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Direct thermal or Thermal transfer - which is best ?

Monday, 18 February 2013  |  Mike

Direct thermal or thermal transfer labels - which should I be using ?

This is probably the question we are most frequently asked. It would to useful to explain the differences between the two technologies.

There are two printing technologies used - DIRECT THERMAL and THERMAL TRANSFER.

DIRECT THERMAL PRINTING uses chemically treated, heat sensitive paper that blackens  when it passes under the printer's thermal printhead (using the same technology used by early fax machines). Direct thermal printers use no ink, toner or ribbon. The simple design makes them durable and easy to use. However, the image may fade over a period of time. If the label is overexposed to heat or light, it will darken making the text (or barcode) unreadable. For these reasons, direct thermal is not suitable for lifetime identification applications but it does provide ample lifespan for many common applications including shipping labels - for example, direct thermal labels can easily remain scannable after spending 6 months in storage in a distribution centre.

THERMAL TRANSFER PRINTING applies heat to a ribbon, which melts ink onto the label to form the image. The ink is absorbed and is instantly dry. This technique provides image quality and durability that is unmatched by all other on-demand printing technologies. Thermal transfer printers can use a wider variety of media than direct thermal printers, including polyester and polypropylene, to produce labels that are extremely durable. The specific label material and ribbon type must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability. By selecting the correct label - ribbon combination, user can create archival quality labels to withstand temperature extremes, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals and sterilisation. Typical thermal transfer applications include product identification, circuit board tracking, sample and file tracking, asset tagging, certification labels, laboratory specimens, cold storage and outdoor application.

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