Putting the ink into inkjet - Mexar

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Mexar is a UK based inkjet ink development company that works with OEMs’, end users and other ink companies to develop inks for textiles, décor and other industrial print markets. Established in 2008 by Andy Hancock and Roger Tirrell – the business has grown into an innovative developer that plays a key role for inkjet in unlocking new market potential. Ahead of their first exhibiting appearance at InPrint, we talked to Andy Hancock about the business and the development of industrial inkjet.

Hello Andy, please explain a little about your background?

I am from Oxford but I studied in Leeds in Northern England taking a degree in ‘Colour and Polymer Chemistry’. This course was extremely hands-on, very industrially driven and benefited from a lot of industrial sponsorship within the department. I loved it immediately, it was a great, small department that was applications driven. It was a good thing getting into this course instead of medicinal chemistry for me!

After completing my BSc, I was considering whether to do a PhD but then was advised to get some work experience. So I went to work in the UV curing lab at Akzo Nobel in Manchester and gained a lot of really useful practical experience and insight.

After working at Akzo, a PhD project came up which was a mixture of UV Curing and inkjet and this was sponsored by Xennia. I had some experience of inkjet and went back to Leeds to do the PhD and graduated from this in 2004. I took a job up in Newcastle and worked at an inkjet startup. After a few years I saw an opportunity in the industrial market and simultaneously met Roger. We applied for and were granted some local government funding to set up the company, Mexar. This was in 2007 and started trading in 2008 just 3 or 4 months before the economic crash, which may have been difficult, but for us, it was OK as we were in the midst of an R&D phase. So the pressure to turn money wasn’t quite there which was fortunate for us as the business climate wasn’t perfect for new investment for obvious reasons.

At this time, we noticed that the major ink companies in the textile market were concentrating all their efforts into the development of dye based inkjet inks – it was an obvious choice for them to look into reactive, acid, sublimation/disperse. However, we wanted to focus on pigment based inks. We knew that these inks were going to become a very important part in the textile inkjet puzzle, but they are much more complex in design, by combining water, pigment (solid particle) and binders, you have a complex formulation which can be difficult to jet with the restraints of inkjet. Our initial goal was roll to roll textiles, but we started getting a lot of enquiries into DTG and ended up selling quite a bit into this sector. This gave us the confidence to then move into more industrial projects – our sights have always been set on wide format. Soon after DTG, the wide format market for pigment based textiles started to grow. We have been trying to assist this growth with our ink developments.

What kind of ink base would you call your speciality or your focus?

Our vision was to really become experts at developing water-based inkjet inks for industrial applications. Whilst we have some experience in UV curable inks, we like the challenge of aqueous inks with functionality. Textile was the initial focus – but then we lucked out on getting involved with the Swedish company Välinge (famous for licensing locking systems for wood-based products in the flooring sector). They needed an ink for printing into wood powder. Most of the ink companies they initially spoke to told them to try a UV solution. They spoke to us also and we suggested an aqueous pigmented ink and it worked!

Their project required a single pass printing process. This was a massive learning curve for both of us but very valuable to learn about ink interactions in single pass printing, what can go well and what can go wrong!. Valinge is a big player and working with them was a game changer for Mexar, putting us into a large industrial project and printing in single pass. When we first installed a binder containing pigment ink into a single pass print engine 5 years ago, it was a very novel step in the industry.

So you moved outside of textile into décor?

Yes, this led us into other areas outside of textile and it taught us that our textile knowledge could be transferred into new areas. We are a relatively small company so we can’t go after all industrial markets. Textile and décor are our main areas of expertise, however, we do look for other niches within other industrial markets, where we can add an innovative approach to ink formulation.

How does it work developing new technologies for Valinge?

We have a very close relationship with Valinge and continually work with them to develop new products and improve current results. Valinge are currently investing significant money into production equipment to produce the powder based floor in house in Sweden. Digital print will be an important part of this investment.

What other types of inkjet ink are in fast development?

For us, we see growth in pigment ink for textiles. For this, we are constantly developing different ranges for customers including end users (we define an end-user as someone who is printing onto the textile) we work closely with particular end users to develop the ink further to help them to get more from the printed textile. We are ink formulators, the end user knows what they want from the final printed textile and by working together we get to a great solution.

Who else do you work with?

We also develop inks for OEM’s, particularly the smaller ones. In addition, other ink companies who have licensed our ink technologies. – Larger ink companies understandably want to own and control the ink technology. We are very flexible in our strategic approach and on three different occasions have developed a product for a company and licensed it to them. We often act as external R&D for these companies. We see further ink licensing a big part of our future at Mexar.

Ink is always seen as the biggest impediment to progress, is this fair?

We see the difficulty for ink in the development of new markets. People see the potential of a market first which is important, we can help them with the ink development without them having to solve it internally. We want to promote the fact that the ink should be factored into the early development stage, along with the hardware because this can make a massive difference to the success of a project.

Sometimes, people will try to adapt existing technologies and retrofit an ink. If the development of the ink is involved early enough they can try to help assist in the hardware and software development phase that just manages to get the project to progress quickly and efficiently.

Can’t the ink be developed at the end of the process?

Retrofitting an ink at a late stage is always difficult to do (although we have had successes this way). The best way is for the ink to be part of the process at the very beginning. Then choosing the right printhead is critical. People sometimes think the head is more important to decide on before the ink, but if we could be brand agnostic at the beginning this gives you the best opportunity to be successful.

Sounds logical why do projects not always work in this way?

Part of it might be there is not a general understanding of ink development and what can and cannot be done with inkjet inks. You are limited in terms of functional materials and not everyone has grasped that. This is getting better. What people underestimate is the amount of time industrial projects take and this is often a problem overall.

What are the biggest challenges? Why is progress so slow?

Markets are conservative and don’t like change. In some markets, the consumer just doesn’t care how things are printed so it doesn’t have to be inkjet. Therefore inkjet does need a reason to be used. In our view, there really is no point changing unless inkjet adds relevant benefits. Some markets require functionality/individuality that inkjet can offer but it has to be relevant for that market. Converting only because inkjet is seen as ‘cool’ doesn’t make sense.

Conversion is slower than expected as each project is vast and takes a lot to resource – packaging encompasses so many different facets – textile is the same – there is so much involved in the change from analogue to digital. So it is slower than expected as it will take a lot of resources to develop and then persuade the market that it needs digital printing.

In some markets, it is not overly clear what the economic gain will be. There are markets such as décor and laminate which inkjet can provide economic benefits, but it will not work within all of the laminate flooring sectors. So it is trying to carve out the relevant places that inkjet can actually make an economic or innovative/customised contribution to production which adds value.

Which segments of packaging, flooring or wallpaper that inkjet fits nicely?

Inkjet is a perfect complement to analogue in certain applications but not in others.

Packaging won’t just flip into using inkjet in its entirety but will in certain areas. Textiles is growing and will take significant market share and so too will décor. Finding the right economic reasons is key because technically speaking we can solve these problems and once the economic and innovative reason for adopting inkjet is made clear, then the acceleration of adoption will occur.

Interested in finding our more about Mexar? Or if you have any questions for Andy - contact him via email andy@mexar.co.uk