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Types of computer printers and how they work:

I.  Impact Printers:  These printers must have a mechanism that actually touches the paper in order to create an image. These printers are inexpensive to operate, but are only useful for text (particularly for multi-part forms), not graphics, and are rather noisy and relatively slow.  There are basically two types of impact printers:            

              ADot Matrix Printers:  These printers Dot Matrix printer3use a series of small pins (between 9 and 24) to strike a ribbon coated with ink,Dot Matrix Printer Head causing the ink to transfer to the paper at the point of impact.  Not used as often any more, mostly for specific purposes, such as multi-part forms.  Most common are the Okidata Turbo 900 model and Panasonic KXP Series printers, which are used in auto shops, cleaners, inventory parts suppliers and other businesses which require multiple copy forms.

              BCharacter printers, sometimes Daisey wheelcalled “Daisy Wheel” printers:  These are basically computerized typewriters, having a rotating wheel or series of bars with actual raised characters embossed on the surface so that, when a character is struck against the ink ribbon, the character’s image is transferred to the paper. These printers are slow, noisy and pretty much obsolete, if you can even find one.

II.  Non-Impact Printers:

AInkjet printersAny printer that places extremely small droplets of ink onto paper to create an image.  The dots are extremely small; usually between 50 and 60 microns in diameter, smaller than the diameter of a human hair (which is about 70 microns). inkjet printer The dots are positioned very precisely, with resolutions of up to 1440 x 1440 dots per inch, and they can combine different colors to create photo-quality images. The most popular type of inkjet printer is the “bubble jet,” in which tiny resistors create heat which vaporizes the ink to create a bubble the expansion of which causes a droplet to form and eject from the print head.  A typical bubble jet print head has either 64 or 128 tiny nozzles, all of which can fire droplets simultaneously.  Since their introduction in the 1980s, inkjet printers have become most common due to their low cost and performance, although the per-page cost for the ink is substantially greater than other types of printers.  [For a detailed illustrated discussion of exactly how an inkjet printer works, see this LINK.] Inkjet printers include various parts, including the print head (usually part of the ink cartridge), the stepper motor (which moves the print head/cartridge back and forth across the paper and parks it when not in use), a belt, stabilizer bar, paper tray & feeder, rollers, power supply, various ports and control circuitry using microfluidics measurement. The following is a photo of a typical printer head in an inkjet printer:

B.  Laser printersInvented in 1969 by Gary Starkweather at Xerox, these printers use dry ink known as “toner”, which is charged with static electricity, then heat, to place and bond the ink, which may contain colors, onto the paper. Some color laser printers use, in addition, Laser Printera large rotating belt called a “transfer belt” which passes in front of all the toner cartridges, applying each color to the belt then, when completed, to the paper.  These printers have a higher initial cost but, after that, a substantially lower per-page cost.  However, particularly for business class laser printers, the maintenance cost can be quite high as well:  The rollers (pickup, feed, transfer and charge, as well as separation pads) wear out and must be replaced periodically, as well as the fuser  assembly (which pressure bonds the plastic powder ink to the paper at a heat of up to 200 degrees Celsius), and the drum assembly (depending on whether the ink cartridges have one built in), all of which may need replacement in as little as 12,500 copies, depending on the nature of their use.  So don’t just consider the low initial cost these days for a color laser printer - think about whether the maintenance costs as well.   [For a detailed illustrated discussion of exactly how a laser printer works, see this LINK.]  Interestingly, if you’ve seen “CSI” you probably know that laser printers each have identifying marks that can be traced by authorities.  Click HERE for more about how this looks.

C.  See also, Plotters, a special type of printer that prints blueprints and other graphics on large paper.


III.  SPECIALIZED non-impact printers not generally sold for residential use:

A.  Solid Ink: These printers use sticks of a wax-like ink that is melted and applied to the paper.

B.  Dye sublimation:  These printers use a roll of transparent film consisting of sheets of red, blue, yellow and gray colored cellophane laminated together.  The film passes over a heating element which varies in temperature depending upon the amount of a particular color to be applied.  The printer makes a complete pass over the paper for each of the basic colors to build the final image.

C.  Thermal wax:  Similar to dye sublimation, but this type of printer uses a ribbon of alternating color bands which pass in front of print head that has a series of tiny heated pins, which cause the wax to melt and then adhere to paper.

