Laser vs. CIJ

Is laser coding right for you? Here’s how it compares to CIJ

Laser marking and coding technologies are quickly gaining traction in the consumer products, pharmaceuticals and food and beverage industries to name a few. In many cases, they are replacing continuous inkjet (CIJ) printers in part to fight against counterfeiting. There are other compelling reasons as well. Read on to learn more about how laser compares to CIJ, and why you might want to consider an upgrade sooner rather than later.

The need for permanent marks on products to enhance traceability and combat counterfeiting is driving increased market demand for laser coding solutions, according to the Coding and Marking Market – Global Outlook & Forecast 2024-2029 by market research firm, Arizton.

In contrast to ink marks that can be removed with solvents or from contact with other products during shipping, laser marks are engraved into the surface and can only be removed with concerted effort.

Mark permanence is a major factor in the growing popularity of laser marking machines, but there are other significant reasons too.

Let’s examine laser marking in relation to one of the more popular primary product coding technologies: continuous inkjet (CIJ). For this comparison, we are looking at CO2 lasers such as the MPERIA laser family as those are what’s typically used as a replacement for CIJ printers.

MPERIA Lasers - Three laser products on a white background.

High-speed laser coders, such as the MPERIA CO2 lasers shown here, cleanly mark alphanumeric text, date and time codes, serial numbers, barcodes, 2D codes and graphics on a broad range of products.

Application and versatility

What type of material do you want to mark? Not all technologies are compatible with every material, and some provide unique advantages.

CIJ can mark a wide range of substrates, on flat or curved surfaces, and on high-speed lines. It’s commonly used to print small character batch codes, serial numbers, barcodes, and other traceability information on products and packaging. However, it has problems such as printhead clogging for applications requiring pigmented ink.

A major reason for CIJ’s persistent popularity is that it has good throw distance (the distance between a printer’s printhead and the substrate), meaning it can print acceptably on uneven or irregular surfaces. It works well for highly curved surfaces such as bottles, cans, pipes, and tubing.

Laser is also highly versatile, and “throw distance” is never a concern. It can be used to clearly mark alphanumeric text, date and time codes, serial numbers, barcodes, 2D codes, and graphics onto a range of substrates, including:

  • Coated paper
  • Plastics
  • Rubber extrusion
  • Glass

Another benefit of laser marking is that it is contaminant-free, making it ideal for applications in food, pharmaceutical, and other industries where cleanliness is paramount. Ink spills are a common problem with CIJ. Laser also ensures that recyclable packaging stays that way, since there are no concerns about ink contamination.

Print quality and durability

Laser marking is the best choice if your applications require marks that endure the realities of supply chain movement and retail environments.

Arizton writes in its report: “Since a packaged product must undergo a series of processes in a supply chain that tests its marking durability, it is relevant for the marking to remain substantially strong throughout the process. Laser marking has shown positive signs of staying permanent, mitigating the strong challenge of product counterfeiting.”

Laser systems provide permanent marks that are resistant to abrasion, chemicals, and environmental factors. This unwavering durability is crucial for products that require long-lasting traceability and branding and for marked items that will be exposed to extreme conditions or harsh handling. Laser marks ensure the information remains intact and legible throughout the supply chain, instilling a sense of confidence among customers.

Laser also provides the precision required for marking high-resolution codes. For example, detailed 2D codes, such as QR or data matrix codes, and alphanumeric sequences, require crisp, readable marks every time – something laser marking can provide. Laser systems are excellent for applications where product presentation is crucial, such as in the wine industry.

In comparison CIJ is more limited.

CIJ has long been the technology of choice for placing discrete “use by” or “sell by” date codes on consumer products. The tiny ink droplets are ideal for font sizes as small as 6-point, or about 1/16th of an inch. However, as character sizes increase, print quality tends to degrade, or the line speed is compromised. For most applications, CIJ printers are typically limited to two-three lines of characters with a total size of around half an inch.

CO2 lasers produce high quality marks at high-speeds on a wide variety of substrates.

CO2 lasers produce high quality marks at high-speeds on a wide variety of substrates.

Costs & Maintenance

Upfront, laser systems typically cost more than lower-end CIJ systems. As you move up in the CIJ range for more features and performance, the cost differences narrow considerably. What’s more, when ongoing operating expenses are factored in, laser wins hands down.

It comes down to consumables. Laser systems don’t require consumables, such as inks and solvents. They only require periodic filter replacements and may eventually need new tubes after five to 10 years depending on the workload. Aside from that, consumable costs are nonexistent.

On the other hand, CIJ printers need frequent ink and solvent refills, along with a steady supply of makeup fluid, to operate daily. If you process high product volumes, these constant refills can quickly add up, making a laser system the more economical option in the long term.

Another major cost factor to consider is maintenance. Again, laser systems have the edge here. They can also operate without maintenance for thousands of hours, eliminating stoppage concerns and the need to keep spare back up units on site.

Given their complexity, CIJ printers need significant ongoing maintenance. They have many working parts within the main body of the printer, not to mention fragile parts within the printhead itself. They are delivered almost fully contained in a box, which can simplify the initial set-up but makes onsite repair by in-house teams nearly impossible.

So, what do you do with a broken CIJ printer? You have two options:

  • Bring in an expensive technician
  • Send it back to the vendor for repair or replacement

Both options negatively impact production and your bottom line. A maintenance contract is essential, and if uptime is important, you need to keep an idle spare unit or two handy.

You will get around five years of operation before your CIJ printer starts to require a major service as pumps and other parts reach the end of their service life. This adds to the total cost of ownership.

The bottom line? Laser might run you more up-front, but the low consumable and maintenance costs mean it is more cost-effective in the long run, especially for high-speed, high-volume lines where the cost of consumables could be very high.

Laser vs CIJ: The Verdict

While CIJ has value for applications where laser engraving isn’t an option, it has significant downsides in ongoing costs and maintenance. CIJ creates marks that are serviceable, but these marks lack the permanence and flawless quality laser provides.

Laser marking is the recommended choice if:

  • Your applications require permanent, durable marks, and production demands 99.9% uptime
  • High-resolution, precision marks are critical
  • You aim to reduce consumable and maintenance costs
  • You want to minimize your environmental impact
  • Your production environment demands cleanliness and low maintenance processes

Interested in making a switch or learning more about laser marking technology? Simply complete the form below to request a free in-depth consultation from one of our marking and coding experts.

Want to compare other technologies for your marking needs? Check out our comparisons of Laser vs. Inkjet, TIJ vs. PIJ, and CIJ vs. TIJ.