier cover your back in case of damage?

All these factors should play a role in the choice you make. I already mentioned that changing your ink supplier is not an easy process. Make sure you are confident with your choice and that the ink you choose benefits your printing process and customer satisfaction. Would you like advice on these matters? Feel free to contact our specialists. For more information about digital textile printing inks and all strategic benefits of digital printing, download our free Ink Selection Guide:

Ink Selection Guide Digital Textile Printing

Categories: Digital Textile Printing, Rotary screen printing, Digital printing inks, Single-pass Printing, Archer technology, Digital Printing, JAVELIN, Multi-pass Scanning Printing, PIKE

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