Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer

Businesses around the world need millions of labels every day. Things like barcodes, shipping information, and technical specifications all need to the printed on a label. There are two main types of printing methods used to mass-produce labels: thermal transfer and direct thermal printing. Let’s have a look at both types of labels and see how they compare.

What Are Thermal Transfer Labels?

Thermal transfer labels use heat to transfer an image, such as a barcode, on to a printing surface, namely the paper. Unlike the regular printers you use at your office, thermal printers do not use ink to print an image but heat.

When it comes to thermal transfer labels, there’s also a roll of ribbon involved. This type of ribbon is coated on one side with wax or a resin formulation. This coated side is applied over the printing substrate during the printing process.

The idea is extremely simple. When a label passes in front of the print head, it heats up instantly and the heat melts the wax on the ribbon, dot by dot. Each dot cools off immediately, resulting in a crisp and highly-durable image printed on the label.

What Are Direct Thermal Labels?

Direct thermal labels are also created using a printer that produces heat. However, with direct printing, there is no need for a ribbon. It is the printing material, the paper itself, that contains heat-sensitive compounds.

When the label passes in front of the print head, the heat activates these compounds, which turn black to create the desired image on the label.

How can this method create an image that needs to be very precise, like a barcode? That’s easy. It’s the same principle thermal transfer printers also use—certain dots heat up for a short time to recreate a particular image.

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer – How they Differ

People in the industry say thermal transfer labels are better than direct thermal ones, as the printed image is of a higher quality. In thermal transfer labels, once the heated wax touches the printing paper, it is absorbed by it.

Basically, it becomes embedded in the label, which means it will not rub off during manipulation. At the same time, the label won’t be affected by the elements, such as moisture, heat, or sun exposure. If you need labels with a long shelf-life, thermal transfer is your best bet.

At the same time, thermal transfer printers have better resolution than direct thermal printers, which will result in crisp and easy-to-read images or barcodes.

As far as direct thermal labels are concerned, the main problem is that they are less resistant. This is because the printing paper used is heat and light-sensitive. Exposure to sunlight or even fluorescent lights for a prolonged period can make a direct thermal label virtually unreadable.

There is a way to work around this, by applying a special anti-UV coating, but this requires additional costs.

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer – Pricing

Proponents of direct thermal labels like to point out that using a ribbon makes thermal transfer more expensive, especially since you have to throw away a roll after one use.

However, this does not take into account the fact that the print heads used in thermal transfer are more resistant, so you won’t need to change them as often as the ones used by direct thermal printers.

At the same time, the maintenance costs for thermal transfer printers are lower than those for other printers. Long term, this makes thermal transfer labels the best choice in terms of costs.

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer – Final Thoughts

Thermal transfer printers use a ribbon coated in wax to transfer a barcode on the printing material. Direct thermal printers use a special type of heat-sensitive paper to create an image on the label.

While both printing methods can be used to mass-produce labels, those made using thermal transfer printers are better. The wax on the ribbon is absorbed by the paper, so the image won’t fade over time and won’t rub off.

Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer – Printer Manufacturers

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