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How Does an Inkjet Printer Work?

Jan 23rd 2020

Getting to Know Your Inkjet Printer

So you’re the proud owner of an inkjet printer. You’ve heard there’s no better home printer for color printing your nature photographs, and the price was right. Now, though, you can’t understand why it takes so long to print a single picture, or why replacement cartridges cost as much as the printer itself!

If you want a long, happy relationship with your printer, the key is to learn how inkjet printing works. This guide is designed to explain:

  • how inkjet printing works
  • what you can do to maintain print quality and a smooth functioning printing process
  • how to keep your ink costs down over time

With a little know-how, you’ll be able to avoid the cost of sky-high replacement ink and keep committing most important documents to paper.

The History of (Liquid) Printing

Inkjet printing has been around since the 1950s. Early commercial printing processes were adaptations of ancient methods. From ancient woodblock printing to early 20th technologies including lithography, most printing processes have used liquid ink.

To create a page of text with a woodblock or lithography, you would need a cut-out of the alphabet. The characters had to be carved in wood, imprinted on metal, or set in rubber so that ink could take their shape and transfer onto paper.

Inkjet printing marked a major innovation in this process: as you can probably guess, your inkjet doesn’t have a tiny alphabet inscribed inside it.

Instead, the printheads force out ink into any imaginable shape. However, commercial print powerhouses like HP and Canon took decades to develop printheads that were small, accurate, and affordable enough for use in your home.

Printing with Heat and Vibration

How does an inkjet printer work? As you now know, they use liquid ink. When you insert your ink cartridge into the printer, it comes into alignment with the printer’s electrical elements. Then, the printer uses either heat or vibration to propel ink droplets out of the nozzle and onto the plain paper.

Thermal Inkjet Printing

If you use an inkjet at home, it likely uses heat to force the ink out of the nozzles. They work like this:

  • Electrical resistors heat the ink cartridge
  • Heat vaporizes the liquid ink, forming a bubble
  • The expanding bubble bursts as it contacts the nozzle, pushing ink out
  • The vacuum left in the bubble’s place draws down more liquid ink (which is in turn vaporized)

This process, relying on ink bubbles that spray out of the nozzle, is sometimes referred to as “bubble jet” printing and has given printers including Canon’s Bubble Jet their names.

If your printer uses thermal printing, it likely has 300-600 nozzles that can fire droplets all at once. This allows for intricate color printing.

Piezoelectric Inkjet Printing

Some inkjet printers are bubble-free. These printers use vibration rather than heat to force the ink out of the nozzles. Instead:

  • Small crystals are seated behind each nozzle
  • Electrical charges cause these crystals to vibrate, putting pressure on the ink and forcing out droplets
  • When one droplet is expelled, the crystal vibrates once again to replace it

Like thermal printing, piezoelectric printing is incredibly precise.

What’s the Difference?

Piezoelectric printers are generally more expensive than thermal printers. However, they’re also more versatile. Are you looking to print on specialty paper? Most thermal inkjets can use only one type of ink—ink that uses pigment dissolved in water (or aqueous ink).

Piezoelectric printers, in contrast, can handle a variety of inks. This may make it possible to print on shiny paper, adhesive paper, etc. That’s why these printers are more often found in commercial and industrial settings.

Picture-Perfect Prints and More

Now you know how inkjet printers work in most commercially available printers. But knowing the mechanics is different than grasping just how astoundingly accurate these printers are.

According to Tech Radar, inkjet printers deposit 35 million droplets to print a 4x6 photo. What’s more, each of those 35 million droplets falls at a speed of 30 miles per hour, with a precision equivalent to dropping an apple from a 30-story building and hitting the correct target below.

While other kinds of printers, including laser printers, can now print excellent medium-quality images, the unique ink droplet printing method allows for unparalleled creation of photo-quality prints on any paper. That’s one of the reasons why inkjet printers are so popular in homes.

The other reasons for inkjet printers’ popularity include:

  • They often cost less upfront than laser printers
  • They are ideal for small print jobs
  • They excel at printing small text
  • They take up less space in your home or office

If you’re an amateur photographer or working in a cramped space, their printing technology makes them your go-to printer.

The Dark Side of Inkjet

While inkjet printers’ unique design has many benefits, there are also downsides to its precise technology.

