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Thermal Transfer vs. Ink Jet Large Format Printers
(Or The Advantage of Owning Both Types of Sign Printers)

In order to provide a fully comprehensive digital printing service in the sign industry, you will need to buy two types of large format digital printers for your business.  Just as a painter needs several types of brushes to create different types of work, as a digital artist you'll need different printers to produce different types of artwork, or to print on a variety of substrates.

The two different types of printers to which I'm referring are Thermal Transfer (a.k.a. Thermal Resin) and Inkjet.  Each of these printers has specialized capabilities.  I'll do my best to explain the differences, as follows:

Generally speaking, unless an Inkjet printer is specifically indicated for the type of work you're currently doing or considering undertaking, Thermal Transfer printing offers the most options and is the best place to start.  Thermal transfer printers have the following capabilities and benefits:

  1. Thermal Transfer printers use resin ribbons and produce absolutely no fumes, meaning costly ventilation is not required, and operators' lungs remain healthy.  Instead of toxic inks, they use resin ribbons for printing.
     

  2. Thermal Transfer prints have a longer life - up to 5 years outdoors with no lamination.  These prints require lamination only for extreme cases, i.e. industrial applications, where chemicals are involved.
     

  3. Thermal Transfer printers have spot color ribbons for bright, vivid colors.
     

  4. Thermal Transfer printers produce sharper text on small (label and decal size) prints, and are generally better for printer vector graphics.
     

  5. Thermal Transfer printers have white ribbons - useful for printing white on a colored background or for double-sided printing on clear media.  Summa DC4 and DC4sx also have chrome and holographic ribbons! 
     

  6. Thermal Transfer printers can print a perforated pattern for producing window films on inexpensive clear media, instead of having to print on expensive perforated window films, like an Inkjet.
     

  7. Thermal Transfer printers require much less maintenance.  In fact, they can stand idle indefinitely, without the weekly maintenance required by an Inkjet printer.
     

  8. Most Thermal Transfer printers, such as the Summa DC4 and DC4sx have print and cut capability in one unit.  This makes much more sense than Roland's inkjet print and cut technology.  Since thermal transfer prints rarely, if ever, require lamination, it's seldom necessary to remove the print for lamination before cutting.  This means there's no need to reregister the print before you cut.  Cutting your finished print is accomplished with merely the push of a button.  (Inkjet single unit print and cut technology is not very effective, and can produce problems.)  Both Summa models have two cutting steps.  They will contour cut around your prints, and a second cutting step allows them to cut through the backing sheet to also die cut your finished prints.
     

  9. Heat Transfer Material for t-shirts, etc. is now available for Summa DC4 Series printers.

Inkjet printers offer the best value under the following circumstances:

  1. Inkjet prints last up to 3 years outdoors.  They do require lamination for high scrub applications, such as vehicles.
     

  2. Inkjet printers do better graduated fills, and produce superior hi-resolution photo quality prints, especially in a small decal size.
     

  3. Generally, Inkjet printers are faster.  The Mutoh ValueJet is much faster, even compared to other Inkjet printers.  The ValueJet 1304 prints up to 143 square feet per hour and the ValueJet 1614 prints up to 183 square feet per hour! 
     

  4. Inkjet printers print on a wider variety of media, such as paper, some fabrics, and generic vinyl banner material. (Thermal transfer printers require special vinyl banner media.) The MUTOH ValueJet 1204Plus even prints on pre-grommeted banner fabric!

    The Mutoh ValueJet 1608 Hybrid Inkjet printer has both roll-feed and flat bed capabilities for printing on flexible, as well as rigid substrates.
     

  5. Most Inkjet printers use solvent inks, which are not environmentally friendly, and the fumes are dangerous to the health of the operators, and everyone who contacts them.  Ventilation is required to make the work place safer and tolerable.  Mutoh ValueJet 1324 and Mutoh ValueJet 1624 use low toxicity, light solvent Eco-Ultra inks, which significantly reduce toxic fumes and environmental impact, however ventilation is still recommended.  The Mutoh ValueJet 1608 Hybrid is the greenest Inkjet printer, utilizing long-lasting MUBIO inks, made of 80% vegetable substances.    
     

  6. Inkjet printers have lower production costs only when lamination is not required.
     

  7. Single unit Inkjet print and cut may not make sense, but if you pair your Inkjet printer, for instance the Mutoh ValueJet 1304 or 1614 with an optical cutter, you get print and cut with the added advantage of being able to print while you're cutting!

There you go, the low-down on digital printers.  If you're shopping for your first printer, hopefully this will clear up any confusion.  On the other hand, if it generates more questions on your behalf, that's a good thing, as well.  The more questions you have, the more likely you are to get the answers you need to make a qualified decision in the best interests of your business. 

I'd just like to re-emphasize that once you've entered the digital printing market with one large format printer, it's time to plan on investing in a second as soon as possible.  This will allow you to grow your business even more by opening the door to new markets.

- Diane Corbin
Marketing Director

Reprinted from the June 2007 issue of SIGNED UP e-newsletter.
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