What is Thermal Transfer Printing?

The image made by a Thermal Transfer Printer appears when a substrate and thermal transfer ink ribbon contact a heated print-head. The heat from the print-head melts the ink on the ribbon and releases (transfers) the ink directly onto the substrate. The printer uses a Thermal Transfer Ribbon, often abbreviated to TTR.

Thermal Transfer Printing with TTR

Where are Thermal Transfer Ribbons used?

Thermal Transfer Ribbons are mostly used for printing variable information. This particularly concerns information for identification, such as barcodes, batch codes and expiry dates. Thermal Transfer is the preferred method when a durable print is needed, for example against heat, chemicals and abrasion. In addition, Thermal Transfer works well in making highly durable non-variable information, such as warning signs.

Barcodes printed on labels

Why print with a Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

Printing with Thermal Transfer Ribbons is a proven technique to deliver durable variable codes, such as barcodes, that always read or scan. It produces dense, high-resolution images in colour or black-and-white. Additionally, it can be used on a wide variety of substrates. Images made with Thermal Transfer Ribbons are highly resistant to chemicals and extremely durable. The printers work at high speeds and require little maintenance.

DNP Thermal Transfer Ribbon Samples

Different Thermal Transfer Ribbons and printers

The ink used in the Thermal Transfer process can be made with wax, resin, or wax/resin. As a result, the different types of ribbons have a different print sensitivity. This means they transfer ink at different temperatures of the printhead. The requirements of the application determine which ink is needed.

Two types of printers are used: flat-head and near-edge.

Packaging and labelling traceability

What is a Wax Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

In a Wax Thermal Transfer Ribbon, the pigments of the ink are captured in wax. The wax is quite soft and therefore transfers at relatively low temperatures. It also fills up unevenness in the surface of the printed material/substrate. Therefore,  wax ribbons are the standard for printing on (un)coated paper and other materials with a rougher surface. Due to the ability to fill up uneven surfaces, these ribbons deliver a high optical density print for scannable barcodes and other variable information.

Beverage labelling and marking

What is a Wax/resin Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

In a Wax/resin Thermal Transfer Ribbon, the ink is captured in a mix of soft wax and hard resin. Wax/resin ribbons make prints that are more resistant to scratching, rubbing and chemicals. These ribbons need a higher temperature for the ink to be transferred onto the substrate. Wax/Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbons are suitable for both print & apply and in-line flexible packaging applications. For in-line printing at high speed, wax/resin ribbons are the obvious choice.

Chemical barrel labelling

What is a Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbon?

In a Resin Thermal Transfer Ribbon, the ink is captured in resin. Resins are hard and provide the highest possible resistance against severe abrasion, harsh chemicals or other severe circumstances. Resin ribbons require a higher transfer temperature setting of the printer over wax or wax/resin ribbons. Typical applications where resins are used are labelling of chemicals, marking of laboratory samples and challenging circumstances in, for example. the automotive and electronic industry.

Inside of a Thermal Transfer Printer

What is a flat-head printer?

Flat-head printers have a traditional printhead that can generally provide image resolutions between 200 and 600 dots per inch (DPI), in some cases, this can go up to 1200 DPI. Their ribbons are married with labels for a small distance to the peel point after passing the heating element. These models will generally print at speeds up to 12 inches per second (IPS). Some printers are able to print up to 20 IPS when the right ribbon is selected.

Pharma and medicine labelling with Thermal Transfer Ribbons

What is a near-edge printer?

In contrast, near-edge printers with their floating printheads will run more than twice as fast. Speeds over 26 IPS are the norm where 55 IPS is also reached by certain printer-ribbon combinations. Ribbons for near-edge printers are married with labels only for an instant prior to the peel point, requiring a special formulation engineered for quick release of ink from the base PET film. A floating printhead means not having to make adjustments for various media thicknesses. In addition, the image resolution for these printers is lower at between 200 to 300 DPI.

Thermal Transfer Printing with the right Thermal Transfer Ribbon on your substrate

What Thermal Transfer Ribbon to choose for which substrate?

It is important to realize that a proper combination ribbon and substrate is needed for the optimal print result. The material that is printed influences how well the ink from the Thermal Transfer Ribbon is transferred to the substrate and fixed to the surface. It is, therefore, necessary to consider material characteristics of the substrate, including the smoothness of the surface, when selecting a ribbon for a certain application. DNP is constantly testing new ribbon-substrate combinations. With our ribbon finder you can easily see which ribbons work well with a certain substrate.


How to protect your Thermal Transfer Printhead

How to extend the life of my printhead?

It is important to realize that the correct use of a quality ribbon will extend the life of the most valuable component of your printer: the printhead. Ribbons can play a role in the wear and tear on printheads. In essence, there are three causes for this: too much heat, printhead in direct contact with a rough substrate and pollution. When a printhead is not performing correctly, white lines and dots will come out on the print. The quality of the print will deteriorate and the scannability of barcodes becomes problematic. To protect your Thermal Transfer Printhead, make sure to:

  1. Use a ribbon with the highest possible print sensitivity, and pick the lowest possible heat settings that ensure optimal performance of the ribbon.
  2. Make sure that the ribbon is wider than the substrate it’s printed on, ensuring that the substrate has no direct contact with the printhead.
  3. Use an anti-static ribbon, which won’t attract dust and pollute the printhead.


Thermal Transfer Printing with DNP ribbons in a nutshell

Thermal Transfer Ribbon Slitting Machine
Ask for advice

Get in touch for more info.

Feel free to contact us anytime for any questions you may have.