How Do Thermal Printers Work?

By: James Kara Murat

Thermal printers are not the usual type of printers that can be found out home. Offices do have them in the form of fax machines and multipurpose printers. Thermal printers are also gaining popularity as point-of-sale checkout printers in supermarkets and other sales outlets.

How do thermal printers work? There are two ways by which the thermal printing process operates, but they have only one main component, which is heat. In older machines, the thermal printing process requires the use of heat-sensitive paper. A roll of such paper is placed in a container provided in the machine, with the end of the roll fed into a slot.

The thermal printing process used in newer thermal printer models is slightly different in that they now require ribbon cartridges. In this modified thermal printing process, the ribbon cartridge that contains ink with the consistency of crayon or wax is inserted into the printer. Whenever the thermal printer is used, paper is fed into the slot between the printer head and the platen roller. Upon application of heat, the ink in the ribbon cartridge melts and sticks onto the paper.

Though thermal printers are considered to be special use printers, there are a number of advantages that can be had by using them. Foremost of these advantages is that thermal printers are relatively inexpensive. They are also, by far, very easy to use. Most thermal printers do not require a lot of brainwork; they just require pushing a few buttons.

Some users, however, believe that the advantages that thermal printers have are terribly outweighed by their disadvantages. As inexpensive as the thermal printer is, it is not as efficient in using ink. The thermal printer is highly dependent on heat and if the printer head is too hot, too much ink will be transferred to the paper.

This then leads to the second problem users have with thermal printers: they often have smudgy outputs. This can be observed most especially when the ink is still wet. The ink can also react to the heat of one's fingers when skin comes in contact with the paper, or when something heavy touches the paper. The image becomes smudged and blurred upon contact.

Color is also a limitation with thermal printers. Thermal printers use carbon pigmented ink, and pigmented ink is not really optimal for colors. The machines that do produce colors make use of wax-based inks rather than pigmented inks.

Lastly, thermal printers require constant maintenance. The heat makes the printer head vulnerable to damage. Regular repairs made to the printer head can be costly and a drain to one's pocket. And this is probably the one reason why thermal printers are special use printers.

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