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Meeting Henry Wilhelm

Attending the PMA Australia show at the beginning of May and in great demand for media interviews and seminar delivery was Henry Wilhelm from the famed Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR) Institute in the USA.

For those that don’t know, Wilhelm is the world’s authority on ‘Permanence” and ‘Photo/Art Archiving” of various ink/media combinations. His web site is a bible of information that should be studied by anyone who considers the permanence of their prints an important component of their business.

henry wilhelm 3 250.gifWilhelm has been commissioned to consult on great art collections like the Corbis Collection owned by Bill Gates and many others.

The main function of the WIR however is to work with major ink companies such as  Epson and HP to test their various inks and media combinations using a common test method and issuing independent test results.

Wilhelm is of the opinion that it is possible for these manufacturers to conduct their own testing and indeed they do, but to have the maximum credibility an independent authority has to either do the tests or confirm the manufacturer’s own tests.

During our interview, Wilhelm was remarkably laid back and easy to talk to. Removing any preconceived notions sometimes associated with the proverbial acclaimed scientist, he spoke with a quiet confidence and certainly without any ‘airs’.

Wilhelm attended PMA Australia at the invitation of Epson with the key purpose of delivering a paper on ink/media permanence at the show’s Imaging Technology Expo.

Just prior to the opening of the show, Epson had issued a press release on the findings of the Wilhelm Imaging Research Institute on the performance of a prominent third party ink that is sold in Australia and New Zealand primarily to the domestic market. The findings, much to the delight of Epson, confirmed that the third party ink had a permanence rating of less than a year compared to Epson’s 40 years.

The press release went further and stated that the package of the third party ink for the cyan, magenta, and yellow inks include the claim that the inks are "waterproof," "fadeproof," and “pigment”.  When tested with the third party ink manufacturers’ photo paper glossy the inks had a WIR Display Permanence Rating of less than one year.  Epson DURABrite inks used with Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper used in the same Epson Stylus C87 printer achieved a WIR Display Permanence Rating of 40 years.

While guarded on making generalising statements about all third party inks, Wilhelm advised that third party inks should be avoided unless there was evidence to suggest satisfactory performance. His web site is a plethora of information on this - research findings on the performance of various well know brands is widely available to users.

He was also mindful of differing levels of demand required by home and professional users, although he clarified that there should be no distinction  –  inferior ink is inferior ink no matter who the customer is.

Wilhelm qualified this to some degree by saying that it is almost feasible for an unskilled person to formulate a typical third party ink. In other words, there is no great science or skill factors behind the technology.  Manufacturers try and win customers by producing inks that display bright colours when first printed, but invariably do not last.

In contrast, he pointed out the huge sums spent on research by the OEM’s on the matching of these inks to the OEM media. He believes that prints can only be expected to last the claimed life span of up to 200 years (on black & white prints) when the matching of the OEM ink to OEM media are combined.

When asked which colour (of all colours used in the typical wide format printer) is most likely to fade under normal conditions, Wilhelm confirmed that it is yellow, with black being the best to withstand the effects of ageing. This would be born out by the fact that black and white prints have a much longer permanence rating than coloured prints. (Yellow absorbs more blue light which is higher in UV content, whilst magenta absorbs more red light.)

Returning to the subject of OEM inks vs third party inks, Wilhelm went to great lengths to explain that when an OEM research their inks and ink/media/machine combinations, they are working with the express purpose of increasing the quality and permanence of their own inks and media being used on their own equipment.

On the other side of the coin he maintained that this was not so with third party ink makers. They want their inks to work in as many machines as possible with potentially as wider spectrum of media combinations as possible, hence they cannot stay focused on perfecting one ink/media/machine combination.

The benefit of the OEM research also leads to better consistency from cartridge to cartridge and increased shelf life of the inks.

When we asked if such great longevity is required in the 'real world', given that digital image data can be stored almost indefinitely for repeat printing, he explained that in many cases the owner of the artwork or print invariably does not hold the original data file.