What’s the Difference? Thermal Transfer vs. Direct Thermal Labels

April 22, 2015 | Jola Spring


thermal labelsThermal labels are widely used across many industries. In the past, thermal transfer labels have dominated, but as direct thermal labels become more common, there may be confusion about which technology is better. How do you decide between thermal transfer labels and direct thermal labels?

Thermal transfer labels

Thermal transfer labels use a thermal ribbon. Thermal printhead elements heat the reverse side of the thermal ribbon during printing, causing the ribbon material to melt and transfer to the label surface.  These labels create permanent images that will not fade.

Direct thermal labels

Direct thermal labels do not use a thermal ribbon.  They use a heat-sensitive label material. Thermal printheads make direct contact with the label material in direct thermal printing.  These labels are intended for a shorter life span as the image will fade with time.

In the past, direct thermal labels were mostly used for only a few applications, like meat, poultry, and dairy packaging. Modern improvements in thermal paper now make it possible for direct thermal labels to be used in more environments, such as shipping labels, pharmaceuticals and retail receipts.

How to decide

The main thing to consider when choosing which type of label to employ is the desired longevity of the label.  If the label must have a life span longer than a few months, the clear choice is thermal transfer.  However if the label is for short term use, then other factors must be considered.

  • Cost: Direct thermal labels are slightly more expensive at face value.  However, some of this cost difference is offset by lower maintenance costs (discussed in more detail below).
  • Procurement and inventory: Direct thermal labels have one consumable compared to two for thermal transfer labels.  This requires fewer item SKUs to be procured, shipped, tracked and stored.
  • Maintenance: Direct thermal label printers typically have lower maintenance costs because they have fewer moving parts – no ribbon and ribbon-related hardware.
  • Down time: Direct thermal printers typically have less downtime since there is no ribbon to replace.
  • Printhead wear: Direct thermal labels are susceptible to contamination from dust and other foreign debris. The expected service life of printheads in direct thermal systems is considerably less than for thermal transfer systems.
  • Environmental considerations: Direct thermal labels have a lower carbon footprint and create less waste.

Your business relies on these labels to convey key information. Choosing the right label can help improve operational efficiency. Talk to your label supplier to make sure you’re striking the right balance between label performance and cost optimization.

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