D. Gel:  In 2005, a new “Gel” printing technology was unveiled in Japan.  Ricoh printers spray a viscous liquid gel that gelatinizes and dries almost instantly upon contact with paper, minimizing bleeding and smudging of images and is also water and sunlight resistant, resulting in increased document durability.  Three years later, Xerox introduced a “cured gel ink technology” for the purpose of printing on plastic and foil, taking digital printers primarily to the packaging market.  This still appears to be a specialty technology, not widely adopted in the consumer printing arena.

E.  Thermal autochrome: These printers have the color in the paper instead of the printer.  The color layers in the paper are activated by the application of a specific amount of heat.  Again, the printer head passes over the paper multiple times at different degrees of heat in order to build the final image.

IV.  Multi-Function Printers:  These are printers that can not only print in color or black, but also scan, copy and fax.  Also print wirelessly, through a network or directly from mobile devices.  They come in both inkjet as well as laser models.  Depending on your needs, they can save on your desktop footprint and costs.  They are very popular for residential use, although there are office models as well.  But just because these printers can do several things, it doesn’t mean that it does them as well as the stand-alone printers, or scanners, or copiers, or faxes.  multifunction printerSo, if you require high quality scanning, it may not be for you.  Same for printing photo quality prints, that feature may not be available.  The point is, check these things against your actual and predicted needs.  Other factors:  Warranty, type of ink, printing speed, scanning resolution and features (e.g. where it scans to), cost-per-page, supported paper and media types, number of paper trays and other printing features (e.g. duplexing, document feeders).  The “duty cycle” should also definitely be considered:  This is the number of pages that the device is designed to print in a month.  If you know you’re coming close to exceeding this figure, better to get a better printer than have a lesser one fail under stress.  See TIPSs for more information about printer ink and paper.  See also, Typewriters.

IV(A) Wireless Printers:  In the past several years, as wireless connectivity has become commonplace for cell phones, laptops and pads, wireless printer connectivity has become almost a necessity.  Apple’s AirPrint can can print from iPhones or iPads to compatible printers, Mopria-certified printers can print directly from Android devices and many other manufacturers can print from various other devices.  Those printers that are truly wireless fall into two basic categories:  The first are connected to a home or office network by USB or ethernet cable or software, so that it can be detected by any device that is connected to the network.  The other, called Wi-Fi Direct, connects to the printer directly, over a peer-to-peer connection that doesn’t require a network.  Others print indirectly from a cloud-based or even e-mail service.  And still others use NFC (Near Field Communication), similar to those used a point-of-sale payments, where one only has to touch a compatible mobile device to the NFC-enabled printer for printing to commence. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to connect to wireless printers as you might think.  Click HERE for more about this.


3D printer2 No longer the subject of sci-fi movies, 3D (“three dimensional”) printers are actually here and in use.  They look pretty much like any other inkjet printer. 

Almost every crime show has a printer that’s used to create a handgun. Already, the first working gun with metal parts dubbed “The Liberator” made with 3D technology has been created by Defense Distributed, headed by crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, a 25 year old University of Texas law student, who intends to post the plans online. Unfortunately, it still self-destructs after only a few shots, but it will inevitably improve as it develops. Consequently, there’s been lots of public awareness about the 3D printers that can create dimensional items by spraying or extruding layers of resin and other materials to duplicate scanned items. 

Already, as the 3D ball gets rolling, there’s  a 3D printing store in New York (displaying hardware from MarkerBot “Replicator” 3D printers) and a launch of Pirate Bay for 3D (“Defcad,” which will become a search engine for 3D printing plans).  It’s unfortunate that the gun thing started the ball rolling.  It would have been far better if it were medical perhaps:  For exa3D prosthetic armmple, on the positive and creative side, there is Dr. Tom Catena in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, who read an article about Richard Van As, an inventor who used the printer to create a low-cost 3-D printed prosthetic hand after losing his fingers in a carpentry accident.  With the help of Mick Ebeling of Not Impossible Labs, Catena figured out how to print useable open-source prosthetic hands for children who had limbs blown off, right in their village, immediately available at minimal cost, completely changing their lives.  Click HERE for more. Also, the prosthetic feet fashioned for a duck in Oshkosk WI who lost them due to frostbite.  It’s almost unbelievable, and demonstrates how technology can be used, with a little imagination, to transform people’s lives.

