A laser printer is a common type of computer printer that rapidly produces high quality text and graphics on plain paper. As with digital photocopiers and MFPs, laser printers employ a xerographic printing process but differ from analog photocopiers in that the image is produced by the direct scanning of a laser beam across the printer's photoreceptor.
A laser beam projects an image of the page to be printed onto an electrically charged rotating drum coated with selenium. Photoconductivity removes charge from the areas exposed to light. Dry ink (toner) particles are then electrostatically picked up by the drum's charged areas. The drum then prints the image onto paper by direct contact and heat, which fuses the ink to the paper.
Laser printers have many significant advantages over other types of printers. Unlike impact printers, laser printer speed can vary widely, and depends on many factors, including the graphic intensity of the job being processed. The fastest models can print over 200 monochrome pages per minute (12,000 pages per hour). The fastest color laser printers can print over 100 pages per minute (6000 pages per hour). Very high-speed laser printers are used for mass mailings of personalized documents, such as credit card or utility bills, and are competing with lithography in some commercial applications.
The cost of this technology depends on a combination of factors, including the cost of paper, toner, and infrequent drum replacement, as well as the replacement of other consumables such as the fuser assembly and transfer assembly. Often printers with soft plastic drums can have a very high cost of ownership that does not become apparent until the drum requires replacement.
A duplexing printer (one that prints on both sides of the paper) can halve paper costs and reduce filing volumes. Formerly only available on high-end printers, duplexers are now common on mid-range office printers, though not all printers can accommodate a duplexing unit. Duplexing can also give a slower page-printing speed, because of the longer paper path.
In comparison with the laser printer, most inkjet printers and dot-matrix printers simply take an incoming stream of data and directly imprint it in a slow lurching process that may include pauses as the printer waits for more data. A laser printer is unable to work this way because such a large amount of data needs to output to the printing device in a rapid, continuous process. The printer cannot stop the mechanism precisely enough to wait until more data arrives, without creating a visible gap or misalignment of the dots on the printed page.
Instead the image data is built up and stored in a large bank of memory capable of representing every dot on the page. The requirement to store all dots in memory before printing has traditionally limited laser printers to small fixed paper sizes such as letter or A4. Most laser printers are unable to print continuous banners spanning a sheet of paper two meters long, because there is not enough memory available in the printer to store such a large image before printing begins.
The laser printer was invented at Xerox in 1969 by researcher Gary Starkweather, who had an improved printer working by 1971 and incorporated into a fully functional networked printer system by about a year later. The prototype was built by performing brain surgery on an existing laser copier. Starkweather disabled the imaging system and created a spinning drum with 8 mirrored sides, with a laser focused on the drum. Light from the laser would bounce off the spinning drum, sweeping across the page as it traveled through the copier. The hardware was completed in just a week or two, but the computer interface and software took almost 3 months to complete.
The first commercial implementation of a laser printer was the IBM model 3800 in 1976, used for high-volume printing of documents such as invoices and mailing labels. It is often cited as "taking up a whole room," implying that it was a primitive version of the later familiar device used with a personal computer. While large, it was designed for an entirely different purpose. Many 3800s are still in use.
The first laser printer designed for use with an individual computer was released with the Xerox Star 8010 in 1981. Although it was innovative, the Star was an expensive ($17,000) system that was purchased by only a relatively small number of businesses and institutions. After personal computers became more widespread, the first laser printer intended for a mass market was the HP LaserJet 8ppm, released in 1984, using a Canon engine controlled by HP software. The HP LaserJet printer was quickly followed by laser printers from Brother Industries, IBM, and others.
As with most electronic devices, the cost of laser printers has fallen markedly over the years. In 1984, the HP LaserJet sold for $3500, choked on small, low resolution graphics, and weighed 71 pounds (32 kg). Low end monochrome laser printers often sell for less than $75 as of 2008. These printers tend to lack onboard processing and rely on the host computer to generate a raster image (see Winprinter), but still will outperform the LaserJet Classic in nearly all situations.
There are typically seven steps involved in the laser printing process:
Each horizontal strip of dots across the page is known as a raster line or scan line. Creating the image to be printed is done by a Raster Image Processor (RIP), typically built into the laser printer. The source material may be encoded in any number of special page description languages such as Adobe PostScript (PS) , HP Printer Command Language (PCL), or Microsoft XML Page Specification (XPS) , as well as unformatted text-only data. The RIP uses the page description language to generate a bitmap of the final page in the raster memory. Once the entire page has been rendered in raster memory, the printer is ready to begin the process of sending the rasterized stream of dots to the paper in a continuous stream.
