Laser or inkjet? When it comes to investing in coding technology, that’s the first and most important decision. But if you’re trying to choose between laser and inkjet, how do you know which one is better?
That’s point number one though, it’s not really a question of “which one is better?”, rather “which one is better for you?”. They’re both powerful, but markedly different options if you’re looking to code your products. The bottom line is, which one is right for your product and production linedepends on lots of factors, from line speed to packaging material, production environment and more.
Second, Australian manufacturers need to weigh up other important factors, such as the total cost of ownership and code quality.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to decide if laser or inkjet coding is right for you. You’ll find out the key differences, and how they should influence your decision.
First, let’s go back to basics.
What is inkjet coding technology?
Inkjet technology is considered the “grandfather” of coding and marking, because it’s been around for decades. But it can still provide exceptional versatility and high quality solutions for today’s businesses.
There are four main types of inkjet coders and markers:
- Small character continuous inkjet (CIJ)– a non-contact printing method where electrically charged droplets of ink are expelled from a print-head nozzle.
- Thermal inkjet (TIJ) – uses a cartridge containing an ink reservoir and a series of resistive elements which are activated by an electrical current, which heats the ink in contact with the element. This forms an ink droplet which is ejected out of the faceplate nozzle precisely onto the substrate.
- Large Character Drop-on-Demand (DOD) – each print-head contains individual valves (7, 16 or 32) that are arranged in a single column. The valves open and close independently to form ink drops “on demand”.
- High resolution – the latest generation uses piezoelectric technology to create super-crisp images, with print heights up to 100mm from a single print-head.
Check out this quick technology review of inkjet coding and marking.
What is laser coding technology?
Laseris by no means new technology, but it has considered a specialist marking and coding solution – with a hefty price tagto match.
However, those days are long gone. Rapid advances in technology mean the upfront cost has dropped, and applications have broadened. In fact, it’s Australian manufacturers’ number-one choice for a wide range of applications across food, beverage, pharmaceutical and even heavy industries.
There are two types of laser coding technology:
- CO2 laser technology: The old-school method of laser coding, this uses a carbondioxide gas mixture, which is electrically stimulated to produce a high-efficiency, high-quality beam.
- Fibre lasers:This newer laser technology produces a higher intensity laser, ideally suited to metal engraving, high-contract plastic markings and flexible packaging.
Factors you need to consider
Can you use laser or inkjet for your application?
The first critical question to answer is whether laser or inkjet will suit your application.
The advantage of inkjet coders is that there are different technology options that are specifically designed for different applications:
- Continuous Inkjet (CIJ): Codes on a wide variety of packaging sizes, shapes and substrates on the product or end-of-line secondary packaging (think carton and tray coding). CIJ can code variable information such as date codes, batch numbers, promotional codes, serialisation codes, graphics, text and product ID codes.
- Drop-on-demand (DOD): Codes onto a wide assortment of substrates, including timber, cardboard and other secondary packaging.
- High resolution inkjet: Prints crisp barcodes, graphics and text onto primary and secondary packaging.
- Thermal inkjet (TIJ):Prints onto both porous and non-porous packaging for food, beverage, household products and more. Some can be used for challenging environments, including timber marking and grading, as well as carton and box coding.
See how Australian-owned yoghurt producer Ruby and Roy’s uses inkjet for date coding.
Not to be outdone, laser applications have extended over recent years. Laser coders can now mark clear and legible barcodes for food, beverage and pharmaceuticals, through to heavy industries with harsh, dusty or wash-down environments.
Laser coders can be used to mark:
- permanent codes onto glass, plastics (such as PET, polystyrene and polypropylene), metal and cardboard
- flexible packaging materials, such as film for snack food and confectionery packaging
- human-readable text and barcodes on both primary and secondary packaging
How fast is your production line?
A greater demand for speed and reliability has driven innovation for both laser and inkjet technologies over the years.
So, when it comes to speed, they are evenly matched. Laser and inkjet coders can both mark simple messages at speeds of around 1,000 characters per minute.
That said, the lower ongoing costs mean lasers are often a smarter solution for high-speed, high-volume production lines where the cost of inkjet consumables would be prohibitive.
How important is presentation and quality?
Presentation is absolutely critical in some cases, such as for winemakers and anti-counterfeiting applications. In these applications, you cannot compromise on the quality of the code.
This is where laser has the edge. It can deliver fully compliant barcodes and is ideal for permanent marks where presentation is key, such as on wine bottles.
Inkjet, on the other hand, can have some limitations around consistency. In fact, Australian grocery retailers do not recommend GS1-128 and ITF-14 barcodes printed directly onto shipper cartons using inkjet technology.
That said, it very much depends on the application and technology. Thermal inkjet coders, for example, are renowned for their print quality, even at high speeds. This comes down to the superior print-head technology, which provides exact drop placement.
How much space do you have?
Is space tight your production floor? If so, look to the compact inkjet coders. That’s what Bellis Fruit Bars did when they needed a coder for their bar packaging but hadspace restrictions on the line.
Laser coders are larger, plus they require special safety considerations on the factory floor.
Consider the total cost of ownership over 5-7 years
The best way to get the measure of laser and inkjet options is to compare the total cost of ownership (TCO) over five to seven years.
Lasers can have the advantage here, as they don’t require any consumables (such as ribbons). However, they typically require a fume-extraction system. This has an ongoing expense of filtration media.
But not all lasers are built the same. For example, fibre laser systems are completely maintenance free over thousands of working hours and have a life expectancy of more than four times that of the standard CO2 laser tube technology.
So, while laser is more expensive upfront than inkjet, the lower ongoing costs mean it can have a better TCO – especially for high-volume applications. Investment payback for laser coders can be less than three years on medium-volume production lines.
So what about inkjet coders?
You might be put off by the amount of maintenance, especially with print-heads, and the ongoing cost of consumables, like ink, solvents and ribbons. But it’s not that simple. Recent innovations mean that print-heads are more robust than ever and consumable costs are lowering.
For example, Matthews’ range of Linx CIJ coders is renowned for its low cost of ownership thanks to the robust, sealed print-head, which is ideal for harsher environments.
Of all the inkjet technologies, DOD printers tend to have lower capital and operational costs.
Over to you
As you’ve seen, there are lots of factors to consider when choosing between laser and inkjet. It pays to weigh up each factor carefully before you make a decision. That’s where our team can help. Matthews Australasia is on hand to help you take an informed approach to selecting the right equipment, implementing coding technologies, and driving efficiencies throughout its use.
We’re ready to help you work out the best-fit solution for your needs – get in touch.
Image credit: iStock/ nickylarson974