There are many more useful medical possibilities developing daily, such as using stem cell-embedded resin to create replacement body parts (a/k/a “bioprinting”).  MarkForged 3D printers can print with carbon fiber.  Already labs like that of Dr. Darryl D’Lima of the Scripps Clinic have been testing the making of bioartificial cartilage of cow tissue, modifying an old inkjet printer to put down layer after of layer of a gel containing live cells. Also, Organovo, a San Diego company produces strips of liver tissue for drug testing, organ repair and tissue regeneration. It has built models of whole tissues like bone, muscle, cartilage, blood vessels and lung tissue and has explored ways to build upon cadaver tissue, but this is far in the future, if ever. In 2012, scientists at the Univ. of Hasselt BIOMED Research Institute in Belguim teamed up with Xilloc Medical to create and transplant a complete lower jaw bone made with a 3D printer into an 83 year old Belgian woman. Thomes Boland at the University of Texas has developed a way to print fat tissue for possible implants in women who have had breast lumpectomies.   And the Germans are experimenting with printing skin cells (at Hanover Medical School) and at another lab that prints sheets of heart cells for patches.  In 2012, three  newborns’ lives were saved when they each received a 3-D splint to prevent their airways from collapsing from a condition known as terminal tracheobronchomalacia.  Click HERE for more.  And the BioAssembly Bot, created by Advanced Solutions in partnership with researchers at the University of Louisville, will assemble and 3D print human tissue and possibly a human heart.  But bioprinting is still generations away, due to the limitations of current print heads and the delicate nature of tissue.  Read an exhaustive article about BAT HERE.  It may be quite some time before it is possible to print whole organs, but repairs to existing ones may are quite possible.  Meanwhile, the age of 3-D printed pills and other medications is coming of age.  Just this year (2015) the FDA approved the country’s first prescription drug (Spritam, used to treat certain types of epileptic seizures, made by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals) made through 3-D printing.  Someday, patients may be able to load chemical cartridges into their 3-D printers and print their medications as needed.

3D printers may also be able to produce emergency replacement parts for failing industrial equipment as well as for creating edible entrees from pureed foods, even parts for buildings.  Or buildings themselves: The design team at WASP (World's Advanced Saving Project) unveiled what is being billed as the world's largest 3D printer on 9/25/15 in Rieti, Italy. Dubbed the "Big Delta," this enormous device stands roughly 40 feet tall with a 20 foot diameter. But despite its size, the Big Delta is extremely efficient and uses only 100 watts of power. Its oversized design allows the Big Delta to quickly and easily print low-cost disaster-relief housing. What's more, it can do so using locally-sourced materials (read: dirt and mud) which also acts to minimize construction costs. The WASP team also foresees employing this printer for non-disaster-related home building. According to a company release, the Big Delta will help accommodate the estimated 4 billion people worldwide that will lack adequate housing by 2030. NASA announced that it plans to launch a 3D printer into space in 2014 to produce objects and spare parts for satellites, space stations and other items.  For several years now, my dentist has used a special scanner and 3D resin printer to create crowns that can be set in a single appointment, rather than the old way of making a temporary crown and waiting for a dental laboratory to build and deliver the final one.  3D printing (sometimes called “additive manufacturing” has been in use for over 20 years, but it’s only become well known recently as the cost has gone down drastically. For some time they’ve been used for printing knock-down furniture, even made of wood.  Local Motors, a Phoenix-based 3D printing company has built an automobile, the Strati, completely out of carbon fibre with help from Oak Ridge National Lab and manufacturing company SABIC.  Both the body and chassis together were 3D printed, and it is completely driveable.  And let’s not forget about the “Foodini”  from Natural Machines, a 3D printer that specializes in “printing” food using canisters of natural foods rather than plastics.NOTE:  Microsoft announced on  6/26/13 that Windows 8.1 will have native support for 3-D printing, reducing the time spent translating the designs users create within a 3D printing app into a format that printer software can handle.  While no 3D printer companies currently support plug-and-play, Microsoft expects that after the release of Windows 8.1, it will come about rapidly.

Already, 3D printing firm MakerBot has teamed up with Sesame Street to bring downloadable figurines to its digital store to create toys.  The first is Mr.  Snuffleupagas, which is only about 4 x 4 x 3 inches, takes three hours to create and costs $1.29.  And, in 2015, GE engineers actually printed a mini-jet engine!  There’ll be more.

Here’s how a 3D printer works: A 3D image of an item is created using a scanner or a CAD design program, which is then sent to the printer, which proceeds to form the actual item by depositing a granular material (e.g. plastic, resin) in layers, each over the other, starting with the bottom layer, onto a platform, sometimes using a UV light or laser to harden the material before proceeding to the next layer.  While costs for such printers can range from about $1000 for the hobby designs to over a million dollars for industrial designs, they are used mainly for designing and creating manufacturing prototypes and aren’t yet particularly useful for replacement parts, because of the considerable time and expense of creating a CAD design and also the fact that most parts are made of more than one material, not possible with most current 3D printers.  Click HERE for an excellent CNN graphic showing the operation and possibilities of 3D printers.

