Near Edge or Flat Head Printing?

Does your thermal label printer use flat head or near edge print technology? Do you know the difference? Do you care?

When I first got involved in thermal transfer printing, it was with on-line thermal coders (such as the Markem SmartDate) that I was most familiar with. These devices are intended for high speed printing on mainly synthetic materials and near edge printheads were pretty standard.

When I made the move to thermal label printing (I worked at Zebra Technologies before coming here to Winco ID) one of the first things I noticed was that most of the label printers I encountered used a different type of print head, the flat head type.

In the thermal coder world, flat head printing was generally considered to be slow and old fashioned. Why then had leading label printer companies such as Zebra and Datamax not made the move to near edge while some of their competitors such as Avery Dennison, Toshiba and Source Technologies had?

Is there really any advantage to using a near edge printhead compared to the traditional flat head type for these kinds of printer?

Before getting started, what is the difference between the two print methods anyway?

Both use similar technology (which has really been unchanged for many years now) where the

printhead for thermal printer

Printhead for Thermal Printer

print is produced by using a combination of heat and pressure to transfer the image from the coated ribbon to the label.

The printheads consist of a ceramic material with a lot of embedded heat elements – the number of these elements that are embedded in each linear inch of printhead is what determines the resolution of the printer. As the label passes by, these elements are switched on and off at the appropriate moments to build up the image by transferring ink from the ribbon onto the label.

While flat head and near edge printers use this same technology, there is a key difference in where the line of heat elements is positioned:

flat head and near edge printing

 As its name suggests, in flat head printing the printhead is positioned quite flat against the label – the heat elements being built into a slight bump in the ceramic material. This has the effect of causing the ribbon and the label to remain in contact for a short distance, after the label has passed past the print position.

With a near edge printhead, the line of heat elements is positioned close to the corner or edge of the printhead. When set up in the label printer, the printhead is now at an angle to the label path and the release point of the ribbon and label is right after printing.

Note that the ribbon needs to respond more quickly when releasing the ink with a near edge printer. The thermal transfer ribbon manufacturers make ribbons especially engineered for these applications – it is not a good idea to try and good good results on a near edge printer with conventional ribbons.

Why Near Edge?

I’m sure that most users of barcode label printers really don’t know and don’t care which type of printhead is used in their printer. They just want nicely printed labels to appear when they need them. All the printers we use in our in-house print room (Datamax H-Class printers mainly) use flat head printheads as do the Zebras we use in our manufacturing and shipping areas. We can print labels with good print quality with no problems – why use a different printhead type?

Near Edge Printer ModelsLet’s see what printer manufacturers building near edge machines have to say on their websites…

Source Technologies (now part of Datamax-O’Neil):

Designed with a Near Edge print-head that allows for printing on specialty labels such as synthetics, tags, shelf-adhesive and plastic, the STp.1120n delivers high quality printing for small labels

Avery Dennison:

The Monarch 9864 printer utilizes “Near Edge” printhead technology, giving it unsurpassed print quality for graphics, small fonts and more!

Toshiba TEC:

The EX4T1 series is based on our world renowned ‘near edge’ thermal print head technology providing superior performance and speed, as well as increased print head life vs. more traditional flat head machines in a variety of applications 

So if the manufacturers of near edge printers are to be believed, near edge printing provides the ability to print of a wider range of label substrates, higher quality printing with small fonts, faster speeds and longer printhead life.

Does Near Edge Cost More?

Yes, it seems that near edge printheads are a little more expensive than conventional flat head versions.

For example, in the Source Technologies pricelist, the list price for a 300 DPI 4 inch wide near edge printhead is $495.00 compared to $395.00 for the flat head version.

The special near edge thermal ribbons tend to be more expensive than conventional ribbons, so this needs to be taken into account as well.

Does Near Edge Last Longer?

No – the opposite tends to be true. To achieve the higher speeds, near edge printheads have a thinner coating over the print elements than conventional printheads. This tends to reduce the life of near edge printheads, especially if trying to use them on direct thermal labels.

Why Don’t OEM Print Engines Use Near Edge Technology?

The OEM print engines from manufacturers such as Datamax, SATO and Zebra are designed to be reliable, simple and low cost to operate. With this in mind, all these manufacturers have stuck with conventional flat head technology because it meets this criteria.

Should You buy a Near Edge Printer?

I have to say that this depends. If you are using conventional label printers already and they do what you need, why change? If you need to print on difficult to handle materials, such as plastic tags, a near edge printer might be better. The way the manufacturers mount the near edge heads in their machines tends to make the printhead self aligning and more tolerant of changes in label/substrate thickness.

Several of the near edge printer models available also use a centerline biased label position too – I much prefer this to the usual left edge datum we are usually faced with, especially for small labels.

Faster Than Near Edge

ID Technology High Speed Labeling

At ID Technology, we have developed a new labeling module, designed to allow in-line labeling of cases and trays at line speeds faster than either flat head or near edge printers can function. Our High Speed Wipe Module separates the printing speed from the conveyor speed, allowing very high outputs, while maintaining the best print quality.

Contact us for more info and to arrange a demo at  888-438-3242 Option#3 or you can contact me directly at dholliday@idtechnology.com

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Comments

  1. David drennan says:

    Hi David,
    I am working with an avery dennison computer (PEM) which I think is near edge. I have experienced that some parts of text have are not present after application of labels to a bottle. also sometimes the labels that have the missing pixels can esily be smudged. can this be because the printer contrast is too high and the label glue is melting and contaminating other labels/and or the print head elements?

