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Comparison: Inkjet vs. Thermal
It Pays to Compare. Knowing the facts can save you a lot of money.

Solvent Inkjets fit well where the demand is for full color wide width prints. Sign, Banner, Fleet Graphic and Vehicle Wrap producers should examine the advances in the ink jet technology.

However, there are some common myths that we wanted to dispel.

Inkjet technology is frequently cast as a competing technology to thermal printing. This is probably due to Gerber thermal printers having a large presence in the sign industry. While inkjets have their place, we'd like to help define where that place is. They are certainly not a replacement for many aspects of thermal technology such as the variety of spot colors, opacity, versatility, etc.

We've put together a few notes to help guide you in what to consider when you are comparing inkjet and thermal technologies. Forgive us for poking fun at the inkjet sales guys, but many of them leave out the good parts... the stuff you need to know. Are you ready? Let's compare them.


Inkjet salespeople have been known to degrade thermal as "too expensive per-square-foot." They always quote some vague number like 30 cents. Of course that number is only relative to the actual cost of the liquid deposited on the media.

It certainly doesn't account for all the other factors such as floor space required, how many prints you have to throw away, or all that ink that is used in the maintenance routine. And do your diligence... check out the price of the extended warranty of service contract. Gerber has service contracts that are about 5% of the price of the hardware in comparison to 20%-30% on most ink jets. That should tell you something about how well a machine is built.

Is there waste? Of course there is. When the color isn't right, or inkjet head strikes the material, or the heat isn't drying the ink in time, or the material slips in the cutter, you get the idea...

Inkjets don't require you to have a degree in color theory, but it might save you some time if you have one. Prepare to deal with color profiles. Lots of them.

We know how to make profiles. A matter of fact, we have made many inkjet profiles for specific media. A profile is a set of characteristics describing how a particular media prints or reacts to the ink at a certain print speed and resolution.

You should have a profile for each variation or combination of media with the number of head passes, resolution, and speed. Once a profile is made properly, it is linked to the media chooser. That way, when you choose the media, the software adjusts the amount of ink each head deposits so that you get the color you want.

Making a profile requires 1 to 2 hours of labor (once you know what you are doing). With that said, how many profiles do you want or need to make? One for each resolution you commonly use is wise. Now multiply that times the number of medias you want to print on. Did you know you are supposed to make a new profile each time you change a print head? And when the OEM changes the ink formulation... you have to start all over again.

The bottom line is: People who make their own profiles generally get better and more consistent color from one media to another and from job to job. And then there is a less laborious alternative called thermal transfer printing, which requires few color profiles if any at all.

What do you want to create? Thermal will print on most commercial media such as polyester, vinyl, PVC, magnetic, reflective sheeting, polypropylene, etc. Print with metallic foils, or transparent colors on reflective vinyl or holographic polyester.

Not only do you have a wide variety of materials you can print on, but a wide variety of ribbons to print with. You can print chrome, or print on chrome.

Inkjets can't do that.

Inkjets won't print on as many materials as thermal. However, solvent based inkjets have come a long way over aqueous based ink jets. Inkjets aren't much different than other ink printing technologies as far as what you can do with ink. But they are digital, and that helps elevate consumer awareness about printing on-demand.

They have their advantages on banner materials and fabrics. And now inkjets can print directly on flat rigid media. I would have one if I owned a sign company. I would also employ thermal technology because it's consistent and versatile.

If you would like to match Pantone® colors or print consistent colors from job to repeat job, then thermal is the way to go. This is especially true if you are printing on different materials or have a few months time between reprints. Inkjets can be inconsistent in color between rolls of materials or even batches of ink. Re-profiling the media with the latest ink may be required to get color consistency and the best print.

Inkjet technology is different than thermal. If you have a process (4) color ink jet, you might be able to hit 50% of the PMS colors. Few inkjet/RIP combinations support Hex Color (process + orange + green) which reaches 90%+ of the PMS colors. You need Hex color profiles too. With thermal you are starting with many more base colors (at least 30). That increases your color spectrum dramatically...

And don't forget with thermal, you can print opaque white and special effect ribbons like transparent, chrome, and metallic.

Inkjet OEMs claim to be able to print white, but we've yet to see one come close to the opacity of thermal. On clear film such as static cling the color looks like the photo of the helmet sticker on the right. And on a dark background the color looses its pop. Most traditional processes like screen printing will require the white ink to dry first before printing over it, or visa versa. That wouldn't be possible on an inkjet.

Thermal is a dry process to begin with. Media can be flood coated, laminated, printed again on the laminate, printed on the liner, and cut instantly... no waiting.

Printing white, chrome gold, silver metallic, chrome red, chrome blue, and other special effect foils with thermal printers look really sharp. You can even print chrome on black vinyl. Sorry... not for inkjets.

The faster you can complete jobs, the more jobs you can do in a day. I'm assuming that is important to you along with ease of use. Finishing can be a bottleneck. Only a couple of inkjets can actually find a crop mark on a print and automatically align themselves to the printed media. All the others require the operator to manually align targets for each copy of a print.

With our thermal transfer systems, you just have to align one target for the whole job. In fact, Gerber makes sprocket fed plotters to match their printers and track perfectly for 50 yards or more! Sprocket fed machines track better than friction fed machines. They always have. And the Gerber enVision cutters can kiss-cut, die-cut, and back-slit. Just ask us how.

