Thermal Transfer or Direct Thermal Labels?

Thermal labels and ribbonsI’ve got to admit, I’ve always been a thermal transfer guy, when it comes to on demand label printing. I’ve always considered the print quality to be better than direct thermal, speeds to be potentially higher, printheads to last longer and the print to be much more robust. Of course, all of these points are promoted heavily by the thermal ribbon manufactures.

So my question is: Are the perceived advantages of thermal transfer fact or myth? Let’s check them out:

Print Quality

Since I had a brand new printer (the Zebra ZT420) in my office, it was a good opportunity to test out the print quality between our thermal transfer paper and our direct thermal.

Running some print tests at the same speeds, the print looked pretty good in both cases. To be certain, I printed a Datamatrix barcode and verified on our Microscan UID Verifier. Here are the results (using AIM DPM-1-2006 Standard):

Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Barcode Verification

Looking at the verification results, both label types produce very high quality barcodes (A’s are best in the AIM DPM verification). The only real difference was that the direct thermal print scores a little better on contrast. That is because the paper is a slightly brighter white than our thermal transfer paper.

 Print Speed

I ran both label types at the maximum speed I could obtain with my printer set up – as the verification shows, both labels are happy at that speed.

Printhead Life

The printhead life story seems to be a bit of red herring to a large extent. While the thermal ribbon manufacturers point out that the backing to their product prolongs printhead life, we have ID Technology customers that have been averaging between 3 and 4 million linear inches before their printheads need replacing.

Print Durability

This is the area where thermal transfer excels. We have sold a lot of synthetic labels that are printed with resin thermal ribbons – these labels can be pretty much indestructible.

Even on paper labels with wax thermal ribbons, the print is always going to be longer lasting than direct thermal – because of the DT label’s sensitivity to light. Having said that, for most packaging applications, extreme durability isn’t needed, the cases and pallets are usually sent through the supply chain and consumed well within the lifetime of direct thermal labels.

The print durability of direct thermal labels has also improved a lot over the last few years and is expected to continue doing so.

It is also useful to point out that direct thermal printing does bring some advantages to the packaging line:

Lower Cost

ID Technology direct thermal labels usually cost less than the price of a paper label/thermal ribbon combination. In many cases, this cost saving can be quite significant.

Only One Consumable

With many business looking to reduce the number of items they have to order, eliminating need to procure and manage  the thermal ribbon inventory is one less item to handle.

Less Downtime

While ID Technology’s matched label/ribbon kits ensure that the labels and ribbons are both replenished at the same time, having only one item to thread on the labeling system keeps those stoppage times to a minimum.

No Ribbon Wrinkle

I have to say it – there are times when my thermal transfer ribbons wrinkle on the printer and drive me crazy! There’s nothing worse than running a print job, only to find missing pieces in the barcode. All the printer models do it – in some cases necessitating a service visit to fix. We’ve had some printers that never could print without wrinkles that ended up being replaced by the manufacturer.

Less to Go Wrong

Direct Thermal Sato Print Engine

Look no ribbon spindles!

Some tabletop printers and print engines can be purchased without the ribbon handling mechanism as direct thermal only. These are great because they are simpler with fewer moving parts.

Which Technology Should You Use?

The best way to decide this is to talk with your local ID Technology labeling specialist. We have years of experience in some of the toughest labeling environments and can help you decide on the labeling solutions that work perfectly for your particular unique needs.

There’s certainly no reason to be afraid of direct thermal labels – over the last few years, the quality has improved immensely over the last few years and ID Technology direct thermal is very competitively priced.

Want to improve your labeling operations? ID Technology can certainly help. Call us  toll free at: 888-438-3242 Option#3 or you can contact me directly at

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