  2. David Holliday says:

    Hi David,

    I’m not very familiar with the Avery PEM printer, but I do believe you are correct about it having a near edge type printhead.

    If you are getting poor quality printing or the print is smudging easily, it might be that the ribbon you have isn’t matched to either the printer or to the label material. Near edge printers generally use a different ribbon to the conventional flathead ones.

    Your hardware or ribbon supplier should be ab le to help you out – I’d send you some samples, but I suspect you are not in the US (I’ve never seen a PEM printer outside of Europe!)

  3. Good Morning David,

    My experience with thermal transfer printing is limited, but I had a few questions about ribbon.

    What are the effects of using a near-edge ribbon in a flat-head printer, and vice versa? Can a near edge ribbon function without issues in a flat-head print head?

    Thanks!

  4. David Holliday says:

    Lee, for best print quality you should use the type of ribbon that has been formulated for the type of printer you have.
    Having said that, I’ve successfully used the “wrong” ribbons on occasion and gotten decent results.

  5. Jeff Scantland says:

    David,

    I am mulling the question of near edge vs flat printheads in our facility. I have 5 I-Class 4406 400dpi printers which have been absolute work horses. They are no longer available and now I must replace them. The problem I face is I have some applications which print 4 and 5 points fonts and 1/2″ PDF47 barcodes so I need the resolution to get quality prints. Those applications are what leads me to think I can go to the new near edge to print faster and get better or equal print quality. But they are only about 10% of my business. The other applications I could probably get away with 300 dpi because they are all 7 and 8 pt fonts with code 128 linear barcodes. SO, I am trying to justify the extra cost of ribbon and printheads for the tradeoffs. My question to you do you have a feel for ribbon cost increase vs standard ribbon costs? Would you migrate to the near edge technology if you were dealing with small fonts and dense barcodes at speeds of 7 to 8 inches/second?
    I appreciate any feedback you have.

    Thanks,

    Jeff Scantland

  6. David Holliday says:

    Jeff, if you’ve had good luck with with the 400 DPI I-Class, you might want to look at moving to the same resolution in the H-Class for your new printers.

    I think the H-Class is way better engineered than the I-Class for not too much more cost. We have a label printing area where we print variable labels for our customers and just about every one is printed on an H-Class – we have 300, 400 and 600 models and they just work every day.

    From the tests we’ve done with the near-edge printers (Datamax Performance Series) on regular labels, there really isn’t any noticeable difference in print quality. We do have one here, but really don’t use it.

  7. Hello David;
    Great article.
    We are using the Zebra r110xi4 printer but not having good results with the specific stock we are trying to print on (have tried many different ribbon specifications). It seems the stock may be too thick? We have to up the print heat (darkness) and print head pressure almost to maximums – and still do not get good results. It has been suggested we go to near edge??

    Also i seems counter intuitive that for thicker stock you need to increase print head pressure – seems like you should lower it to keep the same pressure at the stock surface?

    Would 200dpi be better than 300dpi because 200dpi would seem to generate more heat (larger pins) per pin area (enable us to lower print heat and pressure)?

  8. David Holliday says:

    Hi Mike,

    What is the stock you are printing on? Is it a card material or something like that? Some of those can be tricky to print on.

    I’ve not had a lot of experience with the near-edge heads, although I know that Datamax (now part of Honeywell) has promoted their near-edge printer as being good for card and tag materials. Might be worth a try.

  9. Hi David

    For printing on heat shrink tube, may I know whether near-edge or flat head printing which one is better?
    Are you able to recommend either flat head or near-edge thermal transfer ribbon material suitable for suitable for heat shrink tube printing?

  10. David Holliday says:

    Hi Dave,
    If I had a choice I might go with near-edge, since these heads seem to work well with thicker materials. Having said that, more important is finding a solution that can handle the tube easily. This company ha some good options: http://www.seipusa.com/PDF/Sumimark/Latest%20SumiMark%20IV%20300%20DPI%20Brochure.pdf

  11. Ajinkya says:

    Hi David,
    I intend to print sterilization indicator Labels , able to withstand hot steam and temp of upto 135°C.
    Printing media would be coated paper, Would u recommend flat head or near edge printing.
    Also, would u know at what temperature does the ribbon ink melt while printing (eg what temp would the printing media be subjected to during thermal transfer print).
    Thank you

  12. David Holliday says:

    Hello – for your application, I’d be inclined to use a polyester label rather than coated paper This would handle the steam and temperature a lot better.

    If you use a resin printing ribbon, you should have no problems. It doesn’t matter whether near-edge or flat printhead – either will do a good job. Since most label prnters are flat head design, that’s probably what you’d use.

  13. David,
    We do labeling systems integration work (and often recommend IDT products!). I have seen cases where clients have trouble printing labels with a very small height (less and .25″). I recall a couple of situations using a Brady printer that would not consistently align itself correctly even though the label size fit into the printer spec. Since the contact surface is smaller, do near edge printers do better with smaller labels?

  14. David Holliday says:

    David, I don’t think this would make a huge difference, very small labels can be tricky to handle at the best of times.
    In the past we’ve had good results with Intermec printers – see this article: http://www.labelingnews.com/2011/02/you-want-the-label-how-small/

    It has been a while since I had to print these kinds of small label, so I’m not sure what the best current printer would be.

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