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Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Printing — Which Is Best?

Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Printing — Which Is Best?

Printing on an industry level requires high-quality chemicals and state-of-the-art technology to ensure that each sign, label, barcode, receipt, and sticker serves its purpose. There are currently 2 main printing methods in the market, the thermal transfer technology and the direct thermal printing technique, each with its own pros and cons. Find out more about each technique to determine which is the best choice for your company and application.

What Are Thermal Labels?

To manufacture images at a more efficient rate, thermal printing is used exclusively by businesses in label making. Using a thermal transfer technique, a ribbon is used to release heat from the printhead, which allows it to duplicate images that are highly accurate and well-defined. Now, there are different ways to do this, which require their own specific equipment and processes.

 

You can choose from either thermal transfer printing or direct heat printing. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to decide which method works best for your needs. Both methods can also be used for same-day sticker printing, so if you’re looking for efficiency, you won’t have a hard time choosing between them. The best technology fit for you will heavily depend on your product design and whether you are sticker printing or label printing. You need to consider factors like durability, convenience, and versatility.

 

One thing is for certain, however — no matter which method you decide to use in printing product labels and barcode labels, you have to ensure that that particular equipment is at optimum performance. Doing so will save you money in the long run since it will prevent the printing of unscannable barcodes and save you the effort of getting them reprinted. Always invest in high-quality thermal printing methods to avoid productivity loss and business downtime.

What Is Thermal Transfer Printing?

Thermal printed labes are more resistant to scratches, heat, and moisture

Thermal transfer printing uses a heated ribbon that can print permanent images on a plethora of materials. From the keyword “transfer”, this method of printing differentiates itself from the direct thermal technique by using heat to lift the ink and transferring it to the paper. Using a wax-covered ribbon, the printhead (as it heats up) will then melt the wax and allow it to bond with the paper’s surface. The ribbon will usually be in black, but it’s also available in different colours and is mostly used for long-term labels. 


A common example of its use is seen on Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, which is done on-site. It can also be used to print circuit board tracking labels, lab specimen tapes, UL certifications, and inventories. Additionally, thermal transfer printing is best suited for labels that will be exposed to extreme temperatures or environments, such as freezers and the outdoors.


Pros 

  • More colour variation
  • Better durability and longevity
  • Can be applied on-site
  • Resistant to moisture, heat, and light damage
  • Can be applied to a variety of mediums from paper, polypropylene, and polyester
  • Best used for archived labels
  • Long-lasting printheads
  • Few maintenance tasks are needed
  • Friction resistant

Cons

  • Full-process colour printing is difficult to achieve
  • Uses more chemicals and materials during printing
  • Separate ribbons needed to print various colours
  • Printing ribbons can’t be recycled

What Is Direct Thermal Printing?

Direct thermal printing is the budget-friendly option

Direct thermal printing uses a heat-sensitive and chemically treated medium that turns black once it undergoes the thermal printhead. With the use of leuco dye, this thermal printing technique allows its plain coated paper to transform into whatever pattern or image possible. At first glance, it would only seem like a blank sheet, but when heat is applied, it then transforms into the desired design label. 

 

It’s perfect for short-term use and is usually used in receipts, shipping labels, parking tickets, name tags, event passes, patient wristbands, and more. The print usually lasts for about 6 to 8 months and starts to fade. It also does not require any ribbon, ink, or toner for it to print, as the leuco dye and heat are the only factors affecting the process. 

 

Pros

  • Creates sharp and high-definition graphics, texts, and images
  • Does not require any ink or cartridges
  • Lower maintenance cost
  • Minimum supply needed
  • Fast and efficient printing
  • Portable and small printers
  • More affordable and cost-efficient

Cons

  • Can’t print coloured images
  • Tend to fade faster over time
  • Friction can easily rub off the ink
  • Can easily be affected by excessive heat and light

Factors to Consider When Choosing Printing Solutions

Both direct thermal printing and thermal transfer printing can deliver quality results for your industrial label printing needs. There are a myriad of factors that will affect how suitable either technique is for your application. Here are a few basic considerations you need to take into account before you make your decision:

 

  • Thermal printhead cost, maintenance, and shelf-life
    Thermal transfer printing has a longer shelf-life for its printer heads compared to direct thermal printing.
  • Printer configuration
    Generally speaking, direct thermal printing has cheaper parts and printing components as it does not need any toner, ink, or cartridge.
  • Media selection
    You may choose coated or non-coated materials depending on your needs for both printing methods.
  • Label life requirements
    If your label needs to be permanent, opt for thermal transfer printing, but if it’s for temporary prints, choose direct thermal printing.
  • Environmental considerations

    Direct thermal printing creates less carbon footprint as it does not use any ribbon or additional materials. 

Choosing your label printer for your company’s industrial needs requires the same level of scrutiny as any other aspect in your business. Since it will be affecting how you deliver your goods to the market, it’s best to invest in and stick to the option that is most efficient, useful, and well-suited for you. 

 

Whether picking thermal transfer or direct thermal printing, make sure to balance out all the pros and cons for a more informed decision. If in doubt, ask the help of experts at ProScan Media Products. We provide product label printing for Toronto businesses. Call us now at (289) 372-3043.