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Thermal Printers vs. Inkjet Printers

By Matt Wastradowski

Inkjet vs. Thermal Transfer Printers

Businesses around the world rely on printers every day to print all manner of items, including contracts, receipts, asset management tags, and more. It’s essential that businesses understand and choose the right printer for their specific needs. An inkjet printer, for instance, may print high-quality photos but lack the capabilities to quickly and easily print barcodes.

This article will examine inkjet and thermal printers, two of the most common types of printers currently available, with information on the pros and cons of each, typical applications, and resources for choosing your next printer.

What is an Inkjet Printer?

Inkjet printers, as the name implies, use ink to print text, graphics, and images onto various types of paper. These printers are most common in homes and small offices, though many commercial printing companies use inkjet printers to produce high-quality brochures, flyers, and other pieces.

How do Inkjet Printers Work?

diagram of how inkjet printing works

Inkjet printers spray thousands of droplets of ink onto a piece of paper, where the colors are combined to form an image or text. The colors and sizes of these droplets can be altered to produce sharp, photo-realistic images.

Users can look at the advertised dots per inch (DPI) to gauge the printer’s resolution. The DPI measurement tells users how many tiny droplets can fit along a single inch on the page. A higher DPI means that the printer makes smaller individual dots, and a sharper image.

What are the Advantages of an Inkjet Printer?

There are many reasons a company might opt for an inkjet printer. Here are some common benefits and advantages of choosing an inkjet:

  • Cost: Inkjet printers, cartridges, and supplies are more widely available—and therefore cheaper—than their thermal counterparts.
  • Image quality: Even low-end inkjet printers can produce nearly photo-quality images.

What are the Disadvantages of an Inkjet Printer?

Inkjet printers aren’t without drawbacks and disadvantages. Here are a few:

  • Image durability: Ink-based images may smudge, stain, and run when exposed to moisture, sunlight, humidity, and routine use.
  • Moving parts: Inkjet printers typically use more moving parts than thermal printers, increasing the chance of breakdowns that require repair or replacement.
  • Reliability: Stickers, signs, labels, and other printed material may tear and peel too often for reliable long-term use.

What is a Thermal Printer?

breakdown of thermal transfer printing

Unlike inkjet printers, thermal printers don’t spray liquid ink through a nozzle to produce images. Rather, thermal printers use tiny heating elements to activate or transfer pigments.

Thermal printers are used most commonly to create labels, safety signs, wayfinding markers, barcodes, shipping labels, and other heavily-used items.

How do Thermal Printers Work?

There are two distinct categories of thermal printers: Direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers. Here’s a quick breakdown of how each works:

  • Direct thermal printers use chemically-treated paper that darkens when heated by a thermal print head. Direct thermal printers do not use separate ink, toner, or ribbon supplies. Direct thermal printers are most commonly used to print items such as receipts and shipping labels.
  • Thermal transfer printers use a thermal print head to transfer a solid ink from a ribbon onto a label supply (usually made from vinyl, polyester, nylon, or other thicker materials) to produce a permanent print. Ribbon is usually made from wax, resin, or a combination of the two, and is bonded to the label supply surface with heat and pressure.

banner of duralabel printers

What are the Advantages of a Thermal Printer?

There are several reasons to consider a thermal printer for your facility. Here are a few advantages of investing in a thermal printer:

  • Durable: Labels and signs created with thermal printers last longer and stand up to a wider variety of weather conditions than those printed with ink.
  • Versatile: Thermal transfer printers can print documents, labels, and signs that meet various needs, including durable arc flash labels, text- and graphics-based floor marking, and labels meant for extreme conditions such as cold storage.
  • Less maintenance: With fewer moving parts, thermal printers tend to last longer, are easier to maintain, and run more reliably than inkjet printers.

What are the Disadvantages of a Thermal Printer?

For all the good that comes with using thermal printers, they aren’t without disadvantages and drawbacks. Here are a few complications that may arise from using thermal printers.

  • Cost: The specialty materials used in the thermal printing process are considerably more expensive than their inkjet counterparts; even the most basic thermal printer may cost hundreds of dollars.
  • Color choice: Thermal printers print fewer colors, and the high heat limits wax and resin choices; both factors limit color and application options. (For these reasons, users cannot print high-quality photographs with thermal printers.)

    Despite these disadvantages, Graphic Products offers a Custom Label Service, which allows employers to design unique labels with up to four spot colors.

When Should You Use One Printer Over the Other?

With so many printer choices and label standards, it can be tough to know when one type of printer is better suited than the other.

Use an Inkjet Printer for:

  • Office printing: Use an inkjet printer for basic office print jobs, like contracts, manuals, and emails.
  • Photographs: Thermal printers cannot print high-quality photographs, making inkjet printers the ideal solution.
  • Temporary signage: Print short-term notices, announcements, and reminders designed for short-term use (such as a sign informing workers that a meeting has moved rooms).

Use a Thermal Transfer Printer for:

  • Durable signs and labels: Thermal transfer printers can print signs and labels that stand up to extreme environments and meet OSHA and NFPA requirements, including arc flash labels, marine signage, safety signs, and more.
  • Specialized visual communication: Print magnetized shelving labels, wire wraps, low-light visual communication, and more for applications unique to your facility's needs.
  • Floor marking: Boost efficiency and safety with custom floor marking signs, which can be modified to create pathways, cordon off areas, and alert pedestrians to forklift traffic.

Thermal Printer Solutions from Graphic Products

Graphic Products has developed a comprehensive line of printers that cater to site-specific needs and help employers meet requirements for industrial labeling and signage. Learn more about DuraLabel industrial label and sign printers.

Graphic Products has produced a Best Practice Guide to Industrial Label Printing, a guide that looks at how DuraLabel thermal transfer printers create labels and signs that won’t fade. The free resource shows readers how to use a thermal transfer printer, introduces various printers for specific applications, and explains how thermal transfer printers work.

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