How Does Thermal Printer Technology Work?

4 min read

Thermal printer technology has been around for quite a long time, but it continues to be a very popular option for a lot of situations. These printers are commonly used when creating industrial labels since they infuse the image onto the print medium so that it can better stand up to heat, moisture, and other things that would quickly damage normal paper. Understanding how thermal printer technology works will help you to decide if this type of printer is right for your labels or any other print jobs you need to be completed.

The Thermal Transfer Process

As the name implies, thermal printers work by using heat to transfer the image onto the paper. Unlike traditional printers that use ink to ‘stain’ the paper or other medium, a thermal printer will actually melt a special type of material (often referred to as thermal ink) to the desired location. The printer has small pins that are heated up and then pressed against an ink ribbon. This ribbon can either just be black (for black and white printers) or can come in a number of different colors.

The heated pins are pressed against the ribbon to rapidly melt the ‘ink’ as it is pressed into the paper (or more often, vinyl labels). Once melted it will securely bond with the label material so that it forms a permanent image. Of course, this process is completed very quickly, which is how it is possible to rapidly create a large number of very durable and long-lasting labels or other images.

Direct Thermal Printers

Another type of thermal printer is the direct thermal printer, which does not actually use any type of ink or ribbon at all. This option uses a special type of print medium (normally called thermal paper) that is treated with a chemical that makes it react to heat. Whenever heat is applied to the material, the area will darken, which is how the print is formed.

You will commonly see this type of thermal printer used for shipping labels, receipts, barcodes, and more. In most cases, a direct thermal printer is only going to print in black and white though, so that does put some limitations on this option. When that is all you need, however, it can be a perfect way to be able to quickly create exactly what you need when you need it.

Since there is no ink and relatively few moving parts in a direct thermal printer, you can also be confident that they will last a lot longer and be much less expensive to operate. The cost-effectiveness of this technology makes it the obvious option for many different situations.

Importance of Proper Print Stock

While it is possible to use thermal printers using normal paper, it is generally not done. This is because the things that are printed when using thermal printers are normally needed for projects that require a longer-lasting result. As mentioned above, the most common situation where thermal printers are used are for labels and signs.

These labels typically use a vinyl material that is extremely durable and can withstand almost any environment. Some of the benefits of using vinyl labels with a thermal printer include:

  • Waterproof – Vinyl is closer to plastic than regular paper and is, therefore, able to stand up to rain, humidity, and other types of moisture. These labels are often used on ships and marina environments since the water does not make them run or get damaged.
  • Fade Resistant – Labels that are printed with traditional printers or on normal paper are much more susceptible to fading when exposed to direct sunlight. Using a thermal printer with vinyl labels will help ensure the words or images on the label are highly visible for a lot longer than would otherwise be possible.
  • Heat Resistant – While one might think that a label made with a thermal printer would not be able to stand up to high temperatures, that is not actually the case. The vinyl material is able to withstand much higher temperatures than normal paper labels could tolerate.
  • Able to Withstand Physical Contact – Unlike paper that can easily rip with even mild contact, a vinyl label can stand up to very harsh environments.

Is a Thermal Printer Right for You?

The big question that most people need to ask is whether a thermal printer (of any type) is the right option for your situation. For the average person who wants to print common things at home, a thermal printer is typically not the best choice. Standard inkjet or even laser printers are going to be a lot more versatile and even easier to use.

Thermal printers are almost exclusively used by businesses that need this type of specialized printing option. For example, you will see direct thermal printers in just about every grocery store that you visit. This is because they can create receipts without having to worry about running out of ink. As long as the printer has the special thermally reactive printer paper, it can create the receipts quickly. When the paper runs out, it takes just seconds to replace it with a new roll and you are ready to go again.

Manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and shipping companies are also going to use thermal printers much more often than an inkjet printer. This is because they have frequent need of labels, signs, and other custom print jobs. These types of things really need to be able to stand up to the often-harsh factory environments. A good color thermal printer will allow a facility to make any design of safety label that is needed quickly. This helps a company to remain compliant with the various regulatory requirements and also gives them great flexibility when it comes to putting up the safety or other signs and labels that they need.

In addition, since many facilities need to create so many different signs, labels, tracking tickets, and more it is important to think about the cost per print job. Since thermal printers are generally a lot less expensive to use, it just makes sense to go with this option for most businesses.

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