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Printer Basics: Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Printing

How to Know Which Thermal Printing Method Is Right for Your Product

As their name suggests, thermal printing methods make use of heat to produce images. Under that umbrella are two variations: direct thermal (DT) and thermal transfer (TT) which use different techniques to print labels and barcodes. While both of these options can produce sharp, high-quality prints, they also come with several distinct advantages and disadvantages. Read on to learn more about both DT and TT printing and to see which option is right for your product.

What is Direct Thermal Printing?

As a thermal method, DT uses heat to create an image. This heat is applied to chemically treated material which, where warmed, will turn black to create a print. Because DT is applied directly to the material being labeled, it doesn’t require a ribbon, toner, or ink, making it simple to operate and difficult to mess up.

However, this direct application also means that the label is less durable than the images created via TT. Over time, these images can fade in high temperatures, under friction, with direct UV exposure, and in other conditions. This means that DT labels are ideal for short-term prints, including shipping labels, receipts, or perishable goods. A topcoat can be applied for additional durability, sealing the chemically treated material, but the print will still have a shorter shelf-life than TT. Additionally, DT can only be printed on paper or plastic, which can limit your options for packaging.

Despite this, DT is a simple and economical option for many products. Without complicated set-up and with no additional elements like ink required, maintenance and supply costs are low. Further, with no waste from a ribbon or ink cartridge, DT can be a great environmentally friendly option. Most importantly, this method will produce a clean, crisp image that is readily scannable – again, making it an ideal choice for things like coupons, tickets, or shipping labels.

What is Thermal Transfer Printing?

In contrast to DT, TT applies heat to a ribbon instead of the material itself. Once heated, this ribbon roll melts on the label and forms the image. This method allows TT printers to print on a much wider range of materials than DT, including plastic, polyester, and more.

Additionally, TT can endure much more stress than DT, withstanding high temperatures, chemical exposures, and other elements. This makes it ideal for outdoor products, laboratory specimens, asset tagging, and more. A general rule of thumb is that if the label needs to last longer than 6 months, TT should be used. Even better, the transfer method doesn’t sacrifice quality or reliability for durability – every image will still be crisp and easy to read.

That said, TT does require a higher initial investment than DT, with higher installation costs. Likewise, use of the ribbon results in higher supply costs and a mismatch between label material and ribbon could damage the printer. However, if used correctly, long-term maintenance costs are minimal and generally lower than those of alternative printer options like Ink Jets. Similarly, despite having higher supply costs, TT printheads generally last longer than DT printheads, further lowering maintenance costs.

How Can I Learn More?

If you’re in need of a printing solution, we’ve got you covered. We provide DT and TT equipment, as well as a range of additional product coding, labeling, and packaging solutions that will make your production more efficient, consistent, and reliable. To learn more about how we can help, contact us or set up a free consultation here. Or, give us a call at (904) 263-2804 to schedule a consultation today.


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