Time for direct thermal labels?

How a Change in Label Material Can Reduce Costs, Improve Sustainability and Enhance OEE

If you use thermal printers for your secondary packaging or pallet labeling, your printer can probably work just as happily with either thermal transfer or direct thermal labels.

Which is better? Which is more cost effective?

Let’s take a look…

Both types of thermal printing use basically the same equipment. The difference between the two being that thermal transfer printing uses a specially designed ribbon to transfer the image onto the label.

Direct thermal printing does not use a ribbon. Instead, the label has a layer of color former material that darkens in response to the heat and pressure of the printing process.

If your labels need to withstand long exposure to sunlight, chemicals, excessive heat, abrasion, etc., thermal transfer is clearly the technology to use.

For labels used in the supply chain however, direct thermal technology can reduce costs and improve efficiency.

direct thermal labels

Thermal and Direct Thermal – Real Cost of Ownership

Cost of Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Label Printing

Equipment Cost

Most thermal printers can work with both types of print technology so equipment cost are generally the same.

Label Cost

Direct thermal labels have the color former layer in the laminate which does make them a little more expensive than thermal transfer labels.

Ribbon Cost

The cost of the thermal transfer ribbon obviously does not apply to direct thermal printing.


The printheads on a thermal printer are a wear item that need replacement at some point. In thermal transfer printing, the printhead can be expected to last for about 6 million linear inches of printing. Direct thermal about 4 million.

Shipping Cost

Label shipping cost applies equally to each technology. With direct thermal, ribbon shipping is not required.

Total Cost

The chart shows the relative costs of the two print technologies as calculated for a customer. In this case, the saving by switching to direct thermal was over $50,000 per year!


Less shipping, less to dispose of – direct thermal labeling fits in well with your plans to reduce your carbon footprint.

How Do You Dispose of Your Used Thermal Ribbon?

Direct thermal printing provides some useful advantages that improve Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE) by not needing the ribbon:
– No time lost for ribbon replenishment
– No unplanned maintenance to eliminate ribbon wrinkles
– No reworking of product with bad print caused by ribbon wrinkle

Frequent Misconceptions About Direct Thermal

DT labels turn yellow
Well, they probably will eventually so you wouldn’t use them for long term product identification. For logistics and supply chain jobs – no problem with durability.

DT labels are more expensive
Yes, they are.
Of course, this is more than offset by not having to purchase the thermal ribbons used in thermal transfer.

TT gives better print quality
At one time this was true, but direct thermal technology has improved to the point that the print quality is just as good in most cases.

TT is best for barcodes
Again, this was true in the past, but today’s direct thermal labels produce crisp barcodes that meet the ANSI/ISO specs all day.