The Digital Finishing System and i-cutters from Allen Datagraph can scan and find crop marks on the printed web. These cutters will look ahead and find the next mark on the next set of labels you want it to cut. Both cutting solutions save you time by not forcing you to align each piece. We carry these cutters.

Most print-and-cut inkjets are great unless you actually need to print and cut. When you have a printer and cutter in the same machine, it can't do both at the same time. You can print or cut. Separate components (printer and cutter) allow you to move on to the next job and not hold up production. You'll curse the all-in-one machines when you get busy.

Ouch. Fortunately it isn't your head that gets hurt... only your wallet. Head strikes can be painful to your budget. Especially if you have to replace the print head or repair a damaged carriage. Head strikes happen when you want to try printing on that new material that may be just a little stiff or the material does something funky like cockle when it's heated.

And what will replacing a print head do to your profiles? Will it look like the last print? Maybe it will be the same with the new head you just bought. Not a lot of confidence in that profile? You really should make a new one.

How's that cost-per-square-foot looking?

Calibrate that printer. There goes your ink.
Clean the printheads. Whoops... there goes some more.
Set up a new profile. Hey look, more ink that isn't going into the profit column. Clogged print head? Guess what?

See a trend here?

See that bucket under the printer that is filled with your ink. You just put your money in a bucket. And where are you going to dispose of that bucket of solvent inks?

You are going to dispose of it in a hazardous waste site, right? And you have to pay for that, yup. All these little things add up.

You must feed and care for your inkjet each day. No kidding. If you leave for a few days at a time, lets say a vacation, your jets may dry out or clog. The OEMs highly recommend that you feed your inkjet a little ink and media every day to keep it happy. And you can pet it if you want, just don't get caught.

How much space do you have? With a wide-format printer you get a wide format footprint. 

It doesn't end at the big printer. You need a wide laminator. And you have wide stock. So you'll have to stand the rolls up on end or buy a really wide rack. Plus you need room around these devices to move. If you want to do big decals, you'll need that wide-format plotter. How much are you paying per square foot for rent?

Does that inkjet sales guy factor that into your cost-per-square-foot? Are you doing the math for everything?

A couple of years ago the inkjet OEM's seemed to be competing over who has the finest dpi. Now it's who can build the widest printer.

You have probably seen the beautiful close up photos of women with wild colored makeup printed in poster size. Whether they are photos of women or fishing gear, the point is that the photos are highly detailed and look great because they are taken by studio photographers with large format cameras that are capable of capturing fine details such as the fine peach fuzz on the model.

The photos are then professionally balanced and touched up and are printed at 1,200, 1,440 and even 2,400 dpi. That's what you see rolling off the printers at the tradeshows, and on most sample prints. In reality, when given that kind of high end digital photo, any printer including thermal printers can make it look good. But the fine detail credit should go to the talented photographer. It isn't every day that you will get that kind of image, and at a very high resolution, inkjets print very slow.

Unless you are going to change your business name to "Printing by next month," you are probably going to print at 300, 360, 360x540 or some other low resolution. Only the high-end jobs that are being viewed very closely will require a higher dpi. And don't forget, you will need a specific profile for that high resolution on your media of choice.

Thermal transfer printers also print slower at higher dpi settings. However, being realistic, if you want larger format and speed, the Matan Sprinter (36 inch) thermal transfer printer will print at 400dpi and a 90 line screen at a blazing 600 square feet per hour. In laymen terms that's 25, 3' x 8', 4 color banners per hour. Can you get the work to keep one busy?

Inkjets use liquids. When the prints dry, they out-gas. And it's a special smell your clothes can take home with you. Even if you have an exhaust system, prints will continue to out-gas for hours or even days. Did we mention that thermal doesn't out-gas?

Not only do you have hazardous liquids that will stain anything, do you really know the long term effects of breathing the fumes?

We can tell you the short-term effects of smelling like solvents are the same as having bad B.O. We know... some people don't care.

People like the whole concept of being able to print wide format. It is an amazing capability to print 60" wide. Yet we always see those people who own the 54"+ machines printing on 20" to 30" media.

How much call for 5 foot wide printing do you have? And it requires much more care to handle big prints so they don't get damaged during transport or installation.

Inkjet sales people will have you believe that the smaller web width of the Gerber Edge or Matan Spring or Spark printers will limit you. Given the track record and tremendous growth in thermal printers, it doesn't seem to be true. With thermal, you are only limited by your imagination.

Inks, especially solvent inks, are hazardous. Read the side of the package. As it dries, what are you smelling? You're breathing that in as it outgasses from the prints in your shop. Mmmm... Tasty.

And no one (except OSHA) wants to wear those gas masks that get tangled in your hair and leave funny marks on your face.

What about that waste? How are you going to dispose of that ink waste? Does it add to your health care premium? If they knew what you are breathing it would.

We've made our point. Hopefully you have learned what we know. The inkjet cost per foot myth has a lot of caveats associated with it. But don’t just take our word for it – try an inkjet before you buy one and ask the OEM some hard-questions.

When you’re done, and you've washed the ink off your hands – pick up the phone and call us. We are certain our Gerber and Matan thermal printers will not only make more profitable products, but also provide you with a (dryer) – more economical – and safer alternative to solvent inkjets.


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