June 2, 2022 

Laser Marking vs. Inkjet Printing

When comparing laser marking vs. inkjet printing, laser marking machines share many of the same capabilities as continuous inkjet printers but often cost more upfront.

Over the last few decades, industrial product marking has been largely dominated by two technologies: laser marking machines and inkjet printers. 

By nature, these two machines have several clear differences; most prominently, laser systems use highly-concentrated light beams to mark products, while inkjet printers utilize liquid ink. These machines also differ when it comes to:

  • Ongoing maintenance needs.
  • Upfront cost.
  • Consumable expenses.
  • Production line compatibility.

At the same time, laser marking machines and certain types of inkjet printers are similar in many ways as well. For instance, laser systems and continuous inkjet (CIJ) printers are both capable of industrial-speed coding and 24/7 nonstop operation. Further, both technologies share wide substrate compatibility and are both capable of marking curved surfaces. 

These qualities make both laser systems and CIJ printers valuable to many industries, including:

  • Beverage bottling/canning.
  • Food packaging.
  • Pharmaceutical production.
  • Wire/cable extrusion.
  • Electronics.

In addition to CIJ systems, another form of inkjet printing, thermal inkjet (TIJ) printing, provides line operators with another way to mark porous and non-porous materials alike with high-contrast codes. Although TIJ printers don’t have the speed of laser or CIJ systems, they do offer their own unique set of benefits.

With all of these different machine options, it can be difficult to figure out which technology is right for your operational needs. Below, we compare laser marking vs. inkjet printing in this application breakdown.

Laser Marking Systems vs. CIJ Printers: Similar Applications, Different Cost Factors

As we touched on above, laser marking systems and continuous inkjet printers are today’s go-to industrial marking solutions. Offering fast coding speeds and wide material compatibility, laser systems and CIJ printers are commonly found in some of the most demanding manufacturing/packaging environments, including:

  • Wire and cable extrusion facilities.
  • Automotive and aerospace manufacturing plants.
  • Industrial bottling/canning lines.
  • Pharmaceutical packaging facilities.

This widespread popularity can be attributed to several factors shared by both technologies:

  • Fast speeds: Laser systems and continuous inkjet printers can mark products moving at speeds above 300 m/min. These efficient coding rates allow companies to meet demanding quotas without sacrificing code quality.
  • Uninterrupted marking operation: Both laser systems and CIJ printers provide line operators with the ability to code products 24/7.
  • Wide substrate compatibility: Laser systems and CIJ printers are compatible with many of the same materials, including porous substrates (e.g. paper, cardboard, and wood) and non-porous substrates (e.g. plastic, glass, and metal). However, it is important to note that lasers do expose substrates to a certain degree of thermal stress, which can sometimes alter the substrate’s surface in an unintended way. Consequently, laser systems are not ideal for some automotive/aerospace applications, as these parts must comply with stringent specifications. Similarly, some flexible packaging materials are not compatible with 99% of laser systems on the market, as they may become punctured by thermal stress.
  • Curved surface aptitude: In addition to wide substrate compatibility, both laser systems and CIJ printers can mark curved surfaces. This aptitude makes them a great fit for bottling, canning, and wire marking lines.
  • Long-lasting, high-quality results: Laser markings and CIJ-produced codes are sharp and durable, making them ideal for traceability. 

These similarities enable laser systems and CIJ printers to be used for many of the same applications. As a result, operations can frequently use either system and still end up with code-compliant products. 

So, how do you decide between laser and CIJ? More often than not, it comes down to cost factors. 

For instance, laser marking systems generally cost significantly more upfront than continuous inkjet printers. Although prices will fluctuate based on factors like model type and manufacturer, the best laser systems today can cost up to $80,000, while the best continuous inkjet printers will cost around $20,000. However, laser systems have fewer maintenance needs and lower consumable costs as compared to CIJ printers. 

Consequently, it’s important to do an in-depth cost analysis when deciding between these two coding options. See the chart below for a small comparison of the most prominent cost considerations:

Laser Marking SystemContinuous Inkjet Printing System
Upfront Cost:- Ranges from $10,000-$80,000- Ranges from $5,000-$20,000
Consumable Costs:- Requires regular filter changes and tube replacements approximately every five years- Requires regular filter changes and ongoing ink/solvent refills
Maintenance Needs:- Minimal usage-based preventative maintenance required- Must receive annual professional maintenance and ongoing daily care
Line Accommodations:- Lines must be equipped with beam shields and fume extractors- Minimal line accommodations required

Where Thermal Inkjet Printing Fits Into the “Laser Marking vs. Inkjet Printing” Dynamic 

No comparison of laser marking vs. inkjet printing would be complete without mentioning thermal inkjet printing. 

Unlike laser marking systems and continuous inkjet printers, TIJ printers are not built for speed. With the exception of industry-leading thermal inkjet models like the Anser X1 and Wolke m610, TIJ printers generally max out at around 100 m/min, making them an inadequate choice for high-speed production lines usually populated with laser and CIJ systems. However, for operations that don’t require the industrial speed provided by a laser or CIJ system, TIJ printers are a great option due to their low upfront cost, high-contrast capabilities, and easy mobility. 

Moreover, there are situations in which TIJ printers can serve as supplementary marking devices for operations that also have laser or CIJ-equipped production lines. For instance, many companies use handheld TIJ printers to perform rework or complete one-off coding tasks. In another example, medical device manufacturers use TIJ printers to place high-contrast UDI codes on their products while also using laser or CIJ hardware to create variable data markings.

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C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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