Thermal Transfer Rolls or Direct Thermal

Thermal till RollsIt’s one of those logistical business decisions: to use thermal transfer rolls or direct thermal for your barcode label printing needs? There are pros and cons to both methods, so you’ll want to study the differences closely before making your final decision.

It all comes down to figuring out exactly what you need to use your printed labels for and deciding what kind of image quality you need for it. The two types of printing, Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer, differ on the span of time labels last, the quality of the image, and price. Do your research to make a final decision, but consider the brief description of each below.


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The video below was created by US company Raco, and describes the difference between direct thermal and thermal transfer printing and shows us a little about how the printers work.

Direct Thermal

In direct thermal printing, direct heat causes a chemical reaction on the piece of paper which creates a black image. The paper is coated with a special material to create this affect. You can see how this works by scrapping a fingernail across the surface of direct thermal printing paper and see that a black streak emerges.

Using this process allows you to skip the step of installing a ribbon, which can save you some costs along the way. One disadvantage is the sketchy durability of this kind of printing paper. There are many different grades and qualities of direct thermal paper, so do your research regarding the reliability of the paper you use in the environment you’re expecting to use it in.

Initially, you will find that the cost of direct thermal printing will be more, however as time goes on you’ll see that the costs you are saving on new ribbons will likely offset this difference.

Thermal Transfer

Rather than using direct heat, thermal transfer uses a ribbon with rolled labels to print its information. Heat is still involved, but it works by melting the ink onto the surface of the paper instead. This creates a crisp image and works great for graphics and barcodes. The great thing about using a thermal transfer system is the document will have a much longer shelf life.

Thermal transfer systems come with three basic types of ribbon: wax, resin and a hybrid. The difference lies in the degree of quality and clarity of the image and shelf life of the ink. No matter what, though, the label which emerges is resistant to chemicals, grease, solvents, grease, heat and moisture.

Which should I use?

The decision as to which you should use comes down to what you’re specifically using your label for. Obviously, if you’re using it for documents and labels which you need to last for a long period of time, you should opt to use Thermal Transfer printing. You should also use Thermal Transfer printing if you are needing to have more fine ink or smaller bar codes.

If you, however, need a generic receipt which doesn’t need to last more than a few months, and you don’t need it with a high degree of accuracy, you will be safe to go with the cheaper direct printing option.