Which inkjet printheads are best? Thermal or piezo? Epson or Spectra or Ricoh? HP or Canon? What about Kyocera? Print

Piezo printheads compared with Thermal printheads

There are many kinds of printhead technology, but the two most common kinds are

  • Thermal printheads
  • or Piezo printheads.

Not many printers use continuous inkjet nowadays, and definitely not many (or any) wide-format printers for traditional signage. We had a continuous inkjet printer for Giclee fifteen years ago, and threw it away after testing it.

You can spell the word either as one, printhead, or as two, print head.

How do printheads work?

You can find technical descriptions all over the Internet. If you wish to do serious research there is tons of information. FLAAR staff also attend technical conferences. But if you just want to know a quick comment: thermal printheads use heat "thermal" to create a bubble to push the ink out the nozzle. Piezo printheads use an electrical charge to cause the piezoelectric crystal to change shape and push the ink out the nozzle.

If you wish to learn the technical aspects, we recommend attending IMI conferences on printheads. There are IMI Europe conferences and IMI (USA) conferences. We have attended these conferences over the years and found them worth taking the time. The best general introduction is their Inkjet Academy.

Thermal printheads: Canon, HP, Lexmark, Memjet

Canon printheads are sometimes called Bubblejet. All Canon iPF printers use Canon thermal printheads.

HP has invested millions of dollars in improving their thermal heads. But HP does also use one or two piezo heads (technology licensed or purchased from elsewhere).

Encad printers of the 1990's used thermal heads from Lexmark. These were the most rudimentary of the thermal heads. I can still remember the Encad Nova Jet Pro 36 printer; the first wide-format printer evaluated by FLAAR (circa 1997).

I then remember the first HP printer we received to evaluate (HP Designjet 2800cp). The advantages over Encad were quite notable. We went on to evaluate a dozen more HP Designjet printers, especially the HP Designjet 5000 and HP Designjet 5500. In turn these printers went on to sell over 150,000 units (one print shop told us recently they bought 35 HP printers based on FLAAR Reports in those early years).

Encad is no more and Lexmark printheads exist only in an Asian version, if even that (used in a few Chinese printers six years ago).

Memjet thermal printheads: MEMS technology

Today Memjet are thermal technology but with MEMS technology. These Memjet heads are used in

  • Oce Project Velocity (renamed Oce ColorWave 900; now Oce ColorWave 910)
  • Fuji Xerox, DocuWide C842 or Xerox IJP 2000
  • OWN-X WideStar 2000, (sold as RTI Vortex 4200)
  • Xante Excelagraphix 4200 printers.

During circa 2014-2015 there was a nice Chinese 42” printer using Memjet printheads. I did not see any Chinese 42” Memjet printer at APPPEXPO in earlier years but for several years this printer appears occasionally at expos in Turkey and elsewhere. It turns out that this Gongzheng Memjet printer is in some ways better than the Oce and Fuji Xerox. But since HP has printheads which can use pigmented ink (and Memjet can use only dye ink), HP may take over this market (unless Memjet can act fast enough to rescue their market share). Since we have never been to Memjet itself, and not to any factory making any Memjet 42” printer, we need such a visit(s) to evaluate the printers and their workflow potential.

There will be several new FLAAR Reports on the ups and downs, pros and cons of Memjet printhead technology (code-named Waterfall). We also comment on which of the four brands of 42" printers is most mature; and which has a few hiccups still. You can ask to be invoiced for the TRENDs level FLAAR Report on Memjet.

Since we do not accept PR releases, we have our own assessment. We have done print samples with all brands of Memjet 42” printers except the Xante (since Xante is mainly fpr printing on pizza delivery cartons). So there is almost never any Xante booth at international signage printer expos.

Our test prints are usually photographs but sometimes drawings. If the Memjet operator has coated stock the output is very impressive. But of course dye ink will not hold up in a sunlit room.

Once HP came out with their HP PageWide technology, Memjet potential began to sink. One manufacturer of a Memjet printer said it was not really worthwhile even trying to compete. HP PageWide can use pigmented ink, for example.

In the meantime, no significantly improved Memjet printhead has appeared. And the Chinese printer Memjet printer barely exists any more. RTI evaporated as well. Rigoli has taken over the Vortex.

Unless Memjet can offer

  • Pigmented ink
  • Ink at lower price
  • Printheads whose nozzles can be replaced on the fly via software
  • Printers at same or lower price than HP PageWide

 

MEMS printheads other than Memjet

We recently spoke with a printer engineer who said that some of the newest MEMS printheads (brands other than Memjet) scratch so easily that even your fingernail can ruin a $5000 dollar printhead. It was the silicon plate which scratched, thus ruining the head. So perhaps you should use gloves when touching a MEMS head.

Kyocera printheads

Kyocera printheads are the most expensive heads, and most difficult for printer manufacturers to test. Since the folks at Xaar, Spectra and Konica Minolta are so well known, and readily accessible, I tend to interact with these three brands. Most people in the industry do not know who to speak with about Kyocera printheads (whoever handles Panasonic printheads and Ricoh printheads are also not as easy to meet as the teams at Xaar and Fujifilm Dimatix Spectra).

