Home / Barcode Basics / Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Printing: Which is Best?

Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Printing: Which is Best?

The battle of thermal transfer vs direct thermal printing is most often won by answering a simple question: Do you require long-lasting barcodes to identify products and tag assets, or do you need to print items with shorter shelf lives, such as shipping labels, receipts, or tickets?

Most organizations with dedicated barcode systems use either thermal transfer or direct thermal printing to produce labels for tracking and identifying people, products, and locations. But sometimes they pick the wrong technology simply because they aren’t aware of their differences.

By learning more about thermal transfer vs direct thermal printing, companies won’t waste time and money on labels and barcode printers that won’t work.

What is thermal transfer printing?

Thermal transfer printing use a heated print head and a thin ribbon to create high-quality, long-lasting barcode labels.

Black Tie Labels by System ID

Black Tie makes high-quality, yet affordable, thermal transfer and direct thermal labels. Zebra is also a popular brand.

The ribbons have a wax, resin, or a wax/resin coating on one side. When a thermal transfer label or tag passes through a thermal transfer barcode printer, heat from the print head melts the wax or resin.

This process transfers ink to the label. The result is crisp, high-definition images of the highest quality—which is why thermal transfer printing is perfect for applications that require durable, long-lasting labels.

Learn more about thermal transfer printing.

What is direct thermal printing?

Direct thermal printing also uses a print head to generate images. But instead of using ribbons to transfer ink, it creates an image directly on the label.

This print technology uses chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that turns black when it passes under a heated print head. Therefore, no ribbons, ink, or toner is needed—which is one of the reasons for the widespread adoption of direct thermal printing. The ongoing maintenance costs are lower than those for thermal transfer printing.

Learn more about direct thermal printing.

Thermal transfer vs direct thermal printing

Both print technologies have advantages and limitations. To determine which is right for you, compare both in the table below.

 

Thermal Transfer

Direct Thermal

Best for

  • Long-term applications
  • Short-term applications or one-time use

Environment

  • Rugged, industrial
  • Indoors and out
  • Extreme temperatures
  • No exposure to heat, long periods of direct sunlight, and abrasion
  • Indoor only
  • Controlled temperatures

Ideal applications

  • Product identification
  • Asset tagging
  • Inventory identification
  • Certification labels such as UL/CSA
  • Laboratory specimens
  • Cold storage and freezers
  • Outdoor applications
  • Circuit board tracking
  • Permanent identification
  • Sample and file tracking
  • Shipping labels
  • Compliance labels
  • Receipts
  • Pick tickets
  • Patient wristbands
  • Coupons
  • Event tickets
  • Citations
  • Parking tickets
  • Name tags
  • Visitor passes

How it works

  • Uses ribbons, ink, and print heads
  • Thin ribbons with wax, resin, or wax/resin coatings on one side pass under a heated print head. The heat melts the coating and transfers ink onto the label.
  • Does not use ribbons or ink, but does use print heads
  • Chemically treated, heat-sensitive paper passes under the heated print head. The heat burns images directly onto the label.

Benefits

Superior print quality

  • Accurate, high-definition text, graphics, and barcodes
  • Archival-quality labels
  • Consistent, reliable images on every label
  • Nearly unlimited variety of paper, polyester, and polypropylene media available

Maximum readability, scannability

  • Tough, long-lasting labels
  • Excellent edge definition
  • Resistant to heat and moisture
  • Images won’t rub off
  • Both 1D and 2D barcodes

Low operational costs

  • Virtually no waste due to batch or single-label print options
  • Print heads last longer
  • Printers typically more durable
  • Minimal long-term maintenance expenses

Simple to use

  • Prints directly onto the label material
  • No ribbons, toner, or ink required
  • Used in most mobile printers

Good readability, scannability

  • Sharp, quality images
  • Easy to scan
  • Provides ample lifespan for many common barcode printing applications

Affordable

  • Typically costs less to operate than thermal transfer printing
  • Lower long-term maintenance costs because of minimal replacement supplies
  • Virtually no waste due to batch or single-label print options
  • Recyclable labeling materials available

Limitations

Higher supply expenses

  • Have to routinely replace ribbons
  • Replacement frequency can increase when primarily printing single labels

Increased installation costs

  • Initial investment may be moderate to high
  • Poor candidate for recycling options

Potential printer problems

  • Must carefully match label material and ribbon; otherwise, the print head may melt the ribbon onto the label
  • Must choose the right specialty adhesives

Sensitive to environment

  • Can fade over time
  • Overexposure to heat or light darkens materials, making the barcode unreadable
  • Doesn’t withstand abrasion

Usability issues

  • Less rugged than thermal transfer labels
  • Best for short-term applications
  • Not recommended for lifetime identification applications
  • Readability varies greatly depending on usage conditions
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Jay Schofield

Product Business Development Manager at System ID Barcode Solutions
Jay Schofield’s passion is numbers. For more than 10 years, he has been turning facts and figures into actionable business intelligence for System ID. When he’s not researching, analyzing, and planning for the “next big thing,” Jay can be spotted on the lake with family and friends.

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