Direct Thermal Vs. Thermal Transfer

The article is on direct thermal vs. thermal transfer. But, in this article, I am going to discuss more.

One of the things that make thermal printers superior options over their top rivals in the market is their ability to print in two distinct modes: i.e.

  • Direct thermal printing, and
  • Thermal Transfer printing

Although both of these printing modes use heat from the thermal print head to create images on the given substrate, they are totally different and hence suited to achieve different printing needs. Consequently, when buying a thermal printer, begin by identifying the specific purposes you wish to accomplish. That way, you will have a clue of what’s best for you.

To win the battle between these two types of thermal printers, let’s find out in detail.

  • What they are?
  • How do they work?
  •  How they differ? And
  • And what’s the best among them?

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct thermal printing refers to a printing technique that uses chemically-treated, heat-sensitive paper (known as thermal paper) to create the desired images or texts when exposed to heat from the printhead. Basically, what happens is that the chemicals present in the heat-sensitive paper cause it to blacken when the hot printhead is passed over.

In the direct thermal printing method, there are no toners, inks, or ribbons needed, and therefore it’s the best printing method where convenience is needed, for example, places such as cafes, kiosks, etc.

Does Thermal Printing Offer Any Benefits?

Besides being the most convenient printing method, direct thermal printing offers a couple of benefits. For example:

  • It offers superior quality prints with good scannability
  • It features recyclable materials and hence keeps the environment safe
  • The printing method cut down on the printing costs – since there are no supplies to supplant. You only need to buy the printing material i.e. thermal paper
  • It supports single or batch printing and ensure zero wastage
  • Direct thermal printers are generally easy to use – since they don’t involve many operating things such as ribbons, toners, and/or ink
  • They are best suited for applications that need less short shelf-life e.g. printing receipts
  • Finally, direct thermal printers last longer than some of their top rivals e.g. laser printers and dot matrix printers. For this reason, you can rely on them to serve your office or industrial operations for as long as possible without making another purchase.

Direct Thermal Printing Shortcomings

Every good thing has its flipside, and direct thermal printers are not an exception. Although you will like them for the above benefits, you will have to cope with the following:

  • Thermal papers used in direct thermal printers retain their chemical reactivity meaning they can react and fade  easily when exposed to UV lights or other chemicals
  • They are also not good for accomplishing printing tasks that requiring prolonged shelf life

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal Transfer Printing

Unlike a direct thermal printer that uses heat to cast images on the substrate, thermal transfer printing uses ribbons that melts on a substrate to create long-lasting, superior-quality texts and images. The ribbons are made from resin or wax-based ink, and it melts when subjected to high temperature.

The thermal transfer printing method is the best choice when serving printing needs that need prolonged shelf life. For example, when printing product labels.

The method boasts of producing excellent prints that can withstand the vagaries of weather for 6+ months. It’s commonly used in places such as labs, industries, etc.

With the above printing method, users enjoy the freedom of printing on a wide range of materials. For example, you can print on plastic, paper, or even polyester materials. This is not achievable with direct thermal printing.

Note that some thermals printers can serve as direct thermal printers. They offer ideal options where flexibility and cost-saving are paramount.

Does Thermal Transfer Printing Offer any Advantage?

There are many benefits you will enjoy from choosing a thermal transfer printer. These include:

  • Thermal transfer printers can typically print on almost anything – talk of polyester materials, papers, or even plastics
  • Although they can be costly to maintain compared to direct thermal printing, they are a bit economical if compared to inkjet or dot matrix printers
  • Thermal transfer printers offer high quality and durable text and images
  • They allow single or batch printing
  • With their superior resolution, they offer high definition texts, barcodes, and graphics that are easy to read and scan
  • They are durable than other printing options such as inkjet and dot matrix printers
  • Finally, some thermal transfer printers can also serve as direct thermal printers thereby offering flexibility

The Flipside of Thermal Transfer Printing

Here are some of the bothering issues you will likely experience when dealing with thermal transfer printers

  • Operation and maintenance costs can be high since you have to purchase things such as ribbons
  • You will not get the desired print quality if the media substrate and the ribbon aren’t compatible
  • It can harm the environment since there are no many recycling materials
  • Finally, single-pass thermal transfer printing can be a huge loss if you have less to print

Comparison: Direct Thermal Vs. Thermal Transfer

There are many options for direct thermal vs. thermal transfer. They are-

SubjectDirect Thermal PrintingThermal Transfer Printing
Print QualityGood readability & scannabilitySuperior/maximum readability & scannability
Print DurabilityShort life span due to the effects of light, heat, or other weather vagaries (the print blackens when exposed to these vagaries of weather)It lasts for 6+ months or for as long as possible
Color PrintingIt can only print in black and whiteCan print a wide range of colors as long as you have colored ribbons
Print Head Lifeif the print head comes into one on one contact with abrasive labels, it can wear out pretty fast, thus causing you to bear huge replacement costsThe print head doesn’t come into one on one contact with the label material. Instead, it is coated by the ribbon, which helps to reduce friction and static
Printer configuration & MaintenanceEasy to operate as there are no many parts. For example, there are no ribbons to monitor or supplant. There is a need to clean the printer regularly to ensure it’s in the best condition all the time.Operating can be bothersome because of ribbons that must be changed and adjusted regularly. Regular cleaning is mandatory for the safety of the device.
Media Selection & CostsCan only print on thermal/heat-sensitive paper. Direct thermal labels tend to a bit expensive.It can print on a wide range of media stock, e.g., plastics, polyester, papers, etc. For printing to take place, both the substrate and the ribbon must be fully compatible.
Environmental AspectsEnables single or batch printing with zero wastage Recyclable materials are readily available.Supports single or batch printing with zero wastagePoor ribbon recyclingLiners materials are available.
Typical ApplicationsWidely used in printing tickets, receipts, or shipping labels, among other things.Widely used in industries and labs to print asset tags, product & packaging labels, GHS labels, etc.

What Should You Go For, Direct Thermal Printer or Thermal Transfer Printer?

Having looked at them keenly, it’s easier to make a decision. You should consider purchasing thermal transfer printers if you want durable and superior-quality resolution texts and images. On the other hand, you should think about direct thermal transfer if you are looking for simple yet cost-friendly labels that don’t need prolonged shelf-life.

The Takeaway

As you can tell from our post (direct thermal vs. thermal transfer), the key thing that determines the best type of printer for you is the intended use. What do you wish to accomplish? If you can find the answer to this question, you know what to purchase!

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