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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