Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labeling: Which Printing Method Is Right For Your Application?

If you’re weighing the benefits of direct thermal vs. thermal transfer printing, at first glance the winner may seem obvious. Direct thermal printers don’t use thermal transfer ribbons, so on the surface, it may appear to be the more economical option for label printing. However, there’s much more at play here than ribbon costs.

Each system has its strengths and weaknesses, meaning the most suitable and cost-efficient print method could differ, depending on the specific printing application

Here are some considerations you need to make when selecting the right printing method for your labels.

How Do These Print Systems Work?

Print engines are designed to print fast enough to keep up with the speed of your labeling machine. To do this, they use one of two heat-based printing methods

Direct Thermal Printing Label Material

Direct thermal printing heats paper to create a printed image. This is the same type of printing used for cash register receipts. Direct thermal printing only works on specialized heat-sensitive thermal paper. 


Thermal Transfer Printing for Quality Labels

Thermal transfer printing melts a carbon ribbon onto the label to create an image. This method works on a wide range of paper stock and label coatings. It is popular for shipping labels and other situations where the label may be subject to less-than-ideal environmental conditions.

Of course, there are multiple situations to consider when deciding between a thermal transfer printer and a direct thermal printer. Your individualized business model must be taken into account, along with things like downtime for ribbon replacement, the need for barcode printing, the possibility of a chemical reaction and general wear and tear (for not only printhead life but also the long-life or short-term applications of the label itself).

Label Printer Machine Complexity

When choosing a printing system, you don’t have to be locked into one type of application. Most print engines can be set up for direct thermal printing or with a thermal transfer ribbon. However, running in direct thermal mode eliminates the need for a ribbon reel system, which cuts down on the number of parts in use and tends to reduce maintenance costs and downtime.

Downtime for Ribbon Replacement

Thermal transfer printers have ribbon reels that need to be replaced periodically, adding to downtime and maintenance costs to your supply chain. It can take several minutes for an experienced operator to swap out reels, and the ribbon position also needs to be calibrated occasionally.

A standard 450-meter ribbon is sufficient for roughly 2,800 6-inch labels. If you have a 3600a-PA Series labeler running at its maximum speed of 120 inches per minute, one entire ribbon can be consumed in approximately two-and-a-half hours. On a machine used 20 hours per day, that’s almost 150 hours of downtime per year spent on swapping out reels. (This gives direct thermal printing an edge if maximizing output is a priority.)

Print Head Wear and Tear

With direct thermal printing, the print head’s elements drag across the label. Over time, this continual abrasion can wear the print head. Dust and debris that reach the print head increase friction and can burn onto the elements, reducing print quality and print head life.

In a thermal transfer printer, the ribbon acts as a buffer, sliding between the label and the head. Some thermal transfer ribbons have a treated side that faces the print head, reducing friction and static. Dust and debris that reaches the print engine land on the ribbon and move away after each label printing. (This doesn’t keep the head dirt-free, but it does decrease the amount of cleaning it requires.)

Between added friction and burnt-on dust, direct thermal print heads can wear down and fail faster than thermal transfer printer heads. On average, users can expect a thermal transfer head to last two to four times longer than a similar direct thermal head.

While ribbons add to the cost of thermal transfer printing, the downtime and replacement cost may make direct printing the more expensive option. In dusty environments, the risk of excess wear gives thermal transfer labeling a clear advantage.

Label Material and Print Quality

Heat sensitive labels are comprised of several layers that can be fine-tuned to achieve the desired performance—from print quality to environmental resistance (for outdoor applications that need to hold up longer in direct sunlight). Because of this variability, it’s hard to pin down the price difference between both label options.

Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Label Properties

Since labels make contact with the print heads in direct thermal printers, friction needs to be taken into account when choosing label materials. And, contrary to popular belief, adding a coating doesn’t make a label low friction. Coatings serve several purposes, including water and UV resistance, so their primary aim isn’t smoothness.

Depending on your requirements, a direct thermal label may be anywhere from a few percent to as much as 50% more expensive than an equivalent thermal transfer label. In some cases, compatible direct transfer labels may be more expensive than thermal transfer labels and ribbons combined.

Regarding durability, direct thermal labels don’t age well. Over time, heat-sensitive paper darkens from heat exposure, degrading the print. However, this isn’t a problem for short term use labels, like supermarket receipts or expiration dates for perishable products. Since thermal transfer label printing adds dye to a stable surface, legibility is more a factor of the label’s durability. As long as the label isn’t damaged physically or chemically, the print will always be readable. Of course, that only holds true if you use a ribbon that is compatible with your labels.

What Are My Options for Labelers?

Whether you’re printing shipping labels, hospital wristbands or barcodes on event tickets, CTM Labeling Systems offers label printers to meet all needs. Even if you’re still debating direct thermal vs. thermal transfer labels for your production line, CTM has plenty of options in printing technology

The following three machines can be configured for either printing method, and two of them can be set up with a choice of print engines.

3600a-PA Series Label Printer Applicator

This standard and reliable option from CTM Labeling offers versatility and ease of operation. Our 3600a printer applicator allows for labels up to 7.1 inches wide and print DPI resolutions of 205, 305 and 600. The machine can be mounted in various positions and is an excellent solution for a variety of labeling needs, especially for industries in need of various types of bar code printing.


3600a-PA Series Corner Wrap Printer Applicator

Are you looking for a flexible system that works with boxes? The 3600a corner wrap printer applicator is compatible with print engines from Sato, Zebra and Datamax. This lets you choose from a wide range of label sizes to fit your printing needs. By using corner wrapping, you can apply one label that covers two sides, making it easy to read in almost any orientation. This type of labeling is popular for warehouse storage since it makes box orientation less important.

3600a-PA Series Dual Action Tamp (DAT) Printer Applicator

If you’re looking for speed and versatility, consider the dual-action tamp version of the 3600a. This machine can be mounted in almost any position, applying the printed labels on two adjacent sides. It has the same print engine options as the corner wrap version of this machine.

CTM Labeling Takes the Confusion Out of Setting Up Your Labeling System

Do you want more assistance in making the decision between direct thermal vs. thermal transfer printing? Need help finding a print and apply labeling system that maximizes cost benefits and fits the needs of your products? 

Contact CTM Labeling Systems. Our local distributors are ready and waiting to help you find the right combination of equipment in order to deliver the results you want…all while keeping production costs and downtime to a minimum!