Direct Transfer vs Thermal Transfer Printing

July 28, 2022
warehouse labels

Thermal Printing: Direct Transfer vs Thermal Transfer

It can be difficult for people who are new to label printing to have a grasp on the fundamentals of printing, particularly when there is a new set of terminology to learn. When selecting the appropriate kind of media and printer for your application, one of the most important considerations to make is the print jobs you will be performing and the type of printer you will need. Most often there are significant differences among different print jobs.

When it comes to thermal printing, there are two separate methods which are known as direct transfer and thermal transfer. These two types of printing processes that are utilized by thermal label printers.

Direct Thermal Printing

In a direct thermal printer, the printhead is responsible for heating specialized label stock that has been chemically processed. When exposed to heat, portions of the label stock darken, which ultimately results in the creation of the print. Labels that are only going to be used temporarily can be printed at a low cost using the direct thermal printing method. It is recommended to use a thermal transfer printer for labels that have a durability requirement of more than six months and direct thermal labels for labels with a shorter life.

Some of the advantages of thermal printing include no need for ink or a ribbon as well as being a less expensive printing option.

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal printers on the other hand utilize heat to fuse a tiny layer of wax or resin coating onto a label. This process is known as transfer printing. These printers often have the ability to print direct thermal labels, although the printhead on these printers may wear out more quickly than use a printer strictly for direct thermal printing.

Some advantages of thermal transfer printing would be labels with the finest quality print and longest durability, extensive variety of label stocks including some that are resistant to a variety of extreme circumstances (heat, sunlight, water, acids), and finally there is a wide variety of stock ribbons and label colors to choose from.

Which is Better?

Whether you choose a direct thermal or thermal transfer printer depends on the quality desired as well as the type of print job you need done. Receipts and shipping labels are two of the most popular types of documents that are printed with direct thermal printers. While thermal transfer printers make a more permanent print by transferring a solid ink from a ribbon onto a label supply. This process is carried out by a thermal print head.

Which printer type is better definitely depends on your needs, however, a thermal transfer printer is going to yield prints that have a much longer lifetime than prints from a direct thermal printer. So, if your print needs to last a long time, a thermal transfer printer is likely going to be the best option for you. This would include materials that could potentially be in the supply chain for a long time or prints that would need to hold up in harsher environments such as outdoors or in hot or cold weather.

On the other hand, if your prints do not need to last as long such as food products, a direct thermal print will probably do the job.

For help choosing the right thermal printer for your application, talk to a Barcode Giant specialist.


Some printers such as the Intermec PM43 are capable of performing both thermal transfer and direct thermal print jobs.

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