When I started my first video production company in late 2001, my first video productions went straight to VHS. But by 2002, DVDs accounted for almost 50% of sales. The production house that made our VHS dubs printed our very basic spine and face labels for us, but when it came to duplicating DVDs, we were already starting to hear rumblings about problems with sticky labels, especially on DVDs.
We decided we needed a better way of labeling our discs, and Epson was still another year away from introducing inkjet printers that had disc trays. I even purchased a rubber stamp and special ink for nonporous surfaces that would at least allow me to brand our DVDs with our company logo, but I was disappointed with the results. Eventually, I came across thermal printing and have been hooked ever since. I couldn’t afford a thermal printer at the time, and my volume back then didn’t warrant owning such a specialized printer. But as the volume of DVDs I duplicated increased from all the stage productions I was producing, a thermal printer made it higher and higher up my wish list until it made it to the top, last month, when I finally took the plunge and purchased a Rimage Prism Plus thermal printer and autoloader.
Thermal vs. Inkjet
Thermal printing is different from inkjet or laser printing. Whereas inkjet printing applies tiny droplets of liquid ink to the print media and laser printing applies powder toner, thermal printing is a heat-and-pressure transfer of ink resins from a ribbon. The process reminds me of my first plain paper fax machine that used a similar technology: For faxes, it was expensive to use, but the advantage was that unlike fax paper rolls that faded over time, thermal transfer printing was long-lasting.
The same benefit holds for thermal printing on discs, which doesn’t fade, smudge, or require drying time. As a technology for printing on discs, thermal printing actually has a lower cost per disc than inkjet technology, especially when you factor the increase in cost for inkjet-printable media (or sticky labels if you still use them).
Outsourcing vs. In-House Printing
One of the advantages of outsourcing my printing was that I didn’t incur any overhead, but there was also a downside that eventually convinced me that I needed my own thermal printer. The service bureau I used had only a single standalone printer, and discs had to be loaded one at a time. For most of my jobs I delayed ordering the discs until a few days before they were due to allow for any last-minute changes. But when I had a rush job or when they had other large orders before me, I found that I didn’t always get my discs back with enough time to get them out the door.
The other disadvantage was that when a client required just a few extra discs, outsourcing the printing was a hassle. I did have a Primera Signature Z1 thermal printer for very small jobs, but it uses its own software and doesn’t accept Photoshop or PDF files like the Prism Plus does, so it took additional time to redo the artwork. I did supplement with inkjet for a while but was turned off by having to deal with another printer, more ink cartridges, different discs, and a different look to the finished product that didn’t match the original order.
Why I Prefer Thermal
I have always liked the clean, professional look that thermal printing both allows and restricts me with. There is something about the permanence of the bond of the ink resin to the disc that for me is more professional than an inkjet can ever hope to be, even with the new WaterShield media that give the discs a laminated look. (For more on waterproof inkjet media, see this 2007 article.)
I save my full-color design work for where I feel it will make the most impact: the DVD cover, which I upload to a commercial printer who prints, cuts, and delivers the covers to my door. The limitation of single-color and full-color direct thermal printing (available in black, blue, red, or CMY ribbons) is that you are restricted to solid text and artwork. Gradients and shading aren’t well-represented with thermal printing on the Prism Plus, but I’ve never felt the need for photo-quality graphics on my discs anyway. I prefer simple, clean, and professional-looking artwork and am of the mind that inkjet discs that allow photo printing are a disadvantage more than an advantage.
If a DVD were a type of cake it would be a doughnut. There is a reason we don’t decorate donuts as ornately as we do cakes—there is a big hole in the middle and very little that we might do designwise works with a doughnut. I see a DVD as a circle with four quadrants and design accordingly: The top is for the title, the bottom for the subtitle, and the sides for my logo and the DVD-R logo.
