Inkjet Printers for Customizing CDs
There are several types of inkjet printers on the market today which have been specially constructed to print directly on the surface of CD and DVD discs. The difference between a standard desktop paper printer and a CD printer is in the paper carriage, which must be altered to allow a rigid, thick disc pass through the mechanism instead of thin, flexible sheets of paper.
The print head and ink cartridges are the same as those used for normal paper printing in many cases, although at least one manufacturer has designed a disc printer from the ground up for disc customizing (Primera Technologies' Bravo series). Special "inkjet printable" media designed for inkjet printing is required for use with these type of printers.
Attempting to print on plain silver or lacquer-coated discs will result in the ink not adhering to the disc, smearing and beading up. Printable media has a slightly porous coating that holds the ink. Different brands of media have minor differences between them; testing various brands to find the best surface for a particular printer is highly recommended.
Some issues involved in evaluating the use of inkjet printers are: appearance of the finished product; durability of the image printed on the disc; and whether the printing process or materials can affect the life expectancy of the disc. Another consideration is the cost of use.
Obviously, anyone who considers buying a special printer for customizing CDs is concerned with their appearance. Inkjet printers used with appropriate media can produce very attractive discs, with multiple colors and high-resolution graphics. However, if care is not taken in matching the printer with media compatible with its ink, the end product may be less pleasing. Generally, white- or silvery-surfaced media is better for use with multi-colored designs, since the ink is semi-transparent and any surface color can "bleed" through, and unexpected color changes can ensue.
Nonetheless, if the disc color is taken into account and integrated into the design, colored surfaces might be used effectively. Bear in mind that there are many different shades of white, and one brand may give a slightly different appearance from another on that basis alone. Also, the texture of the disc surface will affect the resulting appearance. A finer texture is required for the highest resolution, but a "nubby" surface can impart its own interest to a label.
Many people have complained that inkjet images on discs are subject to smearing if they get wet. It is possible that some inks may smear even if used on appropriate media surfaces, but possibly it is only ink applied to non-printable discs have this problem to any great extent.
Some manufacturers have developed inkjet printable CD and DVD discs with a special coating that repels water. Taiyo Yuden calls this "Watershield" while Primera Technology calls it "TuffCoat with AquaGuard." These coatings protect the disc from smudging and smearing after printing and give it a beautiful glossy look without the need for laminating the disc.
Besides the durability of the image, there is a question in the minds of archivists who want to keep their discs for decades, not just years, about any possibility of damage to the disc from the ink or gasses generated by ink decomposition over long periods. This is difficult to answer since the printer manufacturers consider their ink formulas proprietary, and do not want to release information about their composition. Until such information is available, it is probably not advisable to use inkjet printing on discs intended for long term archiving.
In fact, the ANSI IT9.21 standard for data storage media handling recommends against using any kind of label on CDs used for archiving purposes. However, for discs intended for every day use or short-term storage (up to five or ten years), the likelihood of damage from outgassing of the ink is probably insignificant. Any potentially harmful gasses (if they exist) would be dissipated by moving the disc from its case to a reader in the instance of discs that are in use. It is probably only in discs that are kept closed up in their cases for very long periods that even a hypothetical potential for damage exists.
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Printers of this kind have a street cost in the US at present from around US$800 to US$2,500. The ink cartridges are an ongoing expense, running about US$50 each for a 3-color cartridge for the one brand I'm whose prices I'm familiar with. It is also necessary to use special printable media, which sometimes costs US$1 to US$3 more per disc than plain lacquered product.
Another cost comes from the fact that graphics are not always perfect the first time out. It is not at all unusual to want to re-do a disc several times before getting it the way you want it if aesthetics are involved. And if aesthetics are not involved, you probably wouldn't be bothering with a disc printer in the first place. Some printers are now shipped with a supply of cardboard blanks for making proof copies. Using these can help prevent unpleasant surprises. The color and surface of the media affect the appearance of the final printed image, and all printable media differs between brands, and even between types of the same brand. Results might not be what you expected every time because of the texture and color bleed-through. Some inkjet pigments are semi-transparent, and none are totally opaque, and each type of media has a slightly different surface texture and absorbtion properties. Experimentation is necessary to obtain good results. So count on more wasted media than usual if you use a CD-R printer.
Of course, there is a way to avoid this problem, too. See our latest article in this section, about a new service that allows you to create your custom design online and view a proof interactively. Since this company has turned disc customization into a production, they have already done the experimetation to ensure optimal results for you.
Inkjet printers are a great way to for mid-size companies and organizations to create their own custom-printed CD and DVD discs. The image quality is not as sharply defined as with silkscreen or wax transfer, but with good design and media surface appropriate for the appearance desired, discs labeled this way can be very attractive. Inkjet labels should not be considered highly durable, since some inks might smear when dampened and all of them are subject to more effects of wear than silkscreened or wax-transfer labels, since the ink is not cured.
Also, any effects of the ink on optical media longevity have not been determined. No on-disc labeling should be used for discs intended for long-term archiving according to the ANSI standard, but for identifying and decorating discs for distribution or short-term storage, inkjet technology can be moderately economical and aesthetically pleasing.
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