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Hot off the Presses: The Inside Story on Thermal Printing

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it: Thermal label printing is hot (literally)! 

Thermal labels printing technology is the name of the game when it comes to printing barcodes on blank labels.  There are two dominant printing methods: thermal transfer and direct thermal. Let’s take an in-depth look at both.  

Thermal transfer printers work by heating a printer ribbon and melting ink directly onto the blank label roll. The ink is then absorbed by the blank label.  Thermal transfer printing is an ideal technology for barcode labels because it creates durable images with precise edge definition. These labels are generally easy to scan. Additionally, thermal transfer printers are able to produce one and two-dimensional bar codes.

Thermal transfer printers handle a wider variety of printing materials and can be used to on print labels, polypropylene and polyester (among others).  Some uses of thermal transfer label printing include: theme park wristbands, movie tickets, and luggage tags.  Thermal labels printers are known for their ability to print archival quality labels able to withstand extreme heat and cold, sunlight and exposure to a wide variety of chemicals. For this reason, thermal transfer labels are often affixed to medical specimens requiring refrigeration. Police departments have also turned to the reliability of thermal transfer printers to print barcode labels for evidence that will need to be stored for decades.blank thermal labels printer

Now let’s take a look at direct thermal printing. Direct thermal printers do not require ribbons, toner or ink.  The “ink” is actually in the direct thermal labels. These blank labels are treated with a chemical that makes them sensitive to heat. When heated, the paper changes color. Because direct thermal printers are simpler in their design and do not require ink cartridges or toner, they are cheaper to operate, and the printer of choice for most companies using mobile printing systems.

But wait… what exactly is mobile printing? Mobile printing is “printing on the go.”  Mobile printers are lightweight and wireless. Does this scenario sound familiar? You are at a restaurant. Your credit card is swiped into a handheld machine by carried to your table.  After signing the screen, the machine prints out a receipt. This is an example of mobile wireless direct thermal printing. 

Direct thermal labels, however, due to their sensitivity to heat, tend to be less durable than thermal transfer labels. Direct thermal labels can fade and react to high temperatures and sunlight. For this reason, direct thermal labels are generally used for “short lifespan” needs, like shipping labels, receipts and visitor identification. 

small thermal label printerWhen deciding which technology to use, think about the maximum required shelf-life for your labels as well as the storage conditions. Will your labels encounter extreme temperatures, light exposure or other potential hazards? Would your company benefit from the convenience of being able to print ‘on-the-go’?

Direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels are the backbone of today’s tracking and labeling systems across multiple industries. As more and more businesses embrace thermal printing to manage products, orders and shipping, there’s no sign this technology will cool off anytime soon.



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