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Barcode label printers come in two varieties: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Before implementing a thermal printing system, it's important to understand the differences between the two.
The thermal transfer printing process involves the use of a ribbon along with rolled or fan-folded labels. Like direct thermal, heat plays a part in thermal transfer printing; however, the heat does not come into contact with the media. Instead, the hot print head melts ink in the ribbon to create a sharp, crisp image on the label's surface. Heating elements inside the print head turn on and off, forming graphics, text or barcodes. Due to the superior quality and durability of the images produced, thermal transfer printing is a popular choice for a variety of applications. Since there is less wear on the print head with this system, equipment tends to last longer.
Additionally, thermal transfer printing can be used with many different label substrates. A thermal transfer printing system is ideal for applications which require excellent scanability and a long shelf life.
In a direct thermal system, the heat of the print head causes a chemical reaction on specially-coated label paper. resulting in a black image on the label. The advantage of this process is that it does not require the extra step of installing a ribbon. There are many grades of direct thermal materials. When direct thermal labels first came out, there were only two types of direct thermal materials, uncoated and coated. Uncoated materials tend to have shorter usable readability making them "short-term" labels. They range from uncoated economy to top coated scuff resistant.
When deciding whether direct thermal is right for a specific label application, it is important to understand the environment as well as the durability of the printed image on the label that is required. Scanability requirements must also be considered. There are special direct thermal materials for infrared and near-infrared for some barcode readers. Infrared materials produce a darker image due to the wider spectrum of color it includes. Although most direct thermal label materials cost more, the end-to-end cost may be less due to the time and hassle saved by not having to change the ribbons on thermal transfer labels.
Direct thermal labels are perfect for temporary solutions, such as event tickets, shipping, bakery and deli labels. Thermal transfer labels can be used for more demanding applications, such as certification tags, shrink-wrap labeling and warehouse tags and labels. When used correctly, both printing techniques offer distinct advantages.