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CD-R Printers, Media Makers, and the Writing on the Wall

With all of CD-R’s recent success, why is it, then, that disc printing still lags behind, in terms of technological growth, affordability, and installed base?

CD-R Printers, Media Makers, and the Writing on the Wall

Hugh Bennett
EMedia Professional, January 1998

With all of CD-R’s recent success, why is it, then, that disc printing still lags behind, in terms of technological growth, affordability, and installed base?

It’s amazing to stop and think about how quickly CD-R has progressed. Within a few short years, recorders have gone from prohibitively expensive to comfortably affordable, discs have gone from pricey and scant to dirt-cheap and abundant, and duplication and production systems have come into their own as well. So why is it, then, that disc printing still lags behind, in terms of technological growth, affordability, and installed base?

Most CD printers today, such as those from Craig Associates International, Imedia Technologies, Affex, SuperImage, and Expert Magnetics, are based on consumer inkjet models using awkward rigid carriers for disc-handling. Adapting commercially available printing systems makes a great deal of economic sense, but so far hasn’t made for breakthrough products. Fargo Electronics, to its credit, has taken things a little further with its tray-loading system, but still uses obsolete technology. Printing is slow, discs take considerable time to dry, water smears the ink, and the print quality is nothing to write home about.

Production printing isn’t much better. There are a few inkjet (Data/Ware, CAI) and one thermal transfer unit (Rimage) intended for higher volume and automated work, but these printers deliver low-resolution, color or black and white labels, and are relatively uninspiring. True, these printers do fill a need and perform the job, but they still leave much to be desired.

It’s only realistic to say that the potential size of the disc printer market will be relatively small compared to the millions of consumer ink-jet and other printers sold every year. This means that the CD-R market segment will likely never attract the attention of major printer manufactures such as Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Epson. The market will be left to small, one-product companies where size prohibits them from developing advanced products and risking investment money that would at best only generate a meager return.

The heavy investment that printer manufacturer Fargo Electronics has made in CD-R may suggest a different take on the market possibilities. However, their CD-R printing venture was not motivated by great expectations for the printer market per se; rather, Fargo expected to make its money by locking printer users into purchasing Fargo proprietary media. When that strategy failed, so did most of their potential profit. If Fargo knew ahead of time that they couldn’t make money from proprietary discs they may well have not entered that market.

Consequently, any great leap forward in CD-R printing will have to come from sources not dependent upon the profits from the hardware devices alone to keep the printer project afloat. Given the alternatives, progress will most likely have to come from the blank CD-R media companies since they are the ones most likely to benefit.

During the summer of 1997, the CD-R market saw an unprecedented slide in standard media pricing to where it now rests at less than a dollar a disc at wholesale.

Media manufacturers complain that their market has gone to hell in a handbasket, yet are doing little to help themselves. It’s extremely frustrating watching them engage in petty and shortsighted marketing gimmicks, fighting amongst themselves for a few points of marketshare by slamming each other over compatibility or longevity when they should be trying to grow the size of the market for their product.

Industry analysts report that media manufacturing capacity is currently more than double the actual demand and that this situation will continue for the foreseeable future. CD-R media manufacturers should realize that printing is an enabling technology which will create applications that consume discs. Pursuing consumer audio CD recorders is one way to make sure the market grows, as is developing low-cost and high-speed production writers and advanced and affordable printing solutions.

In the low end of the market, today’s recorders retail for less than $400 and discs for $2, which makes it unlikely that users will spend $1,295 on an accessory like a media printer. However, many lower-cost devices can be converted into disc printers. Consumer inkjets sell for less than $299 and produce reasonable quality results for most home, hobbyist, and small business uses. If they are good enough for paper printing, they should do the job for CD-R. Another option is to rework some of the inexpensive consumer dye sublimation printers marketed for outputting photographs taken with electronic cameras, which offer quite reasonable print quality for devices at their price point.

Even in the high end of the market, we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to come up with satisfactory CD printing strategies. Many printing technologies currently available would, if adapted, serve existing and future needs better than anything we have now. For example, Tektronix and Mitsubishi make solid ink systems that operate by melting hard “crayons” that stick to just about anything. Technological improvements such as variable-dot technology from Fargo and Sharp also make thermal wax transfer a solution worth considering.

On the inkjet side, CD-R printers could be based on fast, tabloid-sized devices which have large ink reservoirs, or even large-format and plotter inkjets like those from HP and Kodak which could label multiple discs at a time with water-fast and fade-resistant pigmented inks not available in lower-end devices.

The holy grail of all printing solutions is thermal dye sublimation, which offers magical photographic quality easily surpassing the silkscreening and pad printing methods currently used to label pressed CDs. The production market consumes the vast majority of CD-R discs and has been screaming for this type of solution for some time now.

From my perspective, developing or supporting the commercialization of new printers is in the best interest of the media companies. Most importantly, it will increase the size of the market by creating and supporting new and attractive applications that will swallow discs. And if development of coatings is necessary, it will help manufacturers to differentiate their media into another level of quality helping to set their product apart.

Vendors may even be able to exact a slightly higher price for the new discs, since not all manufacturers would have the expertise to provide compatible coatings. Furthermore, if patented technology is involved, additional profits could be generated from licensing the new materials and processes.

Unfortunately, altering the traditionally passive mindset of the media manufacturers may prove difficult and is, the way I see it, the greatest challenge facing the CD-R printer market today.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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