Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Printing

Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Printing

Published by - QuickPOS on September 2, 2021

Traditionally Direct thermal printing has been around and used across several fields including retail shops, meat, dairy, etc. As the technology evolved newer systems came into market which were more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective. With the increased development in thermal paper technology wide range of products are now suitable for use in many applications across almost every market. This in-turn resulted in increased interest in Direct thermal printing as it offers cost-effective and efficient way for printing.

What are Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Printing?

Both the printing solutions have advantages and disadvantages of their own and choosing the one which is suitable for your business will increase the productivity. But before that let us understand the difference between both the printing methods.

Thermal Transfer: Thermal transfer printing uses a print head elements (dots) and a thin ribbon. The ribbon has a wax, resin, or wax and resin coating on one side. Heat is transferred through the print head dots which heats the backside of the ribbon melting it and, thus, transfers the compounds (wax or resin or both) on to the label material to create a printed image.

Direct Thermal: Direct thermal printing also uses a print head to print images but it does not use thin ribbons. Instead it uses heat to print on the material. This printing requires heat sensitive label material to print on. The print head comes in direct contact with the heat sensitive paper and the heat from the print head causes a change of color in the material to create printed image.

Both the technologies have some advantages and disadvantages but each one of them serves its best purpose when used in a right way. Let us have a look in detail at each aspect so that it becomes easy for you to choose which printing technology is better for your business.

Thermal Print Head

In direct thermal printing the print head is in direct contact with the label material as the print head directly prints on the material. Whereas in thermal transfer printing the thermal ribbon acts as a buffer between the print head dots and the printing material. Thermal ribbons are equipped with an additional back coating which reduces the static and friction and increases its life. But, due to the lack of ribbon, the print head in direct thermal printing suffers increased wear as compared to thermal transfer printing. As the print head is in direct contact with the printing material in direct thermal printing it constantly is exposed to friction.

Also, dust flowing around or might be on the label comes in direct contact with the print head and as this dust is pulled across the print head there is a good chance that they might burn on to the dots and physically damage them. This will result in poor print quality and decreases the life of print head too. Whereas the ribbon in thermal transfer printing prevents the dust to come in direct contact with the print head and reduces the physical damage chances.

In conclusion, print head life in direct thermal printing is considerably reduced as compared to thermal transfer printing. Therefore, direct thermal printing is mostly used in small scale businesses as they don’t need to print extensive amount of labels and this technology is fairly cost-effective for small businesses.

Printer Configuration

These days a thermal transfer printer has the configuration to print either thermal transfer or direct thermal. But if you need to print using only direct thermal technology then there are specific printers available which print only direct thermal. Such printers cost less as they don’t have additional hardware (like ribbon and ribbon controller). With lesser hardware components the printer becomes less complicated and there are only few parts to break. This printer also saves you lots of money used to purchase ribbon and saves time you would require to change the ribbon. Therefore, purchasing a direct thermal printer (if you don’t require thermal transfer printer) makes more sense. But if your organization needs to print high quality labels that last long and take less time to print then you will require a thermal transfer.

In conclusion, a thermal transfer printer costs more as it has additional components but is necessary if you need to print high quality labels daily. And a direct thermal printer is perfect for a small business which doesn’t require printing huge amount of labels daily.

Label Life

This is a small but most important consideration as it will decide the lifetime of your product’s recognition. Direct thermal and thermal transfer offer different lifetime for a label. As a business you must know your label’s life requirement before purchasing a printer. If your product is to go through extreme conditions like extreme heat, cold, bad weather conditions then you should consider printing using a thermal transfer printer. If you own a warehouse then your products are most likely to go through extreme conditions. If you ship pharmaceutical products or hazardous materials then information on the label is extremely crucial and, therefore, the print on label should be clear and readable. Such labels should be printed using a thermal transfer printer.

Whereas, if your products are kept in safe place where they won’t face any extreme environmental conditions then printing labels using direct thermal printer would be better. Also, to protect the privacy of information on the label like the information of a patient in healthcare can be kept private using direct thermal. Patient privacy can be at risk on used thermal transfer ribbon.

Advantages of Direct Thermal Printing:

  • The biggest advantage of direct thermal printing is the low printing cost. You don’t need to purchase ink, toner, or thermal ribbon as none of these materials are required. You only need to purchase labels.
  • Best for printing high volume printing.
  • Low maintenance cost
  • Easy to use and cost-effective.

Disadvantages of Direct Thermal Printing:

  • Not able to print in color and can only print in black
  • Not useful for long life labels as the ink fades away after some time
  • Labels cannot withstand extreme environmental conditions

Advantages of Thermal Transfer Printing:

  • Best for printing higher volume labels which require long lifetime like barcodes. The ink is absorbed by the print material and lasts longer.
  • This printers can print in color
  • You can print logos and branding on your labels all in color
  • The label print can withstand extreme weather conditions and can still be readable and in good condition

Disadvantages of Thermal Transfer Printing:

  • This printers are expensive as compared to direct thermal printers
  • Thermal transfer printer uses more consumable parts like ribbon which needs to be changed from time to time
  • This printers cost high maintenance cost


While both the printing technologies are up-to-the-mark all depends upon what kind of business you own and what are your label printing requirements. If you own a small business which does not require long-life labels then a direct thermal printer is a best choice for you. Whereas if your business is large and your products require labels that can withstand harsh conditions then a thermal transfer is your best choice.

Choose as per your requirements and get the best printer from one of the top trusted online printer store. Avail best deals and discounts on your purchase. Buy bestselling printers online today!

Tags: direct thermal, printing technology, Thermal Blog, Thermal Transfer Blog
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