3D printers can work in three ways:  The least expensive ones use an extrusion process by pushing out heated beads (polymers or even biologic material) in thin layers. Stereolithographic printers use one or more jets to deposit liquid polymers in programmed patterns.  Finally, Laser-sintering printers deposit thin layers of (metal, glass, thermoplastic) powder which are them selectively melted to form solid objects.  Because of their nature, 3D printers are, of course, quite slow.  The size of the printed part is limited, although the parts can be printed and connected into a larger finished device.  And the nature, availability and cost of the various types of polymers is an issue as well.  UPDATE:  4/16 - Now there’s a fourth - A Redwood (CA) based start-up company, Carbon, which uses a completely new technology in its M1 printer to fire UV light at syrupy resins to produce more durable parts much more quickly.  It uses a projector to precisely shape the UV light it focuses on polymer goo, hardening it into an item, which it then extracts from the goo. This can be 100 times faster than the injection mold technology.  While it can be expensive ($40,000/yr) to even rent, the speed, complexity and strength of the production parts makes it perfect for commercial applications.

One of the first 3D printers is the Buccaneer by Pirate3D (a Singapore-based  Kickstarter funded project) for only $397.  Also, the daVinci, XYZprinting and others are coming your way.  But this still isn’t for everyone.  You can’t just scan something with internal parts and reproduce it.  You have to have some design ability and also some knowledge about manufacturing, geometry, materials and graphics.  This may become easier, though.  PARC is working on building programs that should automate this process, allowing non-experts to think their way through design before sending instructions to the printer.


4D printers? The next generation of 3D printers envisioned by Skylar Tibbits at MIT will create real-world objects that adapt to particular environments by changing as the result of exposure to water, vibration, heat, sound or pressure which make it transform from one state to another.  A coffee cup where the wall expands to insulate the hot liquid poured inside, or sports equipment that deflects violent shock would be examples of 4D. 

Liquid Metal printers: It’s been the holy grail of manufacturers and engineers worldwide to develop a printer that can print electronic circuits on any surface using a desktop printer.  In late 2013, Jing Liu and his group at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry in Beijing, China announced that they’ve solved how to print electronic circuits on a wide range of materials, including paper, plastic, glass, rubber, cotton cloth and even a leaf using an inkjet printer filled with liquid metal (an alloy of gallium and indium) at room temperature that oxidizes as it is sprayed and mixed with air and then sprayed onto a mask or directly onto a surface.  This could mean big news not only to manufacturers and spare parts producers, but also wearable computing devices.

VI.  A NOTE ABOUT PRINTERS AND SURGE PROTECTION: While it’s O.K. to plug an INKJET printer into a surge protector, you should never plug your LASER printer into a surge protector or UPS.  THE REASON:  Laserjets run a repeated heating cycle, drawing current every minute or so, spiking and then going back down again.  Your surge and UPS have specific current ratings and usually a circuit breaker as well.  The repeated fluctuation can not only trip your breaker and crash your system, depending on the amount of equipment connected into the multi-outlets and the power rating, but the constant adjustment to the protection circuits can also cause tremendous wear to your printer, shortening its life.  THEREFORE:  Plug your laser printer directly into the wall outlet and not your power adaptor.  If possible, try and connect it to a different circuit than the computer itself, although in homes this often isn’t possible.

VII.  INCREASING PRINTER EFFICIENCY: It is said by many techs that you’re better off leaving your injket printer on standby, because they use just a trickle of power in that mode, and much more ink in starting up.   Laserjets, on the other hand, which have hot fusers and other parts that can wear out in standby mode, should be shut off when not used for some time.

VIII.  A FURTHER NOTE ABOUT TRAVELING WITH PRINTERS:  I don’t really know anyone who travels with standard size printers (althotravelprinterugh some do keep “travel printers” like the Canon Pixma iP110 or the HP BJC 150 or Epson WorkForce WF 100 around for small print jobs), but you should be aware  that TSA has banned passengers from carrying toner and ink cartridges weighing over 453 grams (16oz) from all domestic and international passenger flights.  This, as a result of an October, 2010 cargo plane bomb plot in which shipments of laser printers with explosive-filled toner cartridges were discovered on separate cargo airplanes in the U.S.

