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The Basics of Thermal Printing

In the diverse world of print, labels used for shipping labels or barcodes that are mass produced are many times printed using either direct thermal or thermal transfer printing.  It may appear to be an archaic form of printing, considering we live in a digital age, but its uses are still necessary in day to day business.

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct thermal printing occurs when the printed image is creating by heating thermal paper. The coating on the paper turns black in the areas that are heated by the thermal print head.  There are also two color direct thermal printers that print black and a second color, often times red.  Some of the key benefits to direct thermal printing are that they generally print faster and quieter than dot matrix printers.  Also, the only consumable product for the printer is the label.  Direct thermal printers also have very little downtime because most can be refilled and printing can resume immediately.  Examples of machines that use or used thermal printing include:

Direct thermal printing is best in situations where the print is not intended to be stored for archival purposes or any other purpose that would require an extended period of time.  Also, direct thermal is less expensive than most other print methods in terms of supplies because there is no ribbon or additional products needed for the print other than the label.  If the printed label is overexposed to light or light the text or barcode will eventually be rendered unreadable.  The use of barcodes on products or shipping labels is usually not meant for permanent use.   In the case of short lived labels or receipts, direct thermal is your best option.

We at Planet Label do carry supplies for direct thermal printers.  All of our desktop thermal transfer label supplies are wound on a 1″ diameter core with a 4″ outer roll diameter, and are sold by the carton. Our industrial products, though, are wound on a 3″ diameter core in a variety of sizes. To visit our desktop line, click here.  For our industrial products, click here.

Thermal Transfer Printing

Instead of heating the paper to produce an image, thermal transfer printers have a print head that heats a ribbon containing ink and the heated ink gets transferred to the label.  Thermal transfer printing also takes advantage of using other materials to print on rather than thermal paper, such as polyester and polypropylene based media.  Also, a major advantage to thermal transfer is that with the use of ribbons, multiple colors can be produced on a print. Typical color thermal printers include CMYK color panels, but unlike dye or ink based printers, they cannot vary the size of color dots while printing, which doesn’t produce quality results seen in color laser or inkjet printers.  Color thermal printers are mostly used in industrial settings rather than home or personal environments.  Most of the same uses for thermal direct print can be applied for direct transfer print as well.

Thermal ribbons are usually in the form of wax or resin.  Planet Label has an array of supplies for thermal transfer labels.  See below for links to our supply categories.

  • Thermal Transfer
  • Thermal Transfer Ribbons – Resin
  • Thermal Transfer Ribbons – Wax
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