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Do you need long-lasting labels? Understanding the advantages of thermal transfer printing.

Do You Need Long-Lasting Lables? Understanding The Advantages of Thermal Transfer Printing.
By Juan Blanco

If you’re considering thermal printers for your business, you first need to understand that there are two types of thermal printing: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Both use a heated printhead to transfer the printed image to the print media, but they do it differently. A basic understanding of this difference goes a long way toward choosing the right printer for your application.

In direct thermal printing, the output media is heat sensitive, so the image is transferred directly to the label or paper. But thermal transfer printers insert a heat-sensitive ribbon between the printhead and the label, paper or other media. Both technologies produce high-quality images for barcode labels, graphics and text. And both types are available in desktop, industrial and mobile printers from Zebra Technologies. Zebra’s innovative printer lineup offers a range of sizes and output speeds, with solutions that meet the needs of any warehouse or shipping operation, including those with high-volume printing requirements.

The two technologies really diverge in the durability and longevity of the printed materials, with thermal transfer printing having a significant advantage over direct thermal printing.

Here’s a typical example everyone can relate to. Most of us have received gas stations or credit card receipts that we need to save for an expense report. Almost all of those receipts are printed with direct thermal technology. But what happens if you leave them in a wallet or purse for a long time? The printing degrades and fades over time. Leave a direct thermal receipt in sunlight or wait too long, and the receipt you need for your expense report could be so faded that not even the most accommodating accounting department will accept it.

So, receipts or labels printed with a direct thermal printer are outstanding for short-term applications. But sensitivity to heat and light makes direct thermal technology a poor choice for output that requires a long shelf life.

Thermal transfer printing, however, produces archival-quality output that can remain legible for years. That long-lasting durability is an advantage for many applications. Here are a few examples:

Long-Term Product Identification: Any label used for more than a year should be created with a thermal transfer printer. That includes labels for parts or inventory that may be in storage for an extended period.
Asset Tagging: When you’re tagging a rugged tablet, handheld barcode scanner, or even a forklift—basically any high-value asset—thermal transfer printing gives you a built-in durability advantage, ensuring that serial numbers, barcodes, and other information remain legible for the life of the asset.
Exposure to Challenging Environments: Any label that will see long-term exposure to ultraviolet light, extreme temperatures or other adverse conditions should be printed with a thermal transfer printer. The long-term fade resistance you gain and the ability to print on substrates other than paper offer a considerable advantage when labeling things like building materials, outdoor equipment or parts stored in a laydown yard.
Sensitive Materials: Another factor to consider is the value of the information you must convey on your label. In laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing and other applications where high-value assets may be in storage for many years, opting for a thermal transfer label printed on a long-lasting substrate makes sense.
Hazardous materials: In some cases, you have no idea exactly how long hazardous waste and other materials must remain in storage. However, you can’t afford to lose track of them if a label becomes illegible over time. That’s a case where you should use a thermal transfer label.

These are just a few of the applications where thermal transfer labels shine. At AB&R, we offer a complete portfolio of industrial, desktop and mobile printers from Zebra Technologies, and we would be happy to help you find the perfect printing solution for your business.Free Barcode and RFID Assessment
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