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What is a Printer?

A printer is an external hardware output device responsible for taking electronic data stored on a computer or computing device and generating a hard copy of that data. Printers are one of the most commonly used peripherals on computers and are commonly used to print text and photos. The picture to the right is an example of a computer printer, the WeP 85T.

WeP BP 85T

Impact Printers/DOT Matrix Printers & Non Impact Printers

Impact printers produce a printed page by striking an inked ribbon with a dot-matrix mechanism. A print head contains a set of stiff wires arranged in a vertical column. As the print head moves across the paper, a solenoid drives the wires at high speed into the ribbon, making rows of dots that form characters and graphics. Though dot-matrix impact printers are noisier and less sophisticated than laser or inkjet models, businesses that use multi-part forms such as checks and invoices require impact printing. The printer strikes the forms with enough force to make a clear impression on each copy.

Thermal Printer

Thermal printers, used in cash registers and adding machines, take rolls of treated paper that turn dark when heated. The print mechanism feeds the paper next to a print head containing a sophisticated electronic heater, producing text and simple graphics on the tape. A thermal printer needs no ink, toner or other supplies, making it easy to use and maintain. However, the paper turns dark when left in hot areas; after several months it can become unreadable.

A thermal transfer printer is a non-impact printer that uses heat to register an impression on paper. A thermal transfer printer has a printhead containing many small resistive heating pins that on contact, depending on the type of thermal transfer printer, melt wax-based ink onto ordinary paper or burn dots onto special coated paper. A microprocessor determines which individual heating pins are heated to produce the printed image. The printhead spans the entire width of the paper or medium to be printed on. Thermal transfer printers are popular for printing bar codes, labels, price tags, and other specialty print jobs. There are two types of thermal transfer printers: direct thermal and thermal wax transfer.

Direct thermal

The direct thermal printer prints the image by burning dots onto coated paper as it passes over the heated printhead. Direct thermal printers do not use ribbons. Early fax machines used direct thermal printing.

Thermal wax transfer: This type of printer uses a thermal transfer ribbon that contains wax-based ink. Heat is applied to the ribbon using a thermal printhead that melts the ink transferring it to the paper where it is permanent after it cools. A typical thermal transfer ribbon consists of three layers: the base material, the heat melting ink, and the coating on the print side of the base material. The coating and base material help keep ink from adhering to the printhead which can cause poor print quality. Monochrome and color thermal transfer ribbons are available. It is recommended that the printhead be cleaned between each ribbon change with a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol.

The cost of a thermal transfer printer varies depending on the size of the printer and the features included. The cost of consumables such as paper, ribbons, and printheads is about the same for both types of printers. The print quality depends on the printer, the ribbon, the paper, and the environment such as where the printer is stored, the temperature, and the humidity.

Difference Between Thermal and Direct Thermal Printing

Direct Thermal Labels

Direct Thermal printers utilize a chemically treated material that blackens when the thermal print-head applies heat to the surface of the material. This type of printer requires no ink, toner, or ribbon to apply print to the label surface. Direct thermal printers are not able to print in color.

The printed area from a Direct Thermal printer can potentially fade over time. If the label is exposed to excessive light or heat the material will darken to the point that text may become unreadable and barcodes may lose their ability to be scanned. For this reason, Direct Thermal printing cannot be recommended for "lifetime" applications. While the readability of labels printed with Direct Thermal printing can vary greatly depending upon the environment that the labels are used in, the printing technology still provides enough of a lifespan for common bar code applications such as shipping labels, receipt labels, and nametag labels.

With the recent addition of Direct Thermal (DT) and Thermal Transfer (TT) materials to our product line, you may have questions as to which type of printer is most suitable for your specific application. The information provided within this article should provide a basic understanding of the functionality behind printing technologies for both thermal roll label materials.

Thermal Transfer Labels

Some Thermal Transfer printers can print in color.

Thermal Transfer printers, on the other hand, do require a ribbon to apply print to the label surface. A thermal print-head applies heat to the ribbon, which in turn melts ink on to the label surface to create the printed image. The ink is absorbed into the label material. Thermal Transfer printing provides a very high print quality and durability when compared to other types of printing technologies. Another advantage to thermal transfer printers is the ability to print a logo, graphic or text in color using a higher-end printer.

Thermal Transfer printers have the ability to accept a wider variety of material types than their Direct Thermal counterparts. While we currently only provide paper based label material for Thermal Transfer printing, these types of printers can also print on polyester and polypropylene materials.

Because environmental factors will not alter the print quality when using a Thermal Transfer printer, this type of technology is known to create an incredibly durable printed area that can withstand extreme temperatures and contact with chemicals. The most commonly used applications for Thermal Transfer printing include product identification, inventory and asset labeling, as well as bar code labels that need to last longer than six months.

The type of printer that you require will ultimately depend upon the nature of your application. To decide between direct thermal or thermal transfer printing, consider all associated costs of maintenance as well as the lifespan needed for your labels. For example, if your printing application requires color, more durability and a longer lifespan than the obvious choice would be a thermal transfer printer. If you decide not to incur the additional expense or hassle of ribbons and need a short-term label application, than Direct Thermal may be the best available option.

Non Impact Printers

Nonimpact printers, used almost everywhere now, are faster and quieter than impact printers because they have fewer moving parts. Nonimpact printers form characters and images without direct physical contact between the printing mechanism and the paper.


A common technology for desktop applications, inkjet printers are inexpensive and reliable. The printer's cartridge contains sophisticated components that spray precisely-controlled amounts of ink onto a page, forming high-quality text and graphics. The rest of the printing mechanism consists of an arm that moves the cartridge back and forth across the page. Though the cartridge contains important parts that eventually wear out, you replace it when it runs out of ink. This is all the maintenance the printer typically needs.

Laser and LED

Laser and light-emitting diode printers are cousins to the copy machine; both have a mechanism that uses a light-sensitive metal drum and toner powder. Inside the printer, light from a laser or LED "draws" the image of a page onto the drum as a series of tiny dots. The light produces a static electric charge in the drum, causing toner to cling to it. When heated, the toner melts; the printer mechanism presses a sheet of paper onto the drum, causing the toner to flow onto the paper and forming a printed page. Laser printers are faster than inkjet printers and deliver high-quality results.