Choosing the Model
Deciding which thermal printer I wanted for myself was not a difficult choice. Since 1995, Rimage has been the name in thermal printing with the introduction of the Prism and with its currest models, the Prism Plus and Everest 600. The Prism Plus improved on the Prism by adding color printing, while the Everest (now in its fourth generation) added photorealistic printing through thermal retransfer. Currently, Rimage is the only manufacturer making a low cost-per-disc commercial-grade thermal transfer printer. Primera used to sell the Inscripta thermal printer but discontinued it around the time that waterproof media options arrived for inkjet disc-printing, and their current lineup of printers all use inkjet technology. TEAC also makes the P-55 dye-sublimation thermal retransfer printer and Rimage has the Everest thermal retransfer printer, but both have a higher cost per print due to the retransfer process, which requires an additional transfer roll and increases the printing time. Thermal retransfer does allow for photo-realistic printing, but as I mentioned before, I prefer a cleaner, simpler look, rather than a photo collage on my disc faces.
The Prism Plus comes in two configurations: a standalone printer that prints one disc at a time and the more useful Prism Plus Autoprinter, which can be loaded with 300 discs in its four-compartment carousel. For casual printing, a stand-alone printer is acceptable, but as soon as you start printing more than a dozen discs, you start to appreciate the autoloader with its robotic lift arm that loads and unloads your discs for you, a time savings we far too often don’t factor into the cost of production. It’s too bad that the cost of the unit doubles with the addition of the autoloader, but not having one is like having a paper printer that only has room in its tray for one page at a time. The action is smooth to watch as the autoloader lift arm lowers itself to just below the level of the top disc in the stack and its grippers grab the disc at the hub. It then raises itself to exactly the height of the printer drawer, which also opens automatically, and deposits the disc on the printer tray, which then closes.
The printing itself isn’t the quietest, both with the whooshing of the lift arm and the print head applying the ink. I can still edit in the same room as the printer, although I usually move away from the printer when I’m on the phone.
The market for used thermal printers is small—a sign that those who purchase them hang on to them. Within that market the market for used autoloaders is even smaller, and I was lucky to find one only two states away.
The Prism Plus Autoprinter occupies similar space as my color laser printer, but because it connects to my PC via USB, I’ve had to locate it in my main office with my editing system and admin computer and not in my second office with my network printer and duplicating tower. I’ve also had to upgrade my computer to XP Pro; my previous OS, XP Home Edition is not supported.
How the Prism Plus Performs
Since I’ve had the Autoprinter I’ve printed more than 2,000 DVDs for my own productions and 500 for the newest service I’m providing through my video production company, thermal disc printing. Cost per print is almost negligible, advertised at between 4–5 cents per disc. I’ve found replacement ribbons for as low as $54.99. Single-color ribbons are rated at 2,100 full discs, bringing the cost per disc to 2.7 cents, and even less under typical use, as I don’t print edge-to-edge, and white space on the disc does not result in wasted ribbon. Color ribbons are rated for 500 discs and consume three entire CMY panels per disc, regardless of printing coverage.
Printing is fast at 20 seconds per disc for single color jobs or 35 seconds for color jobs, which is faster than my 8-drive duplicating tower can burn. Switching ribbons is a very manual process that involves taping the end of the ribbon to the inside of the drawer, then opening the drawer to feed the ribbon through to the rollers. Because of a foil validating strip that precedes the ribbon, the ribbon is designed to be completely used before changing rolls; however, it is possible to cut and tape the foil strip to any remaining rolls, which is useful if you want to change colors.
Overall, I can see the Rimage Prism Plus Autoprinter playing an important role in my business in the years to come. Initially I thought I would use it only for black monochrome printing, but after a few test prints in color, I can see myself incorporating color when the situation warrants. Although it is not as visible in my business as a front-of-the-line camera or back-office NLE, the professional thermal printing look has always and will continue to be one of the differentiating factors I use to set my business apart, and the Prism Plus makes me better equipped to do that than ever before.
Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005-7 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award in Theatrical Production at WEVA Expo 2008 and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award in Stage Production at Video 08.