Types of Barcode Printers

When deciding what kind of printer to use to create your own barcodes you must ask yourself three important questions:

  1. What is the barcode application my labels will be used for?
  2. What is the intended life span of my barcode labels?
  3. What type of environment will my barcode labels be exposed to?

Although there are many other questions, these three questions will give you some insight into whether or not you need a printer that uses thermal technology.  Although it is possible to use familiar printers such as ink jet, dot matrix or laser printers to create your barcode labels, these types of printers have limitations that barcode specific printers with thermal technology don’t.  So, if you know that you need labels that will require a long life span and may be in a harsh environment, barcodes printed on an ink jet printer might not be suitable.  A more appropriate printer for these kind of conditions would be either a direct thermal or thermal transfer printer.  Both of these printers utilize thermal technology and are the most widely used technologies for barcode printing.  Both types of printers are quite similar because they use heated printheads to create the image, but they are used in different applications.  Which type of printer would be best for you?  Let’s see….

 Direct Thermal Printers

Direct tZebra Direct Thermal Printerhermal printers use heat sensitive labels that blacken when they pass under the printhead; no ribbon required.  These printers are simple to operate and produce crisp barcode labels that scan easily.  The barcode labels they produce are more appropriate for environments where they won’t be exposed to long-term sunlight, heat or abrasion.  A direct thermal barcode label would be perfect for a short shelf life application, such as shipping.  At left is an example of a direct thermal printer, it is the Zebra QL 320 Plus direct thermal mobile printer, so as you can see direct thermal printers can also provide you with mobility.  Some additional benefits include:

  • Maintenance costs on direct thermal printers are low because there are no ribbons to replace, all you need are the labels you’ll be printing on.
  • They provide durable and reliable use in office settings as well as industrial operations
  • Less waste because barcode labels can be printed in batches or one at a time.

But remember, direct thermal printing has its limitations as well, labels are sensitive to the environment their in and remain chemically active after printing.  You need to be sure your application and environment is right for this type of printer.

Thermal Transfer Printers

Thermal transfer printers use a small ribbon roll that melts onto the label when heated by the printhead, and this creates the image.  This method produces a crisp barcode with a glossy finish.  Pictured at left is the Zebra TLP 2824-Z thermal transfer printer, it is a desktop model that provides increased workplace efficiency.  Thermal transfer labels are the most durable barcode labels available, they can withstand heat and moisture, abrasion, and they are long lasting.  Other benefits of thermal transfer printers include:

  • Even with a small ribbon roll, maintenance costs are far less than an ink jet, laser, or dot matrix printer
  • They enable batch or single label printing, reducing waste and saving money
  • Thermal transfer printers can print on numerous kinds of stock
  • In addition to durable and reliable labels, the printer itself can be used in office settings or industrial operations

As you can see, thermal transfer printers are much more suitable for applications that require a long-lasting label, or may be in a harsh environment.  Thermal transfer printers provide the best quality barcode labels of any other type of printer, but to ensure this kind of quality you must be positive that the ribbon and labels you decide to use are compatible.  If not, this can cause internal printer problems.

Here is a easy to read table that I found in the Zebra White Paper Barcoding 101…What You Need to Know, it compares the advantages and disadvantages of several types of printers.

Technology

Print Quality

Scanner Readability

Initial Installation Cost

Long-Term Maintenance Cost

Materials Waste

Dot Matrix

Fair

Low

Low/Moderate

Moderate/High

High

Ink Jet

Moderate

Low/Moderate

High

Moderate/High

High

Laser

Moderate

Moderate

Moderate/High

Moderate/High

High

Direct Thermal

Moderate/Excellent

Moderate/Excellent

Moderate/High

Low

Low

Thermal Transfer denpharma.com visit page

Excellent

Excellent

Moderate/High

Low

Low

 Selecting the right printer is vital to a company if they want to take advantage of all the benefits of printing their own barcode labels.  You have to do your research to be sure your getting what is right for your application.  This has just been an overview of what direct thermal and thermal transfer printers have to offer, in a future post I’ll provide more information on conditions that make thermal technology the best choice to implement.