Kyocera printheads tend to be used primarily in certain markets (especially for high-end textile printers); so far they are not at all what could be considered general use (again, due to the cost, and "inaccessibility" of the managers and company in general).

Epson DX printheads

In the past Epson printheads were used by Mutoh, Roland, Mimaki, and Epson itself. But Mimaki was the first partner to wake up to the fact that Epson was utilizing these three companies to develop markets which then Epson would move into (and take market share away from Mutoh, Roland, and Mimaki). So Mimaki cleverly switched to Ricoh heads.

Mutoh and Roland still use primarily Epson heads but now Epson eco-solvent printers compete against both these "partner" brands. Eventually Mutoh and Roland may realize that between Epson on one side and dozens of Chinese brands (which also use Epson DX heads) on the budget side, that their own market share is decreasing (or at least not increasing since any increase is taken by the Chinese or Epson itself).

Epson heads are used by thousands of print shops around the world but are considered entry-level compared to industrial level of the other Japanese brands. Although claimed to be "permanent" in fact Epson heads wear out, especially because many of these heads have to be constantly purged (which uses a lot of their expensive ink as well). But the print quality is quite good (during the moments there is no banding from clogged Epson nozzles!).

The other comments are that some applications printed with Epson DX piezo heads tend not to have enough color saturation. This experience is why increasingly distributors, print shops, and manufacturers are asking for us to come to their companies to provide consulting services.

And most printers with Epson heads tend to be slow. However for giclee, and proofing, and photo printing, Epson long ago became an industry standard. We at FLAAR have experience with Epson printers but the HP Designjet Z3200 was easier to use (until its firmware declined to function!). We are getting ready to throw away the HP Z3200 printer because HP declined to service it.

During late 2016 even Roland began to stop using Epson heads in its newest models.

Konica Minolta printheads

The Konica Minolta team from Japan are recognized worldwide and provide knowledge and expertise. In the last six years the market share of Konica Minolta has risen, especially in mid-level printers.

Ricoh printheads

The use of Ricoh heads is quietly but surely taking more market share. Whereas Xaar, Konica Minolta and Spectra teams are readily visible (often with their own booth), there is almost never any Ricoh printhead booth. The HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 use aging Ricoh Gen3 printheads since these HP printers are based on earlier ColorSpan printers. But Ricoh Gen5 heads have a much better reputation than Ricoh Gen3 (though Matan does acceptably with Gen3). However I estimate that today (in 2017) that even Matan has ceased using Ricoh Gen3 heads.

Ricoh Gen4 heads were never used as often as are the Gen5 heads.

Ricoh printheads are used for textile printers (ATPColor) and UV-cured, plus other inks.

But, it is important to realize that whereas one brand may be excellent with one generation head, occasionally an earlier generation, or even a newer generation, will turn out to not function adequately with water-based inks, or with solvent based inks. So just because a printhead brand works with one printer really well is no guarantee whatsoever that this nice head will work acceptably with another ink chemistry..

 

Fujifilm Dimatix Spectra printheads

The teams of Dimatix printhead managers are easily located at most major printer expos around the world. Spectra are considered sophisticated printheads but there is also an entry-level series for Chinese printers (though not as low-bid as from other companies who were in the Chinese market earlier).

Presently Spectra has a new series which have an amazing resolution. Although I have never been to the Spectra headquarters in USA nor in Japan, I visit with the capable managers from the US offices at several trade shows a year. I would rate the hospitality of Dimatix as excellent. Konica Minolta and Xaar have comparable open accessibility at international expos.

Spectra printheads had issues in several textile printers (textile printers use water-based inks). One example is the Gandinnovations Aquajet. Even Agfa finally dropped this printer (after buying the remains of Gandinnovations). These issues with textile printers were several years ago, so I estimate that the Dimatix heads today are more capable of handling textile inks.

Booth Fujifilm Dimatix Spectra
Fujifilm Dimatix booth

 

Seiko printheads (SII Printek Inc)

The most important brand of UV-cured printers which features Seiko printheads is efi VUTEk. The other company which features Seiko printheads is FY Union in China. FY Union is the Seiko distributor in China. So all the brands related to FY Union tend to use Seiko printheads. Otherwise, not many printer brands use Seiko printheads: more use Konica Minolta or Ricoh.

Seiko is a multi-faceted company, since another division makes the highly regarded ColorPainter mild-solvent and now also eco-solvent printers. We at FLAAR know the ColorPainter team from USA, EU, and Japan. Now of course the “Seiko printers” are branded as OKI printers. But Seiko printheads continue to be made by Seiko, not by OKI.

XAAR printheads

XAAR was originally king of entry-level Chinese printers; today XAAR is king of high-end ceramic in-line printers. The entry-level Chinese market has been taken over by Epson printheads at low-end and Spectra and other brands at mid-range entry level.

