There are two different designs of printers used for direct mail addressing: Fixed Head and Shuttle Head. The right printer for you depends on your application, budget or personal preference.
Fixed Head Printers:
Fixed head printers use stationary print heads in one or more banks. The print heads are manually positioned to line up with the desired print locations on your mail piece. The ink is jetted onto the mail piece as it passes by. Fixed head printers offer the fastest production speed because the print heads do not need to move.
Faster speeds per mail piece are achieved.
The price to performance ratio is almost always superior to shuttle head systems.
Fixed head systems are able to process thicker mail pieces up to ½” or more.
Less moving parts result in less maintenance requirements.
Fixed head printers have a limited printable area. Each bank of 3 ink cartridges can cover a stripe 1.5” high horizontally across the mail piece. Most entry level fixed head printers have only 3 ink cartridges so they can only print an address and barcode to fit within this stripe. More advanced fixed head systems have a larger printable area by offering more banks of print heads that can be positioned independently of one another allowing a return address and other information to be printed.
Fixed head printers cannot print graphics.
Fixed head printers can only print spot colors. In other words, only single color cartridges (i.e. black, red, blue, green, etc) can be used.
Print head capping and cleaning is typically manual (ink cartridges should be removed and capped after usage to prevent clogging.)
The inkjet cartridges usually require purging prior to your print run to ensure first piece quality (prints a think line on a test envelope to promote ink flow.)
Shuttle Head Printers:
Shuttle head address printers are a more heavy duty version of a home or office inkjet printer. The head shuttles back and forth allowing text and graphics to be printed anywhere on the mail piece.
Shuttle head printers can print anywhere on the mail piece. Users can put both return and destination address information, text messages, logos/graphics and postal indicia anywhere on mail piece without having to worry about print area limitations.
Shuttle head printers can print graphics on envelopes as well as text. (Note: Most shuttle head printers are limited to 300 dpi graphics so check the dpi specifications. Graphics are not recommended for postcards because they cannot absorb ink like an envelope.)
Some shuttle head printers can print in full color by using a black cartridge and a multi-color cartridge. Some are made for black ink only. Check the specifications.
Print head capping, cleaning and maintenance built-in – no purging is necessary before a new print run.
The addressing speed of shuttle head printers drops more sharply as print resolution is increased and is typically too slow for production volumes.
The price to performance ratio almost always lower than competing fixed head systems.
Throughput is inversely affected by the print area coverage of each piece.
Shuttle head systems are typically unable to process thicker-than-normal envelopes.
The printing process involves more moving parts.