Characteristics of Modern Printers
By John Papiewski
A modern computer printer, a fixture in any business office, is compact and quiet, and turns out high-quality text and graphics. In contrast to its noisy ancestors, which produced only simple text reports and forms, a modern printer can usually print color photographs, correspondence, marketing materials and bar codes. These printers employ high-definition inkjet and laser technology, producing professional-looking results. However, these sophisticated printing methods have also led to high printer supplies costs.
Modern printers produce documents with multiple fonts and color graphics at near-magazine-quality resolutions of up to 600 dpi, or dots per inch. The microscopic size of the substances used in printing allows this level of detail: toner particles for laser printers measure about 8 microns, while ink droplets in inkjet models are a mere 50 picoliters. In addition, printers use fast microprocessors and sophisticated software to control exactly where the toner particles and ink droplets land on a page.
A typical modern printer fits in a corner of an average desk or side table. Most of a printer's bulk is taken up by the paper supply trays, print mechanism and output bin. The paper follows a zigzag path, permitting a "folded" print mechanism that fits into a small total volume. Electronic components fit on one or two playing-card-sized circuit boards.
Printers use two basic types of technology: impact and non-impact. An impact printer slams formed type or metal pins into a ribbon at high speed, forming an image on paper. Impact printers are simple and reliable, but they are noisy. In the 1960s through the 1980s, printers overwhelmingly used impact designs, such as dot matrix, chain and drum. That trend has reversed, with most printers now having non-impact laser, inkjet or thermal technology. As a consequence, printers are quiet and work well in office environments.
Although the paper-feed mechanism itself is a feat of modern engineering, much of a printer's wizardry lies in the consumables, especially ink cartridges. This adds to the printer's reliability: because the cartridge contains moving parts, and because you discard them when they're spent, the printer itself has fewer parts that wear out. On the other hand, sophisticated consumables cost more relative to the simple ribbon cartridges used in older printer designs. According to printer repair company Micromechanic, printing costs for inkjet printers run from about 3 to 30 cents per page, while dot matrix printers cost about .15 to .2 cents per page.
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."