Thermal printers use heating elements to produce high-quality labels and other printed media. There are two common types to choose from: direct thermal and thermal transfer printers. What are their differences, and what are the advantages and drawbacks of using one over the other? Let’s find out.
Direct thermal printers
Direct thermal printers apply heat to heat-sensitive printing materials, such as thermal paper, without the need for any ribbon, ink, or toner.
Direct thermal printers are typically used to produce items that require good readability and scannability, such as shipping labels, tickets, receipts, visitor IDs, ID wristbands, and perishable item labels. They are easy to use due to their simpler, ribbon-free mechanics and inexpensive to maintain, as only the printing material has to be refilled. What’s more, direct thermal printers support both single and batch printing.
Direct thermal printers are typically used to produce items that require good readability and scannability, such as shipping labels, tickets, receipts, visitor IDs, ID wristbands, and perishable item labels.
Since the printing material is susceptible to heat, fading, abrasions, chemicals, water, and strong sunlight, direct thermal printouts are only good for around six months.
Most direct thermal printers can also only print in black, although some two-color setups exist.
Furthermore, there are some health and environmental concerns surrounding direct thermal printing. Firstly, thermal papers used to contain bisphenol-A (BPA), which is a chemical linked to reproductive, immunity, and neurological issues. While BPA has been discontinued in favor of bisphenol-S (BPS), there are still some concerns that the latter is just as harmful as the former. Secondly, the printing material remains chemically reactive after printing, making it harmful to people and animals.
Thermal transfer printers
Thermal transfer printers use a thermal transfer ribbon (TTR) made of wax or resin that melts onto the printing material to create a high-quality image.
Thermal transfer printing is ideal for printed media that will be used for more than six months or exposed to harsh conditions like chemicals, light, high temperatures, or water. This makes such printed media great for cold and freezer storage labels, outdoor uses, asset tracking, blood bags and laboratory specimens, and permanent identification, among others.
With thermal transfer printing, you can perform batch or single printing, and use a wide variety of materials such as plastic, paper, and polyester, among others. Printing materials can also be matched with different types of ribbons to ensure durability. What’s more, thermal transfer printers can use colored ribbons for a more vibrant output.
While some thermal transfer printers have a direct thermal mode, you still need to purchase TTRs regularly, which can be costly. These printers have more moving parts than direct thermal printers do, so they’re more difficult to repair.
TTRs are also generally non-recyclable. Finally, ensuring that you get a ribbon and a printing material that are compatible with each other can become a hassle if none is readily available.
Which thermal printer is for you?
The answer depends on your business’s requirements. If your company prefers lower operating costs and doesn't need printouts to last a long time, then direct thermal printers are ideal. However, if you need labels and other printouts that are long-lasting and can withstand harsh conditions, then thermal transfer printers are the way to go.
The experts at Complete Document Solutions can help you determine the right thermal printer for your business. Additionally, we can help you properly set up your printer, address any issues, and ensure that you’re getting the most out of your investment. Drop us a line today to learn more.