Buyer’s Guide to Industrial Inks and Ribbons

Ribbons are used as an ink source for print-and-apply labelers and other industrial marking equipment. They consist of a thin mylar film coated with a wax resin ink material which is then melted in a controlled manner thus creating graphics or codes. This controlled convection process is called “thermal transfer,” and it is utilized by a wide variety of printers for different applications. 

With these diverse applications comes diversity in ink ribbons as well. To shed light on which products will work best for your needs, follow this guide on the different types of inks and ribbons currently on the market. 

The Two Major Forms of Thermal Transfer Printing: Flathead and Near-Edge

Ink ribbons are frequently used in printers found in retail stores, fulfilment centers, shipping offices, and manufacturing plants. The majority of these machines use thermal transfer to transfer the ribbon’s ink onto a substrate. 

In the past, ink ribbons were commonly used to power various impact printer types, including dot matrix, daisy-wheel, and ball printers. Today, impact printers have largely become obsolete, having been replaced by inkjet printers and laser etching systems. Consequently, ink ribbons are now primarily used by thermal transfer printers.

Flathead printers are often used for creating barcodes on retail tags and shipping labels. Near-edge printers are capable of higher throughput and quicker printing speeds than flathead machines, but they carry extra considerations as well:

  • The higher printing speeds are achieved through an angled, floating printhead that has heating elements on its edge. The substrate only has brief contact with the ribbon as it passes by the heating elements. Accordingly, the ink transfer must be instant.

  • The space between substrate and ribbon is much smaller with a near-edge printer as compared to a flathead printer. To ensure a proper print, near-edge ribbons are built with a release layer that enables the ink to rapidly transfer to the substrate once melted.

The mechanical differences between flathead and near-edge printers affect which ribbons are compatible with each respective printer. 

The Essential Guide to Inks and Ribbons

Today’s thermal transfer printers can utilize a variety of ink ribbon types. Ribbon selection is largely influenced by two factors: the printer and the intended application. While flathead and near-edge printers are both compatible with some ribbon types, other ribbons are not dual-compatible. Similarly, there is no single ribbon that excels in every application. 

To provide clarity on which ribbons will best suit your needs, we have profiled three ink ribbons that are frequently used in thermal transfer printers:

Wax-Thermal Ink Ribbons

Used by flathead printers, wax-thermal ink ribbons are primarily used for paper applications, such as retail tags and shipping labels. The ink can be applied to paper with semi-gloss or matte finishes without a significant smudge risk. However, the ink must be stored in a dry place and is susceptible to damage from scratching, rubbing, chemicals, and oils. Consequently, it is best suited for items that do not require long-term use. 

Wax/Resin-Thermal Ink Ribbons

As the name suggests, wax/resin-thermal ink ribbons are made from a combination of wax and resin. The addition of resin allows the applied ink to last longer and resist chemicals/scratches to a higher degree than wax ribbons can. Used by both flathead and near-edge printers, wax/resin-thermal ink ribbons are well-suited for printing on flexible packaging and other products that are subject to repeated contact.

Resin-Thermal Ink Ribbons

Compatible with both flathead and near-edge printers, resin-thermal ink ribbons are the most durable ribbon option and create the sharpest, clearest prints. They effectively resist high temperatures, moisture, and abrasive environments, making them ideal for demanding applications. However, they are also the most expensive ribbon option, and many applications do not require their high resistance level.

Find the Best Inks and Ribbons for Your Operation

The number of inks and ribbons on the market can make finding the best product for your line a complicated task. After all, if the wrong ribbon is used, it can render important codes illegible, causing major problems along the supply chain in addition to damaging the printer. Fortunately, the team at InkJet, Inc. has decades of experience with this technology. If you have any questions related to ink ribbons or the printers that use them, contact us today to discover the products that will work best for you.

For more information on printers, inks, and ribbons, contact InkJet, Inc. online or by phone at 1(800) 280-3245.