Thermal labels provide the ideal solution for printing various types of labels that contain dynamic information, such as food labels that must include expiration dates and various ingredients. There are basically two different types of thermal labels, direct thermal and thermal transfer. Knowing the difference and choosing the right type of thermal label option is important to optimize label printing equipment for maximum productivity and quality. Printers should consult with an experienced integrated label equipment manufacturer to ensure the right type of thermal label is used for the printing application.
Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Labels
Thermal label printing process:
Direct thermal labels – a chemical layer is applied to a synthetic base or paper, which is activated by heat. When printing with a direct thermal printer, heat activates part of the chemical layer to produce the required image.
Thermal transfer labels – labels printed with a thermal transfer printer where a ribbon layer is placed on top of the label at the point of the print head. Elements on the print head heat up and create the image required as the carbon pigment transfers to the label.
Typical thermal label applications:
Direct thermal labels – ideal for short to medium-life applications such as placed on food items with a shelf life where it is expected for the label to be removed and discarded with outer packaging. Ideal in processes that are not exposed to high heat such as retail products.
Thermal transfer labels – the better choice for long-life applications where direct thermal labels are not suitable, or the higher quality of a ribbon is preferred. These are more suitable for outdoor labeling requirements that may be exposed to scuffing, humidity, or moisture, such as labels for industrial or chemical purposes.
Advantages of thermal label types:
Direct thermal labels – these labels are common, simple to use, and cost-effective as there is no ribbon required to transfer images directly onto the label. They are suitable for printing barcodes and provide a durable and stable image that is suitable for many common requirements.
Thermal transfer labels – also suitable for printing barcodes and provide an excellent print definition of images and text. Various synthetic materials and paper can be used, such as clear, fluorescent, italicized, and colored ribbons, can enhance promotional and branding purposes. These labels provide a longer printhead life and higher-speed printing with durable and long-lasting, stable images.
Disadvantages of Thermal Label Types
Direct thermal labels – best suited for short-term applications as the label is degraded over time, and exposure to UV light or heat can discolor the label material making it more difficult to read.
Thermal transfer labels – ribbons must be available and in stock, and additional time is required to set up and change over the ribbons. Ribbons can also recall and compromise the print quality, and not all printers are compatible with thermal transfer labels.
If you have questions about what type of material, paper, or substrate you can print your labels on, consult with an experienced label printer. Forms and label-making companies utilize the best equipment, such as the P500 integrated labeling equipment by Tamarack® Products. The P500 by Tamarack is an in-line integrated labeling machine that can easily affix limits and transfer tapes for producing integrated labels, forms, or cards as well as affix scratch-off material or holograms with high-speed and accurate placement. The P500 boasts excellent registration accuracy within +/- 1/32” (8mm) and is servo driven to easily integrate on your new or existing flexo press.
Tamarack® Products has been providing high-quality, customized web finishing and integrated labeling equipment for more than 50 years. We differ from other labeling and finishing equipment suppliers in our level of expertise and ability to customize specialized equipment to meet your specific requirements. Contact us with any questions and to learn more about the capabilities of our high-quality, high-performance P500 inline integrated labeling machine.