A corona wire (in older printers) or a primary charge roller projects an electrostatic charge onto the photoreceptor (otherwise named the photoconductor unit), a revolving photosensitive drum or belt, which is capable of holding an electrostatic charge on its surface while it is in the dark.
Numerous patents describe the photosensitive drum coating as a silicon sandwich with a photocharging layer, a charge leakage barrier layer, as well as a surface layer. One version uses amorphous silicon containing hydrogen as the light receiving layer, Boron nitride as a charge leakage barrier layer, as well as a surface layer of doped silicon, notably silicon with oxygen or nitrogen which at sufficient concentration resembles machining silicon nitride; the effect is that of a light chargeable diode with minimal leakage and a resistance to scuffing.
The laser is aimed at a rotating polygonal mirror, which directs the laser beam through a system of lenses and mirrors onto the photoreceptor. The beam sweeps across the photoreceptor at an angle to make the sweep straight across the page; the cylinder continues to rotate during the sweep and the angle of sweep compensates for this motion. The stream of rasterized data held in memory turns the laser on and off to form the dots on the cylinder. (Some printers switch an array of light emitting diodes spanning the width of the page, but these devices are not "Laser Printers".) Lasers are used because they generate a narrow beam over great distances. The laser beam neutralizes (or reverses) the charge on the white parts of the image, leaving a static electric negative image on the photoreceptor surface to lift the toner particles.
The overall darkness of the printed image is controlled by the high voltage charge applied to the supply toner. Once the charged toner has jumped the gap to the surface of the drum, the negative charge on the toner itself repels the supply toner and prevents more toner from jumping to the drum. If the voltage is low, only a thin coat of toner is needed to stop more toner from transferring. If the voltage is high, then a thin coating on the drum is too weak to stop more toner from transferring to the drum. More supply toner will continue to jump to the drum until the charges on the drum are again high enough to repel the supply toner. At the darkest settings the supply toner voltage is high enough that it will also start coating the drum where the initial unwritten drum charge is still present, and will give the entire page a dark shadow.
The paper passes through rollers in the fuser assembly where heat and pressure (up to 200 Celsius) bond the plastic powder to the paper.
One roller is usually a hollow tube (heat roller) and the other is a rubber backing roller (pressure roller). A radiant heat lamp is suspended in the center of the hollow tube, and its infrared energy uniformly heats the roller from the inside. For proper bonding of the toner, the fuser roller must be uniformly hot.
The fuser accounts for up to 90% of a printer's power usage. The heat from the fuser assembly can damage other parts of the printer, so it is often ventilated by fans to move the heat away from the interior. The primary power saving feature of most copiers and laser printers is to turn off the fuser and let it cool. Resuming normal operation requires waiting for the fuser to return to operating temperature before printing can begin.
Some printers use a very thin flexible metal fuser roller, so there is less mass to be heated and the fuser can more quickly reach operating temperature. This both speeds printing from an idle state and permits the fuser to turn off more frequently to conserve power.
If paper moves through the fuser more slowly, there is more roller contact time for the toner to melt, and the fuser can operate at a lower temperature. Smaller, inexpensive laser printers typically print slowly, due to this energy-saving design, compared to large high speed printers where paper moves more rapidly through a high-temperature fuser with a very short contact time.
Toner may occasionally be left on the photoreceptor when unexpected events such as a paper jam occur. The toner is on the photoconductor ready to apply, but the operation failed before it could be applied. The toner must be wiped off and the process restarted.
Waste toner cannot be reused for printing because it can be contaminated with dust and paper fibers. A quality printed image requires pure, clean toner. Reusing contaminated toner can result in splotchy printed areas or poor fusing of the toner into the paper. There are some exceptions however, most notably some Brother and Toshiba laser printers, which use a patented method to clean and recycle the waste toner.
Different printers implement these steps in distinct ways. Some "laser" printers actually use a linear array of light-emitting diodes to "write" the light on the drum (see LED printer). The toner is based on either wax or plastic, so that when the paper passes through the fuser assembly, the particles of toner melt. The paper may or may not be oppositely charged. The fuser can be an infrared oven, a heated pressure roller, or (on some very fast, expensive printers) a xenon flash lamp. The Warm Up process that a laser printer goes through when power is initially applied to the printer consists mainly of heating the fuser element. Many printers have a toner-conservation mode or "economode", which can be substantially more economical with fuser consumption at the price of slightly lower contrast.
