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The Need For An Industrial Color CD-R Printer

Lately, it seems every time I go to an industry trade show I come away disappointed – not that I don’t find the event useful and not that I don’t enjoy chatting with the vendors – my problem is that another opportunity has gone by without someone introducing what I consider to be the next logical design improvement to address the needs of the high volume in-house and commercial CD-R duplication markets.


The Need For An Industrial Color CD-R Printer

Hugh Bennett
TapeDisc Business, August 2000

Lately, it seems every time I go to an industry trade show I come away disappointed – not that I don’t find the event useful and not that I don’t enjoy chatting with the vendors – my problem is that another opportunity has gone by without someone introducing what I consider to be the next logical design improvement to address the needs of the high volume in-house and commercial CD-R duplication markets.

This year’s North American installment of REPLItech in Miami Beach was no exception. Sure, incredible new CD-R duplication and custom production systems were in abundance, many featuring banks of ultra-speed 12x re-corders, optimized robotic disc handling systems, integrated CD-R and DVD-R capability, business card disc support and refined control software. But an innovative industrial colour CD-R printer to make it all worthwhile was nowhere to be found – again. Maybe the need for such a device wasn’t apparent a few years ago, but recent developments have now made it obvious.

CD-R production has become big business. According to industry estimates, nearly 2 billion CD-R discs will be duplicated this year as CD-R duplication has virtually eliminated prerecorded replication for production runs of 1000 units or less. Those doing CD-R duplication in a big way are installing larger and larger numbers of systems. Five to 10 six and 12 recorder configurations are becoming commonplace while the equipment itself is getting bigger. A couple of examples are Aleber’s massive Bravo-CD duplication line, which comes equipped with an industrial robot serving 64 recorders capable of producing 4000 to 5000 discs in a single eight-hour shift. And then there’s Hoei Sangyo’s aptly named 32 recorder GigaCUBE.

But while there have been tremendous advancements in almost every aspect of CD-R duplication the one aspect that lags far behind is disc printing technology. It’s almost unbelievable, but over the past few years the choices for labeling discs really haven’t changed. Available solutions still rely on sticky labels, inkjet, thermal transfer and silkscreen, pad and offset printing. So, you say, what’s wrong with those? Well, sticky labels are too expensive and unwieldy for high volume use and system integration while silkscreen, pad and offset printing remain cumbersome industrial processes best suited to replication. That leaves thermal transfer and inkjet technologies as the only real alternatives.

Thermal Transfer
Until recently Rimage was the only manufacturer of thermal transfer CD printers; however, now several others have appeared on the market. In terms of capability, the latest generation of Rimage’s Prism and CopyPro’s PowerPro units offer 300×600 dpi single color black, red or blue or three-color disc surface printing while Primera Technology’s Inscripta offers 600×300 single color black or red/black, blue/black or green/black two-color operation.

Thermal transfer printers such as these produce excellent quality indelible monochrome labels on standard lacquer and thermal transfer surface CD-R discs but generate disappointing color results. Anything other than full color results in dithering and grainy prints. While results improve if the artwork is modified to work around the limitations of the printers, seldom is that an option in a rapidly growing market driven by non-technical customers.

In addition to color quality, physically changing color to black-only ribbons on the Rimage and CopyPro printers is a cumbersome process most duplicators avoid. And the Primera unit, to complete the picture, was never designed for use in high volume production environments. Slow color printing speed is also a huge impediment that creates bottlenecks in in-line robotic situations. While there is no denying that thermal transfer printers have proven to be excellent production systems for monochrome printing, they really can’t keep up for color tasks.

Inkjet
In contrast, the current crop of CD inkjet printers produce excellent quality color labels and are available from a wide variety of manufacturers including Primera, Affex/Trace, Craig Associates, IMT, Discmatic, Orient, Expert Magnetics and CopyTrax, to name but a few.

Unfortunately, while these printers are excellent mid-range devices they are being pressed into service in situations and for applications for which they were never designed. Unlike some thermal transfer units which were specifically engineered for use in production environments, all of the current inkjet systems employ only modified consumer engines. This means that, for example, their printing speed is insufficient to keep pace with multiple ultra speed recorders. As well, printer drivers are really not robust enough for seamless integration into production equipment. Ink cartridges don’t hold enough ink for continuous operation and printed labels can be smeared easily thanks to water soluble dye-based inks.

What’s The Alternative?
From my perspective, thermal transfer technology, even as it exists today, is more than sufficient for monochrome or simple two color printing; however, the future of high quality full color labeling lies with inkjet systems. It’s apparent that consumer inkjet printers are not equal to the task, so the industry needs a champion to come forward and offer a modified CD version of one of the specialized large format inkjet units used for CAD, sign, map, display and poster printing.

Large format inkjet printers are widely available. These include HP’s DesignJet, Kodak’s professional series, Encad’s NovaJet, Scitex’s Iris and Roland’s Hi-Fi Jet. Their commercially-oriented designs have many desirable attributes that lend themselves to CD production work, including 600 dpi or better resolution and 50 to 100 square feet per hour high-speed operation. In addition, different colored inks on these units are stored in individually removable tanks with as much as a half liter capacity each (enough to print 500 square feet) and can be quickly replenished using economical refill bottles. Four-color (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) inks are standard and some printers even offer six-color hexachrome capability by adding either orange and green or light cyan and light magenta to the mix. Label durability is also addressed since, in addition to the standard water-soluble dye-based inks, a number of manufacturers also offer indelible pigmented UV formulas.

Serious tasks need serious equipment. In my opinion CD duplication and custom disc production have matured to the point where the old “good enough” mentality should no longer apply. The question remains, who will it be to step forward and meet the challenge and reap the rewards?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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).

Copyright © 2000 Knowledge Industry Publications / Hugh Bennett

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