CD DVD Duplication Equipment - What's New at MF Digital
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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Paper or Plastic
Paper or plastic was the question back in "the day" when checking out from the grocery store. Everyone had their choice and their reasons for one over the other. The majority went with plastic and today you know it's the truth, because when was the last time someone asked you, "paper or plastic?" Well, in the duplication industry the age old question is inkjet or thermal? Again, everyone has their choice and everyone has their reason for one over the other. Today, lets break down some of the pro's and con's of each technology because choosing the right printer for your duplicator is a much bigger decision then paper or plastic, although you'll probably find yourself going the way of plastic.

First, lets do a quick overview of the technology behind inkjet and thermal printers.


Inkjet printers are a type of printer that operates by propelling tiny droplets of liquid ink onto paper. Looking closer, the cartridge carries a series of tiny electrically-heated chambers that have a pulse of current which run through the chamber, creating a mini steam explosion, forming a bubble, which is then propelled as a droplet of ink to the paper, or in our case, a CD.


A thermal printer (or direct thermal printer) produces a printed image by selectively heating coated thermo chromic paper. When the paper passes over the thermal print head the coating turns black in the areas where it is heated, producing an image. Tri-color direct thermal printers are capable of printing three additional colors (often Cyan, Magenta and Yellow), by applying heat at three different temperatures. Thermal transfer printing is a transfer method that uses a heat-sensitive ribbon instead of heat-sensitive paper.

With the basic technology definitions behind us, inkjet sprays ink and thermal is a physical transfer process, we can take a closer look at the elements which contribute to your decision making process. To do this, we will summarize the pro's and con's in a conversation monolog for each technology, then you decide which conversation best fits your needs.

Inkjet Printer Summary:

Inkjet printers are nice because the cost of equipment is much less, about a quarter of a thermal printer. Along with the low cost of entry for equipment, the inkjet printer also provides a wide range of colors for creating that exact label you want. For example, the PicoJet from MF Digital has a spectrum of 16.7 million colors, which is enough to give the user the ability to make their perfect label. In addition to the deep color spectrum, inkjet printers have a great ability to print fine text, graphics and logos. Using the same printer as a reference, the PicoJet, the droplet size is 4.5 Pico Liters. A Pico Liter is one trillionth the size of a liter or one millionth of a million of a liter, either way a Pico Liter is extremely small and 4.5 Pico Liters is the size of the ink drop being placed on your label. This is why you see printers with claims of resolution of up to 4800 dpi. On the flip side, you do have some considerations. As you have probably guessed, inkjet is not waterproof, the cost per label will (generally) be higher and the speed to create that label will be longer. However, if you noticed we used the term "consideration" for these points - we do not feel these are true negatives. Here's why:

True, inkjet is not waterproof by itself, but things are different today then they where two years ago. For example, there is now inkjet printable media which is waterproof. This new technology allows the ink to dry and become permanently attached to the disc media by "locking in the ink" to the surface of the media. Major manufacturers are producing this media today, such as Imation, TDK and Verbatim. True, the cost per print is higher then thermal, but in comparison your ability to create vibrant, colorful labels which are near photo quality take some extra effort. Last, the speed is slower then thermal, but it takes time to make detailed labels with full color output.

Finally, some inkjet printers are manufactured to only take their specifically branded ink cartridges where others are derived from larger OEMs where a common ink cartridge can be used. Our suggestion is do some home work and ask if the printer uses "keyed" ink cartridges. A "keyed" ink cartridge is one that has a bar code on the print cartridge itself and before a print begins the system will scan the ink cartridge looking for the bar code, if no bar code, then no printing. Again, looking at the PicoJet printer we know it's derived from an HP print engine so we know the ink cartridges are readily available whereas a Primera printer is a proprietary system with "keyed" ink cartridges and will not function unless their cartridge is recognized.

Thermal Printer Summary:

Thermal printers definitely have their place in the CD production environment. They are true work horses, thermal printers are designed for heavy use and best fit high volume production environments. They print extremely quick, produce a very professional look and can run for many hours before refills are required. Typically, a thermal printer is used in situations where the disc can be labeled with a monochrome color and the label image doesn't need to be flashy, colorful or photorealistic. Another great application for thermal printers are those situations where a disc needs to be permanently archived or cannot risk being rubbed off. A good example would be government agencies, military, enterprise storage, back-up applications, or mission critical data which must be labeled. It's fair to say that removing a thermal label from a disc would involve, more or less, ruining the disc before the label came off.

A thermal printer is about 4 times more expensive then inkjet printers. List price is around $5,000 for a printer such as the Prism Plus printer from Rimage. The thermal print process is a physical transfer process - from heated print head - to monochrome ribbon - to disc surface; and to perform this process takes a very durable, well engineered printer. Manufacturing a thermal printer requires materials that are much more expensive to obtain then that of inkjet printers, and thus the large delta in price. The thermal printer, such as the Prism Plus, is very quick. The Prism Plus will print a near full label in around 10 seconds whereas it would take an inkjet printer about 3 times that amount of time. Of course we are talking about a monochrome color on thermal verse full color for that of inkjet, but if speed is your need, then a thermal printer is your best fit.

The cost per print when using thermal printers is far less then that of inkjet. Again, the difference between monochrome and full color, but if cost savings per print is a requirement then thermal is a smart decision. To give you an idea a thermal ribbon for the Prism Plus runs about $50 and the length of the ribbon is 750 feet. Now taking the size of a disc 5.25 inches and divide that into the ribbon you get about 1,700 prints. Take the $50 (MSRP) for the ribbon and divide that by the 1,700 prints and you get a cost per print of about $0.03. With inkjet cartridges you have a black ink cartridge and color cartridge which has a bundled cost of $78 (MSRP) and that combination will produce at least 500 prints so the cost per print is about $0.15 per print. However, to get a full color label from a selection of 16.7 million colors for only $0.15 is not a bad deal what-so-ever.

As you can see, there are needs for each printer technology in today's production environment. You will probably agree that a thermal printer application is more niche then that of inkjet and thus, we've seen sales for inkjet printers out perform that of thermal. With changing technologies that make inkjet waterproof, low cost of entry for equipment and the flexibility in label output for both color and design, printers like the PicoJet become the majority of consumer's choices as did the plastic bag from the grocery store. But as with grocery stores that stocks paper bags, so to are the thermal printers ready to be integrated into your duplication solution. The selection of one print technology over another is an important business decision so be sure to speak with a professional who is knowledgeable and experienced to help you get the right gear for the job.