Ensuring High-Quality, Low-Cost Ink-Jet Printing

By using durable, flexible printers that produce high-quality marks, you can save time and money.

 

by Jeff Cartin
Engineering Manager, Trident (Brookfield, CT)

In today’s economy, fierce competition causes pharmaceutical and medical device companies to 
battle for the business of price-sensitive purchasers. Highly efficient supply chains, therefore, are key to survival. One element that can generate significant cost savings and greater production efficiencies is the ink-jet printing of secondary packages.

Ink-jet printing bar codes, graphics, and text directly onto secondary packaging offers several benefits over other packaging solutions. Preprinted labels can be up to eight times more expensive than ink-jet-printed labels. An ink-jet printer allows for greater printing flexibility, and such systems require less space than an inventory of assorted preprinted secondary packages. 

The right ink-jet printer for carton coding can give a pharmaceutical or medical device company an important edge. But not all printing systems are created equally. To evaluate the quality of an ink-jet printer, look at the printhead. It is the heart of most ink-jet printers, and its characteristics often determine the printer’s cost-effectiveness and quality. Durability, print quality, cost, and flexibility are four key elements to look for in an ink-jet printhead.

Durability

Pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing environments can be rough. To work efficiently, ink-jet printers must work alongside employee and machine activity on the floor. 

To ensure that your printing system has a durable, industrial design, inspect the printhead’s physical characteristics. Printheads typically feature one of two types of orifice plates. Some orifice plates are made of metallic substances like stainless steel, while others are made of polyimide plastic films. Each material provides different benefits. Plastic orifice plates are typically less expensive, while stainless-steel orifice plates offer greater scratch resistance and durability. 

Shock resistance is also important. In factories, printing systems must work seamlessly and print clearly, even in the face of rough handling or un-intentional impact with secondary packaging on the production line. 

There are other important questions to ask about durability before purchasing an ink-jet printer: On average, how long does the printing system run without requiring repair? Can the ink-jet printhead be repaired? How many years will the printhead last before it needs replacing? What type of maintenance is necessary to keep the printing system running smoothly? 

Print Quality 

Having spent time and money on developing superior products, you do not want to detract from their quality by packaging them in primary and secondary packaging of low quality or with inaccurate print. The right ink-jet printer reflects the quality of your brand to consumers. 

As is the case with durability, when it comes to print quality, the printhead plays a central role. Factory dust and other foreign objects routinely clog printing orifices. There are several physical characteristics to look for in a printhead to ensure that clogging doesn’t affect print quality. 

First, make sure that the printhead has sufficient dot overlap. If one orifice becomes clogged, other orifices should be designed to cover the equivalent print area and minimize damage to the printed image.

Automatic maintenance systems that routinely purge foreign objects like factory dust from the printhead also ensure consistent high-quality printing. These systems can reprime the printhead by flushing out any buildup that may clog a printing orifice. This feature simultaneously enhances printhead durability and quality and minimizes operator intervention, which in turn decreases maintenance expenditures.

In addition to print quality, accuracy is a fundamental element of any ink-jet printer. Print accuracy is more important today than ever before, due to the increasingly stringent standards many retailers are applying to the products they sell, requiring not just scannable bar codes but ANSI/ISO-verifiable bar codes. Major retailers can reject shipments from suppliers if the bar codes on both primary and secondary packaging are not scannable. And bar codes are increasingly being used to ensure pharmaceutical and medical product safety.

Cost

Three factors are important in locating cost-effective printers: cost per mark, repairability, and warranty coverage.
Cost per mark is defined as the amount of ink used for the desired image times the cost of the ink. The cost-per-mark figure for each printer depends on ink type. Ink can be expensive. Minimizing cost-per-mark numbers requires minimizing ink use while maintaining high print quality. 

Several characteristics of an ink-jet printer can minimize the amount of ink used and keep cost-per-mark numbers low. How efficiently does the printing system use ink? What is the volume of ink used in each droplet? What is the print resolution? Can the increased print resolution be perceived in terms of needed print quality or are the extra drops simply absorbed into the absorbent corrugated facing? Look for a printhead that effectively minimizes the amount of ink needed while still providing high print quality.

Another important factor is printhead repairability. When the orifice plate on the printhead becomes clogged with debris, does the entire printhead need to be replaced or can it simply be repaired? To save money, find a printhead with a repairable design that allows the front chamber and orifice plate to be removed, cleaned, and reassembled.

Flexibility

A final element to consider is flexibility. Make certain that your system is flexible enough to fulfill various printing needs. Look at the types of information that you can print with each system. Does the system provide acceptable resolution and image height to allow you to print bar codes, graphics, and text interchangeably onto secondary packaging? Can you produce different size graphics, depending on your needs, for each particular product? Does the system allow you to print both bar codes and text simultaneously at production line speeds?

Finding a flexible ink-jet printer can help improve work flow. If you choose a single printhead that can print bar codes, graphics, and text, it may replace the need to have a different printhead for each item. This can help improve production work flow, conserve valuable factory space, and save money on additional printheads. 

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