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Thermal Transfer & Direct Thermal Printers

Should I print my own labels or get them pre-printed??

Keep in mind that the decision to make or buy bar code labels does not need to be made across the board for all of a company's needs. Many companies with in-house printing capabilities still outsource some labels simply because the requirements of some applications are met most cost effectively with pre-printed labels. This is especially true for labels with multiple colors or very large volumes.

The most important factors in deciding whether to print your own labels or buy pre printed labels are:


    • How may labels do you need?
    • Very low volume (5 - 500 per month)
      • Print yourself. Initial setup for low volume labels often make the printed price extremely high
    • Mid -Range (1000 - 10000 per month)
      • Pre-printed pricing is often very reasonable versus software and hardware expenditures that would be required for on-site printing.
    • Large runs of consistent or know data
      • Typically produced off-site to avoid tying up resources

Source and variation of Label Information

  • Pre-printed labels
    • Identical or constant label information
    • Data is known in advance (ex UPC numbers).
    • Can contain incrementing or decrementing serial numbers
    • Simple variable data stored in a spreadsheet
  • On-Site Printing
    • When labeling unique items, where the label has to be matched to the object it is to identify
    • Labels without an obvious sequence
    • Labels containing large amounts of variable data that is only available just before the time the label is to be applied (ex. variable product weight)

Time Requirements

  • If labels are often required with instantly, without any notice, in-house printing may be the best choice.
  • Some pre-printed labels require 2-3 weeks to print and deliver the labels, this requires some advanced planning to ensure that an adequate supply of labels remains on-hand.

Internal Resources

  • Trained personnel, computer equipment, printers, software, and quality control procedures are all required when printing labels in-house. Without adequate resources, poor quality or unreadable symbols may result. The cost of non-readable symbols can mean manufacturing line shut downs and fines from retailers.
  • Another factor that shouldn't be overlooked is the assistance provided when having the labels pre-printed. When having labels outsourced maintaining databases of sequential numbers, assistance with compliance labeling issues and guaranteeing scannability are issues handled by us at Barcode Technologies
  • For short runs, novice labelers, or small companies with limited in-house resources, these additional services can sometimes outweigh all other considerations in the pre-printed or in-house decision.

Benefits of a Thermal printer versus and existing office printer

  • If labeling added to office printer, label jobs may get stuck in lengthy print queues while documents and reports are printed
  • Media will have to be loaded and unloaded each time labels are need
  • Existing printer may not be located near area requiring labels
    • Office printer used to print labels for shipping department.
    • A Thermal Transfer printer allows one label or thousands to be printed at a time. When using an inkjet or laser a full label sheet is used even if you only need one label.
    • Bar code printers print at higher speed
  • Bar Code Quality
    • Bar codes are not fonts or graphics.
    • Used to communicate data more accurately and quickly than is possible by manual methods (text and graphics), this benefit is lost if bar code is lacking in quality
    • Barcodes must be produced within very tight tolerances, with the width of bars and spaces measures in mils (thousandths of an inch)
    • Slight inconsistencies in bar width or insufficient contrast between dark and light elements can make the symbols unreadable.
    • Bar codes printed on a Thermal Transfer printer have a better scan rate, because the bars are crisp and solid

What is should I consider when choosing a thermal printer?

  • Quantity

    • Will you print 10 labels per day or 10,000? It makes a difference.
    • A small desktop unit may cost less initially by it not made for high volume printing and may wear-out prematurely
    • At the same time buying a large industrial printer to print 5 labels a day could be a waste of money.
  • Label Size

    • The standard printhead width is 4".
    • Printers that print labels over 4" wide tend to be more expensive.
  • Resolution

    • For most bar code applications a 203 dpi thermal printer is sufficient
    • If you are printing fine graphics or 2-D bar codes you may want a higher resolution.
  • Environmental Conditions

    • Printer cases are constructed out of metal, plastic or a combination of the two
    • If the printer is to be placed in a industrial setting a metal case will prevent damage to the print mechanism.

How do I choose between Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal?

Direct Thermal

Direct thermal printing uses chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that blackens when it passes under the thermal printhead. Direct thermal printers have no ink, toner, or ribbon and because of this they are often used in food application as those items may be considered contaminates..

Their simple design makes thermal printers durable and easy to use. Because there is no ribbon they are often easier to operate than thermal transfer printers.

