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Printers 101: How Inkjet Printers Work

Inkjet printers are non-impact printers – meaning they don’t touch the paper when producing images, as opposed to impact printers like the dot matrix, which have to have direct contact with the paper to produce text and images.


Inkjets work by spraying drops of ink onto paper, plastic, or other compatible substrate materials that are suitable for the type of ink being used. Here’s a quick look at how they work.

The Print Head

The most important part of an inkjet printer is the print head. This component contains the nozzles that shoot the drops of ink onto the paper. Some printer models have the print head as part of the entire printer mechanism, while the more affordable models have the print head incorporated into the ink cartridges.

These ink cartridges usually come in black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, while some models have a gray cartridge for monochromatic prints. Depending on the image, the printer “chooses” which combination of colors to spray on to the paper.

Should one of the cartridges run out of ink, you will still be able to use the printer, but the machine won’t be able to produce certain colors. Replacement ink cartridges can be bought from the manufacturers and authorized resellers, or if you want to save on costs without scrimping on quality, you can opt for premium and compatible or remanufactured ink cartridges instead. They are sold at a fraction of the cost of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) products, but they perform just as well.

The Types of Print Head

There are two types of inkjet print heads: thermal and piezoelectric.

Thermal print heads are commonly found in Canon printers with Bubblejet technology. This type of print head has an array of minuscule nozzles with a small heater filament in each one.

When a dot of ink needs to be placed on the paper, electric current passes through a filament, which boils the ink in a specific nozzle, creating a steam bubble. The bubble then pops and shoots ink out of the nozzle; the same process pulls more ink into the nozzle for the next “shot” of ink.

Piezoelectric print heads, on the other hand, have a special crystal that vibrates when electrified that acts as a sort of plunger that pushes the ink out of the nozzle and pulls in more ink. This system, which can use a larger range of inks, is patented by Epson. Almost all inkjet printers made today use this technology, as they allow for higher-resolution prints because the ink nozzles are closer together.

The Step by Step Process

  1. Once the printer receives the order to produce the text or images, it will go into a brief clean cycle (if it has been idle for a certain period) to make sure that the print heads are clean.
  1. After the clean cycle, the paper is fed into the printer from the corresponding tray.
  1. Once the paper is in position, the print head’s motor will engage the belt to move the print heads across the page. To spray the ink, the motor stops for a fraction of a second then moves almost indiscernibly to the next spot where it needs to spray ink again. This happens in continuous and rapid yet smooth loop.
  1. When the print head completes a pass, the paper will be adjusted to the next line, and the print head motor will engage again. Depending on the printer model, the print head will reset to the beginning side of the page or reverse directions and move back across the page. This process continues until the page is printed
  1. When the printing process is completed, the paper feed’s motor will spin rollers to push the page into the corresponding tray. The time it takes to complete printing a page can vary, depending on the printer model, the complexity of the contents, and the number of images on the page.

Inkjet printers have a relatively long life due to the incorporation of the print head into the ink cartridge. Since the print head is the part that most likely needs replacing because of wear and tear, replacing the cartridges means replacing the print head, too.

Inkjets are also more inexpensive than laser printers, because the manufacturers rely on your purchase of ink to make a profit margin. However, there are a lot of reputable producers of topnotch remanufactured ink cartridges, which offer fitting products for your printer. This factor lowers the operating cost of an inkjet printer even more.

Innovations in recent years have also advanced inkjet printing from simple paper or plastic printing to printing on other materials like cloth, ceramic, and glass.

Vishal Gaikar

Vishal Gaikar

Vishal Gaikar is a professional blogger from Pune, India. He is Software Engineer, Web Addicted. At Shake the Tech, he writes on Technology, Gadgets & so on. Follow me @vishal
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