The number-one complaint amongst inkjet users? Print speed. While a laser printer can print up to 20 pieces of paper a minute, your inkjet may top out at 6. While the bubble jet and vibrational methods allow for high-quality prints, what you gain in quality you lose in time. If you often print large jobs or multiple copies, an inkjet may not be right for you.

A second complaint is the small paper tray. Inkjet printers can often only store 50-100 pieces of paper, meaning that you’ll need to refill the tray frequently—and find another place to store all that extra paper!

In addition, the design and cost of the ink cartridges themselves can sometimes lead to rising costs and increasing headaches.

Inside the Cartridge

The average inkjet cartridge isn’t just a box filled with ink. Instead, it’s an intricately designed piece of technology that serves several purposes:

  • For the consumer’s benefit, the cartridge is designed to store ink for as long as possible. Like any other liquid, ink dries out over time, but inkjet cartridges are designed to last for two years.
  • For the manufacturer’s benefit, the design is complicated: they want to make it as difficult as possible for off-brand ink and toner cartridges to work well with your printer.

You already know that inkjet printers are often less expensive upfront than laser printers. However, when you buy your printer, it likely doesn’t come with a full ink cartridge.

The “starter cartridge” that comes with your printer is probably only half full.

From there, the costs can start to rise for a variety of reasons. First, replacement cartridges, especially directly from the manufacturer, are costly. That’s where printer manufacturers make their money, more so than from printers themselves. Second, even though inkjet cartridges are made to last for two years, they might stop working much sooner than you expect.

Cartridges Are Made to Toss

There are many factors that can lead an ink cartridge to stop working long before its (generally) two-year expiration date. These include:

  • Finishing the ink — if you frequently print large jobs, or using color printing, a regular cartridge might not last you long. Some regular inkjet cartridges have an estimated page yield of just 200-300 pages.
  • Drying out due to environmental conditions —is your printer old? Do you live in a dry or hot part of the world? Either of these factors might affect the printing process causing your liquid ink to heat up and evaporate quicker, even before you’ve reached the page yield.
  • Clogging — if you print infrequently, or fail to run your printer’s maintenance cycle, your printhead might clog.

You might be surprised to hear that a clogged printhead is often an issue with the cartridge rather than the printer. That’s because many inkjet cartridges actually contain the printheads themselves. That way, when there’s a clog, it’s easy to toss the old cartridge and buy a new one.

On the flip side, it’s also costly to replace the cartridge, especially if it’s almost full!

Making the Most of Your Inkjet

Even though there are some downsides to inkjet printers and their cartridges, these printers are unparalleled for at-home print jobs, especially when it comes to picture quality. If you’ve already invested in an inkjet printer, use the following tips to avoid the frustrations associated with replacement ink and toner cartridges.

  • Print often. Even if you’re trying to stretch the life of your cartridge, your printer is healthier when it runs at least once a week. This keeps the printheads from clogging.
  • Turn it off. When you turn your printer on, it triggers a cleaning and maintenance cycle. When your printer is not in use, leave it off to save electricity and lengthen the lifespan of your cartridges.
  • Run the maintenance cycle. Open your printer’s settings on your computer and make sure you take advantage of the manufacturer-designed maintenance functions to avoid clogged heads and sluggish printing.
  • Buy off-brand. A compatible cartridge can be a fraction of the cost of the manufacturer’s brand name product.
  • Recycle. Afraid to go off-brand? Buy a remanufactured print cartridge that is guaranteed to fit your printer perfectly.

With the cost of printers so low, it can be tempting to buy a replacement anytime something goes wrong—but remember, the real cost isn’t the printer, but the ink. Learn how to take care of the printer you have, and where to buy the best value ink, and you’ll never be frustrated with your printer again.

The Best Prices for Inkjet Cartridges

Whether you’re looking for Original Equipment Manufacturer Cartridges, compatible cartridges, or remanufactured cartridges, Supplies Outlet has the ink you’re looking for. Shop a wide variety of inkjet cartridges as well as refill kits and take advantage of our speedy shipping so that you’re always prepared to print when you need to.


PC World. “What’s Cheaper: Replacement Ink, or a New Printer?”

Tech Radar. “How an Inkjet Nozzle Fires 36,000 Times a Second.”

LD Products. “Inkjet vs. Laser.”

Depaul University. “How Inkjet Printers Work.”