Thermal printers come in many different shapes and sizes, the ones I am going to focus on here are the large format 8.5″ thermal printers that I would typically propose instead of a standard black & white laser printer. If color is an absolute requirement then these 8.5″ thermal printers will not be practical, but if it is not necessary then there is always a case to be made for thermal. The theme below is that thermal printers are designed for unattended environments, this is an important point of differentiation between the two.
The most common question or concern that I hear is often about the higher initial cost of a thermal printer compared to laser. True, the upfront cost is higher, but when you consider the cost of consumables (recurring) and the shorter lifespan of lasers you will see that thermal printers can pay dividends very quickly.
As mentioned above, thermal printers do not have ink, toner, drums, or fusers. Depending on the type of printer purchased the cost of maintenance can be significant, thermal printers have one consumable, the paper.
Thermal printers only have one consumable, the paper itself. Unlike traditional laser printers with 100/150/250+ sheet paper drawers thermal printers have a roll of thermal paper, the size of the role varies but common rolls are 6 – 10″ in diameter. The yield from one of these rolls is primarily dependant on the size of the printout, which can be setup to end (cut) the page at the printable area, eliminating waste. The benefit here is that you can print at 8.5″ wide but the length of the paper may only be half of that, depending on what you are printing. For instance, if you were printing a wayfinding map then the page may be full length (8.5″ x 11″) but a co-pay receipt may only be 4″ long. The size of the roll, length of the printouts, and usage of the kiosk ultimately determine how long a roll will last but in my experience this may get changed once per quarter. Users are often not required to print if they chose not to, extending the life of the paper roll.
An important feature of thermal printers and especially patient check-in kiosk is the ability for the printer to be able to retract pages that may be left behind by the user. These pages could include items like appointment slips, future appointments and co-pay receipts, so it is important that if they are not taken they can be retained by the kiosk.
Monitoring is critical for kiosk and a large part of that monitoring is the printer. Ideally thermal printers should be able to report on the following variables at a minimum:
- Paper Jam – Arguably the most important thing to monitor, paper jams need to be addressed in a timely fashion when they arise so it is important that appropriate personnel receive alerts when the paper reports a jam
- Heartbeat – Heartbeats ensure that the printer is online and available to the kiosk/CPU.
- Cutter Error – The cutter handles the cutting of the paper as such it is a critical function and needs to be monitored
- Low Paper/ No Paper – Thermal printers have sensors to inform you when the roll has reached a certain threshold, for example 1″ of paper left. These alerts allow you to be pro-active in replacing paper rolls, they can also send alerts when the paper is out.
- Many more – There are dozens more alerts like (power on, page printed, page retracted, voltage, etc..)
The large format thermal printers used in kiosks typically have a cutter with a mean time between failure (MTBF) of greater than 1 million cuts, testament to their intended longevity. In any deployment where large format (8.5″ x 11″) printing is required it is always worth taking a look at thermal.