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Barcode Printers: Comparing Direct Thermal Printers vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

Thermal barcode printers work by essentially using controlled heat to create an image onto the media. There are two thermal print technologies: direct thermal and thermal transfer.

In direct thermal printing the print head applies heat to coated thermal media (labels or tags), which turns dark where the heat was applied. There is no ink or toner consumable – the only supply needed is the direct thermal material. In contrast, for thermal-transfer printing, the print head heats a ribbon, which transfers wax or resin to the media.

Thermal label printers are ideal for barcode printing because they produce accurate and high-quality images that have excellent edge definition. Thermal printers are designed to print within tight spaces and produce the exact bar widths in the thousands of an inch (x dimension).

Direct thermal printers Zebra desktop printer 2824Advantages of Direct Thermal Printers:thermal barcode printing

  • No ink, toner, or ribbon.
  • Durable and easy to use.
  • Cost less to operate than inkjet, laser, impact, and thermal transfer printers.
  • More environmentally friendly since you do not have to dispose of used ink ribbons.

Disadvantages of Direct Thermal Printers:

  • Thermal media images may fade over time.
  • If the label is overexposed to heat, light, or other catalysts, the material will darken and become unreadable.
  • Not used for lifetime identification applications.
  • The label material is prone to marking if rubbed or scuffed.
  • There is a limited range of direct thermal label materials.
  • Will cause greater wear to the printhead, therefore expect to replace the print head more often.

Advantages of Thermal Transfer Printers:

  • Provides image quality and durability that is unmatched by other on-demand printing technologies.
  • Can accept a wider variety of media including paper, polyester, and polypropylene materials.
  • Creates extremely durable wristbands, asset tags, and certification labels.
  • Withstands temperature extremes, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals, sterilization, and more.

Disadvantages of Thermal Transfer Printers:

  • Cost more to operate.
  • Changing ribbons is timely and messy.
  • More time is used to load the media compared to direct thermal printing.
  • You need to make sure that the grade of ribbon matches the label material you are using.
  • If you use lower grade ribbons, the print head will need cleaning more often as there can be build up of ink.
  • Not environmentally friendly since you need to dispose of the used ribbons.

Direct Thermal printing applications include: shipping labels, including compliance labels; receipts; pick tickets; coupons; event tickets; citations and parking tickets; name tags; visitor passes; and more.

Thermal Transfer applications include: product identification; circuit board tracking; permanent identification; sample and file tracking; asset tagging; inventory identification; certification labels such as UL/CSA; laboratory specimens; cold storage and freezers; and outdoor applications.

Contact RMS Omega to determine which barcode printing method is right for you.

Visit our Barcode Printer page for more information on different manufacturer’s and printers.