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Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer
Label Printers

If you need an industrial label printer, but aren’t sure which type is best for your business, this article is for you.

Though price can influence your decision, it’s the applications you use it for that will ultimately be the deciding factor. For example, do you print labels that need to survive harsh environments and last a long time? Or, do you need temporary identification that will strictly be used indoors?

Two types of printers can handle the majority of industrial tasks – Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer. Though there are differences, both Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer are thermal printers. This means they use heat generated by a printhead to print on material.

Unless you’re looking specifically for inkjet or laser capabilities, these two printers, Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer, are popular, high performing and save both time and labor.

Thermal transfer label printers

How they work

These label printers use a wax- or resin-coated ribbon to transfer ink onto labels when heated.

This printing method uses a ribbon sandwiched between the printhead and the label. When the printhead passes over the ribbon, it heats up the ribbon’s coating, transferring it to the label to create an image.

Key attributes

For long-term applications, Thermal Transfer printers are a great choice. Unmatched for printing quality and durability, these printers produce crisp, accurate, high-definition text, graphics and barcodes (both 1D and 2D). This printing technology survives harsh conditions like chemicals, UV light, abrasions, moisture and extreme temperatures.

Infographic of a Thermal Transfer Label Printer.


Direct thermal label printers

How they work

These printers use chemically treated labels that darken when heated.

A heated printhead comes in direct contact with labels to produce an image. This simple printing method doesn’t require a ribbon or ink.

Key attributes

For short-term applications (less than 6 months) and one-time use applications, direct thermal printers are ideal. Without ribbons, toners and ink, they are simple to use and produce sharp, quality images that can be read and scanned, such as barcodes. This type of printing performs best indoors and under controlled temperatures.

Infographic of a Direct Thermal Label Printer.


  • Asset Tracking for Temporary Products
  • Barcode Labeling
  • General ID
  • Government Asset Tracking
  • Shipping and Compliance Labels
  • Visitor Passes
  • Warehouse ID

Similarities and differences: direct thermal vs. thermal transfer

Side by side, here’s a quick comparison to help you select your next printer.


Thermal Transfer

Direct Thermal

Color Printing
Check icon, yes
Long-Term Durability
Check icon, yes
Short-Term Durability
Check icon, yes
Check icon, yes
High-Definition Text, Graphics, Barcodes
Check icon, yes
Check icon, yes
Check icon, yes
Resists Sunlight, High Temps, Chemicals, Moisture, Smudges
Check icon, yes
Shelf Life for Materials
Check icon, yes
No Ribbon Required  
Check icon, yes
Check icon, yes
Check icon, yes
Indoor and Outdoor
Check icon, yes
Scratch-Resistant Print
Check icon, yes
Wide Variety of Material Options
Check icon, yes

Other label printer options: inkjet and laser

If you’ve got applications that require color or high-volume in a hurry, check out Inkjet and Laser printers. With Inkjet printing, you can customize with color. A favorite for signs and high-quality images. For high-speed printing, Laser printers are recommended. They provide sharp quality for text-based identification.

Whether you choose Direct Thermal, Thermal Transfer, Inkjet or Laser, industrial printers play a key role in the identification process. Ultimately, the best printer for your business is the one that fits the type of work you do.

How Brady can help

Whether your printing needs change every day or every hour, it’s important to find a solution that makes your work easier and more efficient. With Brady’s line of high-performance industrial printers, you get both, plus Print Smart Technology that ensures:

  • Easy material loading
  • Auto label setup
  • Reduced material waste

Your work is our work. And if it happens on-site or in a facility (or both), we offer state-of-the-art printing solutions to ensure it gets done right the first time.

Need more?

We have it. Recognizing the modern workspace as an interconnected system, Brady supports your printer with a wide variety of materials and software solutions. These innovative products are designed from real-life situations and go the extra mile to ensure you meet your goals.

If you’re looking for additional solutions, we’re here to help. Let us know a little more about your application and we’ll gladly recommend products and services that can improve your work experience.

Contact Us

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Additional Resources

Image of a Brady BBP31 General Safety Label Printer.

Why Choose A Brady Printer?

Improved efficiency, reduced waste, coupled with industry leading materials and support.

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