Automatic Labeling Machine Price Comparison: Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer

If your company incorporates shipping as part of its business model, you should already be aware of the need for proper labeling. Filled with essential information like destination, return addresses, unit weight, and barcodes, labels help ensure that a package doesn’t become damaged or lost along the supply chain. Additionally, these same labels enable distribution centers to keep track of shipments in the event of a recall, a necessary step to prevent consumers from being exposed to defective (and possibly even dangerous) products.

Given how important these roles are, it’s a wise decision to invest in a machine that can reliably produce and apply labels that won’t falter in transit. However, how do you know that you’re truly getting your money’s worth when purchasing a labeler?

To shed light on this topic, we will examine the driving factors behind overall automatic labeling machine prices and explain the different printing methods used by these devices.

The Two Label Printing Methods

Today’s automatic labeling machines use one of two operational methods: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Both of these operations utilize thermal print heads to print on the label material, although they utilize these print heads in very different ways:

  1. Direct thermal printing places the print head in direct contact with the label, marking it through heat application as it passes along. The direct thermal method does not use ink to make labels; instead, this system applies heat to chemically-treated paper to create blackened marks.

    Although this method creates marks that are typically long-lasting, the labels are not suitable for abrasive environments, particularly ones containing significant heat or sunlight as they cause the text to darken until it’s illegible. This makes direct thermal printing unsuitable for making lifetime identifiers, while more temporary applications, like creating shipping labels and tickets, are well-within its abilities.
  2. Thermal transfer printing employs a ribbon to act as a buffer between the print head and the label surface. This ribbon is coated with either wax- or resin-based ink, and through a combination of heat and pressure applied from the print head, this ink is transferred onto the substrate.

    As opposed to direct thermal printing, the markings made from thermal transfer are highly resistant to heat and light. These characteristics make thermal transfer machines like Evolabel print and apply labelers perfect for marking units in challenging environments.

While there are notable application changes between direct thermal and thermal transfer, both of these methods produce high-quality images at equivalent resolutions and speed. However, when it comes to pricing considerations, a number of additional differences appear, a topic explored in our next section.

Unique Automatic Labeling Machine Price Considerations Based on These Categories

Arising from their different printing methods, direct thermal and thermal transfer machines experience very different maintenance costs throughout their lifetimes. Although different models will tend to have their own unique concerns, these considerations largely boil down to three categories:

Print Head Life

Direct thermal machines require that the print head come into direct contact with the substrate to create a mark. This results in levels of static and friction that shorten the lifespan of the print head as compared to thermal transfer devices, whose print heads last longer due to the ribbon acting as a protective buffer. Further, any dust or debris present on the labels that touch the direct thermal print head creates the potential for hardware damage.

Consequently, print heads on direct thermal machines will have their lifetimes reduced by 25% - 50% as compared to those used by thermal transfer devices. If your organization plans on printing a significant amount of labels, this difference can prove to be monumental.

Hardware Layout

Generally speaking, the price of automatic labeling machines that use direct thermal technology will be lower than their thermal transfer counterparts. This difference not only stems from the lack of ribbon but also the absence of hardware needed to drive and control it. With this simpler layout also comes lower service costs, as there are fewer parts that can break on direct thermal machines.

That said, these factors don’t necessarily equal savings over time, largely because of the increased substrate costs associated with direct thermal configurations—an issue laid out below.

Substrate Selection

The choice of substrate for your labels will have a major impact on a number of factors, including the cost for the labels themselves, print head longevity, printing speed capabilities, and overall print quality. Of course, given that it’s only direct thermal machines that require the substrate to touch the print head, these factors are all amplified when compared to transfer thermal.

For direct thermal devices, substrates will always act as abrasives to a certain degree. If the substrate is too abrasive, it will cause premature wearing on the print head, resulting in more frequent replacements. Consequently, many direct thermal users buy more expensive “coated” materials in an effort to minimize this effect. However, the term “coated” can mean many different things, so seeking out these materials without a solid knowledge base may not even prove beneficial, and could even have a negative impact on print quality/speed.

In contrast, thermal transfer machines are able to use a much wider range of less expensive substrates without experiencing negative effects. Even when accounting for replacement ribbon prices, this equals lower costs over time for companies that print at high volumes.

Have More Questions on Automatic Labelers? We Can Answer Them

As demonstrated above, the overall price of an automatic labeling machine is far more than the upfront cost. Depending on what printing method a specific machine uses, you need to consider print head replacements, maintenance over time, substrate costs, and more.

Further, with how many different models exist on the market today, navigating through these choices can be highly intimidating. If you’re finding yourself confused about where to turn, the InkJet team is here to help. With over 25 years of experience in ink production, we can answer your questions and provide guidance on what hardware will work best for your operation.

To learn more about automatic labeling machine price considerations, contact InkJet, Inc. today by dialing (800) 280-3245.