5 Tips To Maximize Your Printhead

Posted January 31, 2012

All thermal label printers have 3 basic consumables: labels, ribbon (if thermal transfer printer), and printheads. Even though it is part of the printer itself as opposed to a media item the printhead is still considered a consumable due to the fact that it does wear down over time and will need to be replaced. When you take into account the fact that replacing your printhead will cost you up to almost half of what you paid for your printer it is something we will want to get the most out of. Printheads don’t just stop working one day either so along the way you will see a drop in your print quality which can cause a host of problems beyond just the cost of a replacement. We’ll take a look at what your printhead is and how it works along with 5 things you can do to ensure a long use-cycle to avoid problems and extra costs to your print application.

Printhead Basics

At its most basic, a printhead is a metal plate consisting of a line of precisely controlled ceramic dots that heat up to either burn an image into heat sensitive paper (direct thermal labels) or melt a ribbon onto paper (thermal transfer labels). Depending on the temperature settings the printhead will make lighter or darker print and the more dots per square inch the better the resolution and smaller, clearer print we can make. These little ceramic dots are where the issues come in as they can burn out or get scratched/damaged which causes inferior print on your label. One of the most common indicators that a dot or group of them has gone bad is a vertical line where nothing will print. They no longer work properly so they never heat up to create an image. Other signs of problems will be light or faded print and uneven darkness levels across your label. These issues can be minimized and made less common if we follow a couple basic rules.

#1 – Clean it!

This is by far the most important thing you can do and is probably the one thing most users don’t do enough or at all even! When you consider that there are 203 (or more) little dots within a square inch on the printhead they end up being very small. Dust and stray pieces of ribbon can easily get in the way of the dots and cause them to burn out or not transfer heat properly. Simply cleaning the printhead regularly ensures you don’t continue the buildup of particles. The easiest rule of thumb is to clean every time you change your ribbon. It is the perfect time to use either a cleaning pen or a cotton swap with some isopropyl alcohol to wipe down the printhead. While you load up the new ribbon the printhead dries and you are ready to start printing again. If you only follow one of these tips this should be it as I cannot stress how much a difference this will make in extending the life and quality of the printhead.

#2 – Conservative Heat Settings

On any label printer you can adjust the heat setting of the printhead either through the front control panel or the print driver. Depending on the model this setting can be called a ‘darkness’ or just plain old ‘heat’ level. In all cases we have control over how hot the dots will get when we print. Some users end up just pumping the setting to the max which might make sense at first but is actually detrimental to the printhead. With everything we print the dots have to heat up and cool down very quickly and if we are constantly going to the max we are really making the dots work harder than they may need to. This wide swing in temperature will cause the dots to wear out faster. The best practice here is to set the heat setting to the minimum to get good print quality. With a new printhead installed you should be at 50% or even less. Over time you may need to increase the heat setting as the printhead ages but starting at max will only shorten its life.

#3 – Adjust, Adjust, Adjust

Definitely an overlooked detail is the tension setting between the printhead and platen roller, which is the rubber roller in the front of the unit that moves the label through the printer. If you look at the assembly where the printhead mounts into you will find tension adjustments (thumb screw type normally) that set how much the printhead pushes up against the platen roller. Depending on how thick your labels are and the material type you will want to adjust this tension to allow the label to easily move through the printer while maintaining enough contact for dark enough print. When you see print that is too light it is easy to just crank the heat setting but in many cases we can adjust the tension to get the same results without pushing our printhead any harder. If you see any streaking or smearing of print after you make tension adjustments you went too far so just ease back a notch or two.

#4 – Keep It Closed

If you were to walk into any application that does a lot of printing I would be willing to bet that the cover of the printer they use will be left open. Why? When you are pumping out large volumes of labels and changing labels rolls multiple times a day there is a basic convenience to leave the cover open. It is understandable but still not a good idea. For the same reason we clean the printhead we want to keep the cover closed: dust and dirt. The cover was designed and made on the printer for a reason and to not use it only increases the particles getting into the printhead as well as all the other moving parts. By far the easiest tip on this list and the most obvious but not followed enough. Keep it closed!

#5 – Be Careful

Label printers can be found anywhere from a quiet office to heavy industry manufacturing lines with just as much variety in the users handling the printer. I have seen printheads completely scratched beyond use because someone didn’t know how to properly handle and install it. When there is a feed jam in the printer many times a screw driver is the first tool used which is dangerous to more than just the printhead. Having the proper know-how and tools when making any adjustments or changing the printhead is essential to avoiding simple mistakes that can be very costly. Setting a designated individual to manage your printer when there are issues is always a great way to avoid carelessness. It is always extra frustrating when you make things worse while trying to make them better.

Getting Your Money’s Worth

Most of us prefer to get the most we can out of the money we spend and the same is true with printheads. Folllowing a few basic good habits can greatly reduce the frequency we replace printhead and will give us better overall print quality. Designating specifc custodians for your printers and a basic protocol to follow when handling them can only benefit your business. Likewise, if you ever need some professional advice or help with your printer you can always speak to one of our experts at BarcodesInc – contact us.

Filed under: Tips