IX.  INK CARTRIDGE TIPS:  I never really rely on those graphics that your computer shows for the remaining ink in the cartridges.  There’s always ink left when they say it’s empty.  After all, the printer manufacturers make a ton on selling you ink, so they naturally want you to replace the cartridges as often as possible.  On some printers, you can’t ignore this message, as the printer simply won’t print at all if even one cartridge is empty.  Actually, it’s protecting your printer because, if you print on a truly empty cartridge, it may overheat and damage the print head (on those printers where the print head isn’t built in to the cartridge itself.  How does a printer detect low ink?  It actually depends on the brand:  Epson printers use an integrated circuit chip (see tip below).  Canon uses an optical sensor.  On some types of ink cartridges, if you take out the empty cartridge and turn it over, the bottom will have a circuit board and, if you insert the end of a paper clip into the hole at the top middle of the board, it will “reset” the card, giving your computer a more accurate reading of the remaining ink so that you will be able to print for a while longer.   See this LINK for more.  There’s no real way to tell how accurate the ink levels are for any given printer.  But there are ways to save ink:  Print in black only if color is unnecessary.  Print in draft mode, it uses half the ink.  Don’t turn the printer on and off a lot, because many printers use ink when it cycles on.  Use re-filled cartridges, but be careful where you get them.  (See TIP #38).  Print only when you need to.  Use both sides of the paper.  If you see that you’re using too much ink because you are printing too many pages, consider switching to a laser printer, or an inkjet printer with more efficient cartridges. 


Your First Decision: Cable or Wireless?  Years ago, you had to connect a printer to a computer or a network using a cable.  First there were parallel cables, later USB cables.  In the past few years, particularly with the invention of tablets and smart phones, as well a the proliferation of wireless routers, wireless printing is becoming quite common.  Most newer printers come with an installation disk which makes the setup relatively easy. (Note that you may have to cable the printer first for installation purposes, then remove the cable for wireless capability.) You normally have two choices:  First, you can print by sending the data to a free e-mail address supplied by the printer manufacturer.  You then retrieve the file on any device, then print it to the printer(s) connected to that device.  Second, you can turn on a wireless “broadcast” setting on the printer, after making it part of your wireless network.  When you come within range of the wireless printer with any device that has printer detection software installed, you can simply press a button and print directly to that printer.

Connectivity Settings for Cabled Connections:  Today’s printers have  a series of connectivity settings, although most of the installation programs for current operating systems automatically detect the hardware and are pretty much plug-and-play if you use the installation disks.  If you’re connecting a single printer to a desktop computer it’s pretty much a done deal.  However, when standard installation doesn’t work because of software or hardware conflicts, or when problems arise with an installed printer after the fact, or if you are connecting to a network, the following “port setting” considerations then become important:

    A.    EPP/ECP:  The older printers connected with parallel cables ending with Centronics connectors, those bulky cables with multiple pins.  There are very few of those type connectors these days, as the newer USB cables are bi-directional, offering a much higher rate of data transfer (i.e. 50/100 kbps vs 1mbps).  And they have the added benefit of eliminating the old “A/B Switch Boxes” where you had to manually switch between more than one printer attached to the same computer, since USB printers are self-selecting so long as the drivers are installed.   IEEE Standard 1284 was created to provide signaling methods for both current and older signaling methods (including the old Centronics standard for parallel printer communication).  ECP is for printers and scanners, while EPP is for non-printer peripherals.  Most current Windows operating systems have built-in support for IEEE 1284 in the plug-and-play feature.

    B.  NETWORK PRINTING: If you are printing over a network, you must create specific printer ports to enable the connection between the printer and the various network computers.  The printer must connect using TCP/IP for networks.  Further, each computer on the network must have the printer driver for that model printer installed on it.  The port must be specified and also the print application.  TCP/IP uses either LPD (most common) or RAW (actually a higher speed printing application, but used with Win2000/SP/Server2003/Vista).  In addition, if the printer supports SNMP and RFC 1759, the SNMP status enabled” box must be checked.  The printer manufacturer usually specifies the port to be used (often port 9100 for RAW printing devices), but there is software like a “standard port monitor” (successor to ‘line printer remote’) that can be used to manually change the settings if necessary for larger corporate setups.

    >>Do NOT confuse the print protocols (RAW, LPD) with the transport protocol (TCP/IP).  See the OSI Model for more.

    C.  SPOOLINGThis is the ability of a printer to place a print job into a queue for processing later, like the line at your bank or restaurant.  The opposite setting, used most of the time, is to print “directly to the printer” without waiting.

These are some, but not all, of the printer settings that can be user-controlled.  But they are the most common.

Why not just buy a 3D printer, then use it to create another one and return the first???


FAQ:  How do I set the laser printer to stun?

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