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A lady wearing a red top removing a printed address label from a Brother thermal label printer which is on a desk in an office environment

How Do Thermal Label Printers Work? | Brother UK

Thermal printers use heat rather than ink to produce labels and signage on paper, tape, ribbon or other materials. There are two types of thermal printing – direct thermal and thermal transfer.

Thermal printing (or direct thermal printing) is a process which produces a printed image by selectively heating thermal paper when the paper passes the thermal print head. The heat-sensitive paper’s coating turns black in the areas where it is heated, thus producing the required image.

Thermal transfer printing, on the other hand, uses a heated ribbon to produce durable, long-lasting images. This process is known for creating highly durable and smear-resistant prints. As a result, thermal printers have become a popular choice for producing long-lasting labels and easily scannable barcodes, as well as till receipts, tickets, wristbands, vouchers, name badges, and much more.

Labels and signs are everywhere you look in our day-to-day and professional lives. From homes to offices, shops, warehouses, and other facilities, thermal labels are a must-have across a wide range of business sectors, including transport and logistics, retail, healthcare and food traceability. What’s more, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing a whole new set of challenges when it comes to the safe and effective running of the workplace, it’s never been more important to have quick access to labels that help keep everyone informed. If you need high-quality, cost-effective labels that are hard-wearing (thermal transfer) or ideal for applications with a short shelf life (direct thermal), then thermal printing is a great choice.

How does a thermal label printer work?

As mentioned, there are two types of thermal printing - direct thermal and thermal transfer. Direct thermal printing uses a special thermochromic-coated paper, while the thermal transfer printing uses a heat-sensitive ribbon and is generally the go-to option for extra durability. Thermal transfer printers contain a printhead made of tiny heated pins - one for each pixel - which is controlled by a microprocessor. This determines which pins are needed to form a specific image. The pins use heat to melt and transfer wax or resin-based ink from the ribbon onto a blank surface, whether it’s paper, plastic, or another material.

There are three main types of thermal transfer inks - wax, wax-resin, and pure resin. Each come with their own particular characteristics, and it’s worth being aware of the differences. Wax is long-lasting, but labels printed this way need to stay dry and are sensitive to oils, chemicals, and abrasives. Next is wax-resin, which is more durable than wax alone and is often used for more precise images. Finally, there’s pure resin, which is the hardest wearing of all. Pure resin labels are waterproof, sunlight resistant, and offer greater protection against chemicals and oils. Unlike wax and wax-resin, it can’t be used on paper, but it is designed to fuse onto vinyl, polyester, polypropylene, and other materials, to make highly durable labels and signs for sectors such as the automotive, marine, aircraft, transport and engineering industries.

Your choice of ink will naturally depend on your particular business or personal requirements. The same goes for the material you want to print on. Brother offers a wide choice of media to print on, as well as custom labels to cater for all of your labelling needs. From the incredibly durable P-touch range to full-colour, desktop and portable options there’s a thermal label printer for every job.

What are the benefits of a thermal label printer?

One of the big advantages of thermal printing is that you’re not just restricted to printing on paper. Depending on your choice of printer, thermal label printers can use a variety of tapes and ribbons, materials such as plastic, nylon, polyester, vinyl, and even heat shrink tubing. This makes thermal printers highly flexible and versatile across a wide range of industries and purposes.

Durability remains another consideration of some applications of thermal label printers. Labels produced using thermal transfer are far more durable than traditional ink on paper printing. Ink can bleed, smudge and fade due to time and the elements, but thermal prints offer much greater resistance, especially if you use pure resin combined with laminated material, for example.

Brother’s unique P-touch labels (TZe), with their special laminated top layer, last for many years, indoors or outdoors, and have been expertly engineered to be water, sunlight, chemicals, abrasion and temperature resistant.

Thermal label printers are also the best choice when it comes to producing clear, easily scannable barcodes. This is essential for all business use. Finally, thermal label printers, such as Brother’s industry-leading QL and TD range, are optimised to work with the latest computer and mobile technology, including smartphones, tablets, Wi‑Fi and Bluetooth, for maximum flexibility. You can also utilise label design apps for desktop, mobile and SDKs (software development kits) to integrate thermal printers into your own applications, which is recommended so you can tailor the best options for your labels.

Brother’s award-winning thermal label printers offer high-volume, low-cost labelling, with exceptional durability and efficiency. With more than 30 years’ experience developing professional label machines, Brother can meet all your labelling requirements.

If you’re considering a thermal label maker for your organisation or personal use, you should start by viewing our QL-800 Series Professional Label printer range for unrivalled speed, connectivity, and versatility, including the ability to print two-colour labels in black and red, or check out our TD and TJ printers for high volume printing requirements. For clear, cost efficient labels you can trust, thermal label printers are number one for a reason.


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