Printhead tips from experts
Companies in all industries use thermal transfer and direct thermal printers to print barcodes and labels. The print head is one of the most important and costly components. It’s in the frontline of wear and they are quite delicate.
With this article, we provide answers to the most common questions about the life of a printhead. And tips to get the best results and lifespan from it. Between our 25 years of experience supplying printer equipment, and the recommendations from labelprinter manufacturers like Zebra®, Sato®, Honeywell®, Videojet® and TSC/Printronix®, we can give you the best independent advice on this topic.
How long does a thermal printhead typically last?
There is no single answer to this question as it depends on many variables, as well as your own quality requirements. According to the manufacturer specifications, a printhead might print up to 10 million labels. But this can be longer, or a lot shorter depending on how you treat it, your printer settings and the print mode.
According to Videojet®, “it is not unusual for a printhead to last up to a year in an average throughput application”. This is based on a printhead life of 200 km, with a 130mm long message, printing 5000 labels a day, 6 days a week.
They also state that a printhead run in Thermal Transfer (TT) mode can last 3 times longer than one run in Direct Thermal (DT) mode. In other words, you can make a big impact on your printhead life by making the switch to thermal transfer printing, using an ink ribbon to create the images or barcodes.
Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal print mode
With direct thermal labels (labels that don’t require a ribbon), the more abrasive or rough paper label is in direct touch with the printhead surface. This takes its toll on the printhead. Direct thermal labels also require higher printhead temperatures. That will again shorten printhead life. You’ll need to replace a printhead much sooner than with thermal transfer printing.
If you use thermal transfer labels (labels that do require a ribbon), the ink ribbon provides an extra layer of protection to the printhead. The ribbon is a much smoother surface which leads to less wear. In addition, wax ribbons require a lower temperature setting than printing direct on paper.
When using thermal transfer, it’s important to make sure that both the ribbon and labels are of good quality and matched appropriately. It’s best practice to make sure that the ribbon is slightly wider than the label, so that the label is not exposed to the print head.
How do I get the longest life from my printhead?
Switch to Thermal Transfer mode
As explained in the previous section, switching to thermal transfer printing will result in a significant saving on printhead wear and tear. You could get up to 3 times longer life from the printhead.
Clean your Printhead often
The lack of regular cleaning and preventive maintenance is a leading factor in premature printhead failures. You can get twice the life of the head by keeping it clean. Paper causes dust that might lead to scratches, and ink leaves a residue. Labelprinter manufacturers recommend to clean the print head and platen roller after every ribbon or label roll change with a quality printhead cleaning product.
Which type of cleaning product you use comes down to your preference and experience. In general, cleaning wipes are the most versatile choice, as they will remove the residue from both the printhead and platenroller. Doing this regularly is the easiest way to get the most mileage out of the print head.
Change your printer settings
Your printer settings have a large impact on the life of a printhead. In short, higher temperature, darkness settings and printhead pressure will all shorten the life of the printhead.
- Higher printhead temperatures give you better resolution, but too high will shorten printhead life. Test the print quality and set the lowest temperature for an acceptable print quality. Beware of a spiral effect. If you don’t clean the printhead often enough, you’ll probably need to increase the printhead heat to get the same quality. The increased temperature leads to more residue and might ultimately damage the printhead.
- Printing at a higher speed requires a higher temperature setting. Just because your printer can reach a speed of 12 inch per second (ips), it doesn’t mean you have to. If a lower speed is acceptable in your print application, you will get more mileage out of your printhead.
- If your printer offers adjustable pressure settings, choose a lower pressure if it still produces good quality images. Lower pressure means less friction. That means a longer life from the printhead.
- Don’t touch the printhead element surface with your hands
- Only use cleaning products that were designed for cleaning printheads
- Use high-quality labels and ribbons
- Use the right size ribbon. Too narrow may cause additional wear to the printhead
- Choose a printer grade (eg industrial) to fit your (harsh) environment
- When replacing printheads, follow the printer manual instructions
- Don’t use any sharp object to remove dirt or residue that is sticking to the head
When is it time to replace the printhead?
Indicators of a printhead that is at the end of its life are spots, white lines, light images and unreadable or non-compliant barcodes. If you experience any of these symptoms, visually inspect and clean the printhead. Test if that solves the issue. If not, it might be time to replace it.
If you see a white line across your labels, it’s probably a void in your printhead. One or more dots on the head are damaged. That means it’s time for a new print head.