The hospitable and knowledgeable XAAR team personnel can be found at ceramic expos, glass expos, and at the really large Chinese expos.

Toshiba Tec

These were once really popular and then they stopped improving them (they even announced this!). So most printer manufacturers (except Oce) switched to Ricoh or Konica Minolta or Dimatix Spectra.

Early models of Toshiba Tec heads had occasional issues around the world (especially with the Oce Arizona 250 model of UV-cured flatbed printer. When asked to be consultants we discuss which brands of printers tried each brand and dropped them after experience and jumped to another brand.

But several years ago Toshiba Tec decided to continue to develop their heads (probably because they could not afford to lose their lucrative business with Oce (Arizona).

The most noticeable issue with Toshiba Tec heads is that if there is dust in your print shop the heads will probably fail (so you will have to pay thousands of dollars to replace the heads, and thousands of dollars to install an air cleaning system.

We recommend installing Island Clean Air air purifiers. We have been to the company headquarters and we know their distributors for the USA. Plus we have tested a model which was sent to our offices: it definitely cleans up dust.

Other printhead brands: Panasonic

I first heard about Panasonic printheads at an IMI conference in 2007. This lecture discussed the Panasonic 420 series. But I did not notice these heads being widely used until around 2014-2015. Still today (in 2017) you rarely see more than a few Chinese printers using Panasonic heads, and certain Mimaki printers.

Recently (late 2016 and early 2017) we had two independent sources indicate that these printheads were difficult to use. One printer manufacturer said they would not bother to even try them again (this was a manufacturer of firmware and electronics, who was experimenting with building entire printers). If I remember correctly they said Ricoh and other brand heads worked much better.

Considering what I have learned of the issues with these heads, I will want to learn whether Mimaki has had issues with Panasonic heads. Of course a printhead is more than just the head: you have the ink delivery system, the electronics, firmeware (software) and other aspects which may make the given printhead do well, or poorly.

In other words, to be fair to Panasonic, it may not always be the head which causes the problems, it could be everything that feeds and handles the head. We will be asking around at major expos during 2017.

It is unfortunate that the Panasonic head has not gained international recognition since manufacturers need a head to replace Epson.

Other printhead brands: Brother, etc.

There are also printheads by Brother and a few other printhead brands, which are not widely used. We tend to discuss the printheads where we have first-hand experience since the manufacturers have flown a FLAAR team to their headquarters to provide training and understanding of their printheads.

There are also other technologies, such as continuous inkjet. But we tend to focus on the printheads used in the most popular 80% of wide-format inkjet printers (these are the printhead brands we mention by name in this web page).

FLAAR Reports on printheads

We have lists of which printheads are in which UV-cured printers. Which are in which textile printers, etc. Naturally we are also familiar with the status of each company in the industry, and the occasional ups and downs, occasional glitches in one or other model of printhead in past years.

When you ask for consulting services from Dr Hellmuth, we provide these reports to you, plus we discuss printheads with you (by phone, by Skype, or in person if you prefer the FLAAR team to come to your company headquarters). We consult worldwide, in many languages.

Printheads are absolutely crucial to understand

If you go into a typical printer booth at a trade show, especially a booth of a distributor, about 25% of the booth personnel will immediately identify the printhead and provide pointers on why this printhead is good for the job. But another 50% will either literally not know what printhead is in the printer they are selling (or in the printer they are manufacturing) or decline to tell you the printhead name, saying “we are not allowed to identify the printhead used in our printers.”

This is like a car manufacturer saying they can’t tell you whether the vehicle uses a horse to move the vehicle, or a motor; and if a motor, whether diesel or gasoline or 4 cylinders or 8 cylinders!

The other ruse is to claim that they, the printer manufacturer, make the printhead themselves. Only Fujifilm or Epson or Seiko can honestly state this: and actually more than half the Fujifilm printers use other brands besides Dimatix Spectra. So Durst does not make “printheads.” Durst assembles printheads from Dimatix or Ricoh into an assembly. The assembly and the electronics and the firmware are by Durst. But not the core structure of the individual printhead.

A printer manufacturer may make the ink supply system, and the electronics that controls many aspects of the printhead. A printer manufacturer may even assemble components to make a printhead array (such as Durst). But none of these printer manufacturers “make their own printheads.” But many do engineer their own printhead carriages and associated features.

Besides, once you own the printer (if you are sufficiently innocent to buy a printer without knowing about the printheads), you will very quickly learn the pros and cons of the printheads you are now stuck with.

When a distributor or print shop hires FLAAR as a consultant and asks us what printers to consider (and what printer brands to avoid) or a manufacturer of interior decoration products wants to start doing their own printing, one of the first discussions we provide is on printheads (pros and cons of each brand). Eight years ago we learned a lot from hospitaly Xaar staff in China taking us around to all the factories which used their heads.

 

 

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Most recently updated February 27, 2017.


Previously updated February 12, 2015.
First posted October 2, 2013
, as part of our continued program to provide information around the world to print shops and to distributors and manufacturers on the entire workflow and on all crucial aspects of wide-format inkjet printer technology.