Understanding Labels: Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal
Barcode labels are typically printed using either thermal transfer or direct thermal printing technology. We'll explain the differences between the two and where they are used.
Hi – I’m Kim Dieringer – I’m part of the account management team here at General Data.
Barcode labels are typically printed using either thermal transfer or direct thermal printing technology. They sure sound similar…what the difference? When should you use one versus the other? Let’s take a look..
To begin, let’s talk about what they have in common. Both thermal transfer and direct thermal use heat as the activator to transfer an image on to the label. The heat is generated from a printhead inside the printer that heats up when a label is passed over it to “print” the image on the label.
So what’s the difference?
With thermal transfer, the printer uses a ribbon as the mechanism for imaging the label. A thermal transfer ribbon is a thin film that is wound on a roll that has a special black coating on one side. This coating is usually made from a wax or resin formulation.
During thermal transfer printing, the ribbon is run between the label and the printhead, with the coated side of the ribbon facing the label. As the ribbon and label pass over the printhead, the heat from the printhead heats up the ribbon’s coating and it is transferred from the ribbon to the surface of the label.
So when you look at a thermal transfer printed label, the printing on that label came from the coating that was on the thermal transfer ribbon.
Direct thermal printing is a simpler method of printing. First you need direct thermal labels. These have a special coating on the surface of the label that enables them to be printed using this method. For direct thermal printing, no ribbon is needed. The labels come in direct contact with the printhead, and the printhead heats up the special coating on the label to produce the printed image. Again, no ribbon is needed to print direct thermal labels.
Why would you choose thermal transfer printing? The primary reasons are print quality, durability of the printed image, and label longevity. Thermal transfer ribbons come in a variety of formulations, from simple everyday printing to harsh environments – able to withstand exposure to chemicals and solvents, for example. Generally speaking, thermal transfer labels will last longer and be able to withstand moisture, abrasion, and exposure to UV better than direct thermal labels.
Direct thermal labels are a great choice when the labels ae used in controlled environments for simpler applications that have a short life span. Since there is no need for a ribbon, direct thermal is an inexpensive way to print labels that are for temporary use such as shipping labels or in high turnover inventory applications.
So that’s an overview of thermal transfer versus direct thermal printing. If you have any questions, or would like to get more detail about thermal transfer versus direct thermal printing, just let us know and any of our account managers would be happy to help.
I’m Kim Dieringer, and thanks for watching!