by Jeff Tyson
No matter where you are reading this article from, you most likely have a
printer nearby. And there's a very good chance that it is an inkjet printer.
Since their introduction in the latter half of the 1980s, inkjet printers have
grown in popularity and performance while dropping significantly in price.
An inkjet printer is any printer that places extremely small droplets
of ink onto paper to create an image. If you ever look at a piece of paper that
has come out of an inkjet printer, you know that:
- The dots are extremely small (usually between 50 and 60 microns in
diameter), so small that they are tinier than the diameter of a human hair
- The dots are positioned very precisely, with resolutions of up to 1440x720
dots per inch (dpi).
- The dots can have different colors combined together to create
Impact vs. Non-impact
There are several major printer technologies available. These technologies can
be broken down into two main categories with several types in each:
- Impact - These printers have a mechanism that touches the paper in
order to create an image. There are two main impact technologies:
- Dot matrix printers use a series of small pins to strike a
ribbon coated with ink, causing the ink to transfer to the paper at the
point of impact.
- Character printers are basically computerized typewriters. They
have a ball or series of bars with actual characters (letters and
numbers) embossed on the surface. The appropriate character is struck
against the ink ribbon, transferring the character's image to the paper.
Character printers are fast and sharp for basic text, but very limited
for other use.
- Non-impact - These printers do not touch the paper when creating an
image. Inkjet printers are part of this group, which includes:
- Inkjet printers, which are described in this article, use a
series of nozzles to spray drops of ink directly on the paper.
- Laser printers use dry ink (toner), static electricity, and
heat to place and bond the ink onto the paper.
Heat vs. Vibration
Different types of inkjet printers form their droplets of ink in different ways.
There are two main inkjet technologies currently used by printer manufacturers:
- Thermal bubble - Used by manufacturers such as Canon and Hewlett
Packard, this method is commonly referred to as bubble jet. In a
thermal inkjet printer, tiny resistors create heat, and this heat vaporizes
ink to create a bubble. As the bubble expands, some of the ink is pushed out
of a nozzle onto the paper. When the bubble "pops" (collapses), a
vacuum is created. This pulls more ink into the print head from the
cartridge. A typical bubble jet print head has 300 or 600 tiny nozzles, and
all of them can fire a droplet simultaneously.
- Piezoelectric - Patented by Epson, this technology uses piezo
crystals. A crystal is located at the back of the ink reservoir of each
nozzle. The crystal receives a tiny electric charge that causes it to
vibrate. When the crystal vibrates inward, it forces a tiny amount of ink
out of the nozzle. When it vibrates out, it pulls some more ink into the
reservoir to replace the ink sprayed out.
Click "OK" to Print
When you click on a button to print, there is a sequence of events that take
- The software application you are using
sends the data to be printed to the printer driver.
- The driver translates the data into a
format that the printer can understand and checks to see that the printer is
online and available to print.
- The data is sent by the driver from the
computer to the printer via the connection interface (parallel, USB, etc.).
- The printer receives the data from the
computer. It stores a certain amount of data in a buffer. The buffer can
range from 512 KB random access memory (RAM) to 16 MB RAM, depending on the
model. Buffers are useful because they allow the computer to finish with the
printing process quickly, instead of having to wait for the actual page to
print. A large buffer can hold a complex document or several basic
- If the printer has been idle for a
period of time, it will normally go through a short clean cycle to make sure
that the print head(s) are clean. Once the clean cycle is complete, the
printer is ready to begin printing.
- The control circuitry activates the
paper feed stepper motor. This engages the rollers, which feed a sheet of
paper from the paper tray/feeder into the printer. A small trigger mechanism
in the tray/feeder is depressed when there is paper in the tray or feeder.
If the trigger is not depressed, the printer lights up the "Out of
Paper" LED and sends an alert to the computer.
- Once the paper is fed into the printer
and positioned at the start of the page, the print head stepper motor uses
the belt to move the print head assembly across the page. The motor pauses
for the merest fraction of a second each time that the print head sprays
dots of ink on the page and then moves a tiny bit before stopping again.
This stepping happens so fast that it seems like a continuous motion.
- Multiple dots are made at each stop. It
sprays the CMYK colors in precise amounts to make any other color
- At the end of each complete pass, the
paper feed stepper motor advances the paper a fraction of an inch. Depending
on the inkjet model, the print head is reset to the beginning side of the
page, or, in most cases, simply reverses direction and begins to move back
across the page as it prints.
- This process continues until the page
is printed. The time it takes to print a page can vary widely from printer
to printer. It will also vary based on the complexity of the page and size
of any images on the page. For example, a printer may be able to print 16
pages per minute (PPM) of black text but take a couple of minutes to print
one, full-color, page-sized image.
- Once the printing is complete, the
print head is parked. The paper feed stepper motor spins the rollers to
finish pushing the completed page into the output tray. Most printers today
use inks that are very fast-drying, so that you can immediately pick up the
sheet without smudging it.