Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer
Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

Barcode printers are available with two distinctly different types of printing technologies, Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer. There are pros and cons to each technology as they are suitable for different printing applications. Below is a comparison of each technology with the strengths and weaknesses of each

direct thermal

Direct Thermal printers work by using the heat of the print head, to cause a reaction in the coating of the label paper

Pros - There are no ribbons used in the printer so many customers find it a very easy and cost-effective solution to implement. Just load the labels and go. The primary benefit is an overall lower cost since a ribbon is not required.

Cons - The printing is not as crisp as that of thermal transfer application and there is a much shorter shelf life to the printed label. After a period of 6 months the barcode will start to fade and the label will start to blacken. The labels created with direct thermal printers can not be exposed to direct sunlight, high temperatures or heavy industrial lighting.
Summary - Direct thermal printing is an inexpensive way to print labels that are for temporary use such as shipping labels or in high turnover inventory solutions.

thermal transfer

Thermal transfer printing also uses heat in the process but instead of burning the image onto a label, the heat transfers a high quality image from a ribbon onto the label surface.

Pros - Thermal transfer printing produces very crisp and durable images. This method is excellent for high density barcodes, fine text printing and labels that require a long life. The other benefit is that thermal transfer printers can print on paper, film, and even foil substrates. These labels can satisfy applications ranging from the most basic package labeling to extreme conditions requiring chemical and weather resistance. The ribbons can be different colors, so the user is not limited to black print.

Cons - With thermal transfer printing, you have the cost associated with purchasing ribbons. There is a savings though as most thermal transfer labels are less expensive than comparable direct thermal labels. From a maintenance standpoint, the ribbons will need to be replaced in the printer at regular intervals just like the labels. The frequency at which ribbons are replaced range from a one to one ratio (replacing the ribbon each time a label roll is added) to a one to three ratio (replacing the ribbon after every third roll of labels).

Summary - Where print quality, durability or label longevity is required, thermal transfer printing is the process of choice.

Ask the Barcode Doctor

Most thermal transfer printers also support direct thermal technology.  If you are unsure as to the best printer for a particular use, investing in a printer that supports both technologies is a safer route. 

If you have any additional questions about thermal transfer and direct thermal printing technologies, please call us at (888) 422-9249.


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