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Types of label printers - a guide to understanding different printer types

Industrial label printers make communication possible. They identify products, mark cables and help you track assets – and that’s just the beginning. From work-in-process barcode labels to colorful brand labels, they get work done.

But, which printer performs best? Direct thermal? Thermal transfer? Inkjet? Laser?

This article answers that question, using simple terms, visuals and comparisons. It covers technology and print applications, plus breaks down the advantages of each printer type. Before you add or upgrade a label printer, get to know what’s best for your work.

Thermal Printers

Label printers that use heat generated by a printhead to print are known as thermal printers. These printers handle a variety of industrial tasks and come in two types: thermal transfer and direct thermal.

Thermal Transfer Label Printers

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

If you’re looking for unmatched printing quality and durability for long-term applications, thermal transfer printers are an excellent choice. They provide crisp, high-definition text, graphics and barcode printing that survives chemicals, UV light, abrasions, moisture and extreme temperatures.

Use this printing technology for labels that have to last, such as asset-tracking or barcode labels. Thermal transfer printed labels are also ideal for identifying wires and cables, where frequent upgrades and installations are needed to remain safe and compliant.

Schematic showing parts and functionality of a thermal transfer label printer.

Click image to enlarge

Direct Thermal Label Printers

These label printers use chemically treated labels that darken when heated. A heated printhead comes in direct contact with labels to produce an image. This printing method is simple and doesn’t require ink or a ribbon.

If you need labels to last 6 months or less, direct thermal printers are best. They are a great choice for one-time applications where sharp, printed images and text are read and scanned indoors.

Temporary labels are useful in a variety of applications. Popular examples include short-term tracking of products, visitor passes, inventory labels and patient wristbands. Basically, direct thermal printing is for ID that only needs to last a short time.

Schematic showing parts and functionality of a direct thermal label printer.

Click image to enlarge

Inkjet Label Printers

Inkjet technology is simple, but precise. These label printers spray tiny drops of ink onto labels without the printhead actually touching the label material. The ink dots are 100 microns wide (a micron is one thousandth of a millimeter) and require precise positioning to achieve their high-quality images.

Use inkjet printing to custom-print signage and unique identification. These printers offer high-quality printing with little maintenance. Plus, they require very little time to set up and adjust.

Due to an inkjet printer’s color capabilities, it’s ideal for safety messages like arc flash and hazardous material labeling. It can also be used to mark facilities: pipe marking, directional signs and Lean/5S processes. And in labs, switching to color printing reduces errors and makes sample identification easier.

Schematic showing parts and functionality of an inkjet label printer.

Click image to enlarge

Laser Label Printers

These label printers melt toner powder onto labels to produce a print. They use an electrical charge to attract toner from its cartridge to a drum. Then, the toner particles are pressed onto labels while heat from a fuser fixes the image in place.

Laser printers are recommended for high-speed printing. They produce a clean, professional look, especially with text and line graphics. Known for efficiency and low operating costs, they are ideal for creating labels, tags, tickets and reports.

Schematic showing parts and functionality of a laser label printer.

Click image to enlarge

Thermal, Inkjet and Laser Label Printer Comparisons

Thermal Transfer
Direct Thermal
Multi-color printing Check icon, yes Check icon, yes    
Full-color printing (high definition graphics and photos)     Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Barcode readability / scannability Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Withstands high temps, moisture Check icon, yes   Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Withstands chemicals Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Withstands harsh chemicals (ex: MEK, Skydrol, lab stains) Check icon, yes      
Withstands harsh washdown Check icon, yes      
2 year shelf life for materials Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Ribbon required Check icon, yes      
Ink required     Check icon, yes  
Toner required       Check icon, yes
Suitable for indoor applications Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
Suitable for outdoor applications (UV 2 year) Check icon, yes   Check icon, yes  
Suitable for outdoor applications (UV 8+ year) Check icon, yes      
Abrasion, smudge, and scratch-resistant (200 passes) Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes Check icon, yes
10+ material options Check icon, yes      

How Brady can help

Whether you’re looking for an industrial, pipe marking or portable label printer, label design software or materials – we’ve got you covered. Each printing solution is simple, user-friendly and designed to increase your speed and efficiency.

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.

Shop Printers by Type

Resource Recommendations

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