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Printing barcode labels: thermal transfer vs direct thermal

23 May 2017
Barcoding has been part of the technology infrastructure of business for many years. While the technology is not new, uses for barcoding keep expanding to new applications and industries. If you’ve been given the task of managing your organization’s barcode labelling needs, here’s a quick overview of the printing technologies available.

The most popular barcode label printing methods are thermal transfer and direct thermal

Thermal label printers are ideal for barcode printing because they produce accurate, high-quality images with excellent edge definition. Thermal printers are engineered to print within tight tolerances and to produce the exact bar widths that successful barcode printing and scanning require. Each technology can produce one- and two-dimensional barcode symbologies, graphics and text at the same print resolutions and speeds.

The differences between thermal transfer and direct thermal printing

Both thermal transfer and direct thermal label printers use a thermal print head that applies heat to the surface to create an image.

Thermal transfer labels are printed using a heated ribbon. This produces durable images that can withstand exposure to light, extreme temperatures and abrasion. This technology uses less heat to transfer a printed image than other methods, giving you the widest variety of materials to work with.

Direct thermal labels are printed without using a ribbon. An image is created directly on the printed material. Direct thermal labels are more sensitive to light, temperature and abrasion, but they are cost-effective and ideal for labels that are used for short-term events.

Direct thermal labels and thermal transfer labels are both utilized for the following industries and applications:

  • Transport and logistics
  • Chemical identification
  • Food and beverage products
  • Fresh produce
  • Timber and hardware identification
  • Healthcare products
  • Harsh environment tags for steel, glass and aluminum products
  • Retail shelf self-adhesive labels
  • RFID tags and labels

Choosing the right thermal label printing system

Choosing the right type of technology and the right labels for your application before you place your order makes for sound business practice. There are several considerations involved in making certain that you have the appropriate labelling system for your specific application, however it’s always best to speak to an expert first - they’ve most likely encountered the application before.


Thermal transfer label printing for lasting impressions

Thermal transfer label images have a lasting durability that makes them an excellent and necessary investment for labels that are exposed to harsh environments and labels that must last a long time. Thermal transfer label printers can also accept a wider variety of media than direct thermal models. The specific label material and ribbon must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability.

Some of the most common thermal transfer label applications include:

  • Product identification labels
  • Circuit board tracking
  • Permanent identification
  • Sample and file tracking
  • Asset tagging
  • Inventory identification
  • Certification labels
  • Laboratory specimens
  • Cold storage labels
  • Outdoor labels


You’ll need a thermal ribbon for thermal transfer printing

A wide variety of thermal transfer ribbons are available and it is very important to match your ribbon selection to your application. There are three basic formulations of thermal transfer ribbons:

  • Wax-based ribbons are low in cost and suitable for most applications. Label images may be scratched in use or smear if wax ribbons for standard printing on paper materials
  • Wax/resin ribbons for excellent resistance to chemicals on paper and synthetic materials
  • Resin ribbons that provide ultimate durability against chemicals and heat on synthetic materials


Direct thermal labels offer low cost ease-of-use

Direct thermal label printing is the cost effective alternative in barcode label printing because it does not require the use of an inking ribbon. However, they do fade over time - their life expectancy is usually less than one year. Direct thermal labels perform best for short term or indoor uses such as products with short shelf lives, shipping or indoor inventory control in many different industries. They are not used for lifetime identification applications or demanding conditions such as outdoors.

Some of the most common direct thermal label applications include:

  • Shipping labels
  • Compliance labels
  • Receipts
  • Pick tickets
  • Coupons
  • Event tickets
  • Citations and parking tickets
  • Name tags and visitor passes

Peacock Bros. manufactures and distributes a wide range of high-quality direct thermal labels, thermal transfer labels and tags. We are also a leading converter and wholesaler of thermal ribbons. All of our products are made using only the highest-quality materials and the most advanced manufacturing techniques.

Our staff of labelling and printing experts can you assist you in developing the most appropriate barcode labelling solution. Contact us on 1300 723 282 or here to discuss your needs and get a quote.


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