Color adds complexity to the printing process because very slight misalignments known as registration errors can occur between printing each color, causing unintended color fringing, blurring, or light/dark streaking along the edges of colored regions. To permit a high registration accuracy, some color laser printers use a large belt the size of a full sheet of paper to generate the image. All three or four layers of toner are precisely applied to the belt, and the combined layers are then applied to the paper in a single step.
Color laser printers typically require four times as much memory as a monochrone printer to print the same size document, because each of the three RGB or four CMYK color separations needs to be rasterized and stored in memory before printing can begin.
Some small consumer printers use a separate toner bottle that can be replaced several times separately from the photoreceptor, allowing for a much lower cost of operation. High-volume business laser printers separate all components into individual modules.
After printing about fifty thousand pages, typical maintenance is to vacuum the mechanism, and clean or replace the paper handling rollers. The rollers have a thick rubber coating, which eventually suffers wear and becomes covered with slippery paper dust. They can usually be cleaned with a damp lint-free rag and there are chemical solutions that can help restore the traction of the rubber.
After one hundred thousand pages, it is common for the fuser assembly to either wear out or need cleaning. The fuser heating rollers are often coated with an oil that prevents toner from sticking to the rollers. A small amount of the oil coating is absorbed by each piece of paper passing through the fuser, eventually requiring the oil supply to be replenished or the pressure roller assembly to be completely replaced. It is common for the fuser assembly to be left unmaintained until the toner starts sticking to the rollers, which creates a repeating ragged line on every printed page due to the rollers not being smooth anymore.
Color laser printers are typically more expensive and higher maintenance than monochrome laser printers since they contain more imaging components. Color laser printers intended for high volume use may require supplies that monochrome printers do not use, while the least expensive consumer color laser printers are expected to wear out and fail four times faster during color printing, compared to monochrome printing.
Due to current market incentives, the least expensive consumer color laser printers often cost less than the total value of the replacement parts inside the printer. The photoreceptor assembly for example may last 100,000 pages but may cost as much to replace as buying a new printer with new toner cartridges included.
Many modern color laser printers mark printouts by a nearly invisible dot raster, for the purpose of identification. The dots are yellow and about 0.1 mm in size, with a raster of about 1 mm. This is purportedly the result of a deal between the US government and printer manufacturers to help track counterfeiters.
The dots encode data such as printing date, time, and printer serial number in binary-coded decimal on every sheet of paper printed, which allows pieces of paper to be traced by the manufacturer to identify the place of purchase, and sometimes the buyer. Digital rights advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are concerned that this is a threat to the privacy and anonymity of those who print.
Toner particles melt (or fuse) when warmed. Small toner spills can be wiped up with a cold, damp cloth.
If toner spills into the laser printer, a special type of vacuum cleaner with an electrically conductive hose and a high efficiency (HEPA) filter may be needed for effective cleaning. These are called ESD-safe (Electrostatic Discharge-safe) or toner vacuums. Similar HEPA-filter equipped vacuums should be used for clean-up of larger toner spills.
Toner is easily cleaned from most water-washable clothing. As toner is a wax or plastic powder with a low melting temperature, it must be kept cold during the cleaning process. Washing a toner stained garment in cold water is often successful. Even warm water is likely to result in permanent staining. The washing machine should be filled with cold water before adding the garment. Washing through two cycles improves the chances of success. The first may use hand wash dish detergent, with the second cycle using regular laundry detergent. Residual toner floating in the rinse water of the first cycle will remain in the garment and may cause a permanent graying. A clothes dryer or iron should not be used until it is certain that all the toner has been removed.
However, some ozone escapes the filtering process in commercial printers, and ozone filters are not used in many smaller consumer printers. When a laser printer or copier is operated for a long period of time in a small, poorly ventilated space, these gases can build up to levels at which the odor of ozone or irritation may be noticed. A potential for creating a health hazard is theoretically possible in extreme cases.
Muhle et al. (1991) reported that the responses to chronically inhaled copying toner, a plastic dust pigmented with carbon black, titanium dioxide and silica were also similar qualitatively to titanium dioxide and diesel exhaust.