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Poor buying decisions by UK government affects print quality

I have just, this morning, received my postal ballot paper for the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union. Guess what? The weather is not great at the moment, it is raining, and it turns out that the envelope the ballot paper was posted in has been printed using dye based ink! Result? Smudged text!

BallotEnvelope1 BallotEnvelope2

Original smudging on envelope                                Ink run from added water

We all have a tendency to be rather cynical about our governments and many of the decisions they make. All too often poor decisions come to light eventually and can do so in a variety of ways. Perhaps the type of ink used to print an envelope is a very minor example of the type of poor decision we would prefer our governments did not make. However, …

… I actually want my completed ballot paper to arrive back at the counting office once I’ve posted it – believe it or not, I would like my vote to count!! It turns out that the return envelope is printed using dye ink as well. In fact, the quality of print is so bad that some of the text (white text in a black block) is all but unreadable. If the rain continues, will the envelope be legible enough for the postal services to deliver it to the counting office – or, perhaps, to the ‘correct’ counting office.

Interestingly, the ballot paper itself is printed using toner technology. It rather defies logic that a letter should be printed using a durable printing technology but be mailed in an envelope printed using a highly vulnerable and unstable technology. Furthermore, EVERY desktop business inkjet printer on the market uses pigment black ink (which is resistant to water) and almost all of them use pigment ink for the colours as well. It is only if the owner decides to substitute original inks with some 3rd party (so-called ‘compatible’) inks that a dye based ink would be involved. How is it possible for a government agency, or its service provider, to use dye inks for printing important official government collateral. It beggars belief!

Having managed to track down several other postal vote individuals, it is clear that not every constituency in the UK prints its envelopes in this manner – mine does – so we do have to give some degree of benefit of the doubt! But, for what reason has this situation arisen with my own constituency? Is it that:

  • Someone has decided it would be cheaper?
  • No one has the faintest idea of the implications of using dye ink, especially for potentially vulnerable documents?
  • They have just put the job out to a service provider without checking the service provider’s product?
  • No one cares anyway?

Allow me to remind you of the dangers of using dye based ink in a vulnerable situation and compare it with pigment based ink.

The following images are scans of test pages printed for a recent test programme where they have been subjected to immersion in water after printing.
Water on pigment inks Water on dye inks

Effect of water on pigment inks                              Effect of water on dye inks

Also, how many of us have spilled coffee or tea on our desk, spilling it onto a printed page, with the result that the printed page becomes unreadable? The following images are again scans of test pages printed for a recent test programme showing the comparison between durability of images printed using pigment ink against dye ink after coffee has been spilled onto the page but wiped off within 30 seconds.
coffee spill comparison

Coffee spill on pigment colour inks
Coffee spill on dye colour inks

Obviously, at the end of the day, this is a relatively minor issue because it is very much a transitory situation – the referendum will be over and done with in 10 days time and, presumably, all the envelopes will find their way to the correct location anyway (I hope!). However, when purchasers/users are not correctly informed and, therefore, do not know to ask the correct questions, their organisation and its public/customer image could suffer badly by sending out poor quality and unstable customer-facing documents.

Ink is a fantastic printing technology with huge potential in all office environments. Indeed, the fastest machines (Hewlett-Packard PageWide printers and MFPs) are now making massive inroads into the enterprise and corporate environments because they offer all the facilities of their toner based cousins but at very much lower Cost of Printing. In small and medium business, the cost advantages are also resulting in ink frequently being the preferred technology – albeit at somewhat slower speeds.

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Moral of the story: if you are responsible for purchasing printers and inks, make sure you know what questions to ask and make sure you get the right answers.