The short life of the direct thermal paper often results in direct thermal labels being priced equal to, or a bit, higher than thermal transfer labels, even when ribbon cost is factored in.

Thermal media images may fade over time. If the label is overexposed to heat, light, or other catalysts, the material will darken and make the text or bar code unreadable. For these reasons, direct thermal printing is not recommended for applications where a label must last over six months. The technology provides ample lifespan for many common bar code printing applications including shipping labels, patient and visitor identification, receipts, and ticket printing.

Thermal Transfer

In thermal transfer printing, a thermal printhead applies heat to a ribbon, which melts ink onto the material to form the image. The ink is absorbed so that the image becomes part of the media. This technique provides image quality and durability that is unmatched by other on-demand printing technologies.

Thermal transfer printers can accept a wider variety of media than direct thermal models, including paper, polyester, and polypropylene materials. Thermal transfer printers can create extremely durable asset tags, and certification labels, in addition to common labels, tags, and tickets. The specific label material and ribbon must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability.

By selecting the right media-ribbon combination, as well as specialty adhesives, users can create archival-quality labels to withstand temperature extremes, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals, sterilization, and more. Typical thermal transfer applications include: product identification; circuit board tracking; permanent identification; sample and file tracking; asset tagging; inventory identification; certification labels such as UL/CSA; laboratory specimens; cold storage and freezers; and outdoor applications

Can I use a Laser printer for bar codes?

Yes, the codes will print fairly well, but you will only be able to print labels in multiples of full sheets at a time. This means wasted labels.

Can I use a Inkjet printer for bar codes?

Printing bar codes with an ink jet printer is not recommended because the print is not as precise as laser or thermal printer. Depending on the quantity of paper used ink can bleed and interfere with scannability. Inks requires some drying time before handling and will usually run or bleed if exposed to water.

Can I use a Dot Matrix printer for bar codes?

The simple answer is yes. But the print quality may be poor and so order to ensure that the bar codes scan they must be quite large in size. Also continuous ribbon re-use, and gradual print fade, on dot matrix printers requires close monitoring to ensure adequate bar code contrast.

Printing Questions

What maintenance does my thermal printer require?

It is recommended that you clean the printhead after every roll of ribbon with a non-abrasive cloth soaked in Isopropyl alcohol.

You should also remove label pieces from the platen roller, also using isopropyl.

You should also remove dust from the inside of the printer as necessary using compressed air.

Where can I get drivers for my thermal printer?

Many labels design software packages include printer drivers in the software. If you are using a program like Labelview or Label Matrix it is recommended that you use the included driver. Open the program, choose file from the menu and choose the option to select a printer. See the software manual for exact details.

If you are printing form a Window application you can download the thermal printer driver from Seagull Scientific's website. Installation instructions are included with the file.

Zebra provide their Zebra Universal Printer Driver for all their thermal printers.

If you have purchase a Thermal Printer form Barcode Technologies and require help installing a printer driver please call 1-800-565-3995.

Why are there small spots missing on my label?

Print voids can be caused by dust on label stock from shipping or storage. Even finger prints from handling the label can cause spots of missed print. Dust on the printer's platen roller can also cause irregular print.

Try cleaning the platen roller with isopropyl alcohol and a soft cloth. Then remove a few feet of label material so that you begin printing on a portion that was not exposed to the surroundings.

Why is there a vertical line through the printed area?

Check for dirt on the printhead by cleaning it with isopropyl alcohol and a soft cloth.

If the vertical line persists you might have a printhead that needs to be replaced.

Why are their wrinkles in my ribbon ?

Ribbon wrinkles can form for a variety of reasons. Thing to check for are:

  • New and Used ribbon rolls not in-line
  • Unwind and rewind ribbon shaft tension require adjustment
  • Uneven printhead pressure
  • Printer temperature (heat setting) too high
  • Ribbon is much wider than the label stock

When I print it looks good, but the ribbon scratches off easily?

This problem is usually observed when using a wax or wax/resin ribbon on a polyester or other high-end synthetic label material. To ensure a lasting print use the proper label/ribbon combination. Call us at 1-800-565-3995 for more information.

Why does my ribbon break during printing?

Things to check for:

  • Excessive printhead temperature
  • Ribbon tension too high
  • Printhead pressure too high
  • Printer is in direct thermal mode

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