Thermal transfer vs direct thermal printing, what’s the difference?

Do you no longer see the wood for the trees when it comes to thermal printing? Don’t worry, we’ll help you on your way. With most label printers you can choose between two printing techniques for printing your labels: thermal transfer and direct thermal. Although these two techniques are quite similar in terms of name, there is a noticeable difference in terms of technique.

Choose the right printing technique

Are you about to look for a suitable label printer? Then it is of course important to know which criteria your printer must meet. To determine the right printer, you want to understand the characteristics and techniques of the different options. Each type of printer has its pros and cons.

You will soon see the term “thermal printing” pop up. But what exactly does that mean? Thermal printing uses heating to print labels. Below we explain the two different techniques of thermal printing: direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Direct thermal printing

A direct thermal printer prints your logo, text or image by selectively heating thermal paper as the paper passes under the thermal print head. The top layer, or coating, of the label turns black in the areas where it is heated, thus creating a certain image. Are you curious if you use this? Then scratch the label with your fingernail. Do you see a discoloration on the label? Then you work with a thermal label.

Some features of this printing technique at a glance:

  • Easy to use as no ribbon is required, which can have a positive impact on handling costs and production lead time
  • This technique is especially suitable for products with a short shelf life
  • These labels react to heat, sun and UV light and discolour with prolonged exposure
  • Since the print head is in direct contact with the thermal paper, there is a chance that it will be subject to wear and tear.
  • This type of label is widely used in logistics, transportation, online shipping & fresh produce

Thermal transfer printing

Thermal transfer printing uses a printing ribbon to print the label. As the label and ribbon are driven together under the printhead, small pixels across the width of the printhead are heated. These heated parts then ensure that the ink is applied to the label.

Discover some advantages and disadvantages of this printing technique:

  • Labels are more scratch resistant and remain legible for a much longer period of time
  • The print head enjoys a long life when the correct printing ribbon is used
  • Choice of ribbons specially designed to provide better protection against scratches, corrosive substances or weather conditions
  • Ability to print on a wide variety of materials
  • This type of label is used in the medical sector & chemistry, plant sector, food sector, for long-term storage…

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