You've experienced direct thermal printing if you've ever received a receipt at the gas pump, or from a self-check-in kiosk at the airport, or from a car rental employee with a mobile printer when turning in a rental vehicle. Another form is the shipping or routing label you may have recently received with an Amazon delivery. The list of applications is extensive. Chances are, you’ve done some or all of these things and most of them typically involve direct thermal printing. Direct thermal printing is all around us. And, it is expected to become even more common, especially with rapid growth in the e-commerce and transportation sectors.
Research firm Smithers is forecasting the global thermal print market to expand at a rate of 5 percent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2023, rising to a total market value of $45.39 billion in that year1.
Direct thermal printing of today uses a safe chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that produces an image when it passes under a thermal print head. Direct thermal printers have no ink, toner or ribbon. Direct thermal coatings convert paper and film substrates into thermal image receptive materials.
Other Thermal Print Methods
Direct thermal printing differs from thermal transfer printing, which uses a heated ribbon to transfer an image onto materials for similar uses which require additional durability. Both direct thermal and thermal transfer printing are less expensive alternatives to inkjet or laser printers.
Thermal transfer images tend to last longer and be more durable, but the downside is that the ribbons used then have a negative of the image imprinted on it after printing. This can be a privacy/security issue if ribbons aren’t destroyed, especially in medical facilities. It’s also not out of the question for competitors to dumpster dive to see what’s on discarded ribbons that were used to print shipping labels.
Dye sublimation transfer is another thermal printing method that uses transfer paper to heat the image and then transfer it to another surface, like a coffee mug.
The difference of all the technologies is that direct thermal printers are the least expensive to purchase and operate and can be quite compact. Raw materials are also less expensive. That’s why direct thermal is often used in low cost applications, such as receipts. The drawback is a shorter shelf life of the printed product, because it will fade over time with heat and light. Thermal transfer and toner (inkjet and laser) won’t do that. Direct thermal is a non-archival method of printing, but its durability can be improved with a top coating. If more than one color is used, it will also be more pixelated compared to inkjet or toner.
The Benefits of Direct Thermal Coatings
Thermal printing is a cost-effective printing method, while also offering lower long-term maintenance costs because of minimal replacement supplies. The printers are normally less expensive and easier to operate compared to other print technologies because there is no ink, toner or ribbon consumable to monitor or replenish. It produces sharp monochromatic print quality with good scannability and is best suited for applications that don’t need a long shelf life for what is printed. It is unique in that it offers both digital printing and mobility.
This method is also ideally suited for printing using variable data that differs from person to person or application to application, such as charges, agreement numbers, daily rates, etc. Going back to the rental car example, the rental car company representative can have a printer on their hip that prints out a receipt. Other technologies, like inkjet or laser printing, can’t do that. Direct thermal can tie into a company’s data source. In the case of a rental car, they scan your signed agreement and send it to the company’s server before you get a printed copy.
Direct thermal printing is a low cost, secure method of imaging for both human readability and bar codes, which makes it attractive for a wide variety of applications. Anyone who owns a direct thermal printer is a potential customer for label and tag converters who want to make their own custom printed labels or tags.
Extending the Uses
An example of extending the use of direct thermal is in retail. If a retailer wants to preprint in its logo on one side of a hang tag in volume, that can be done using an inkjet or laser process to make it glossy and eye catching. A direct thermal coating can be applied to the other side of the printed product. Then, the retailer can use direct thermal printing at store locations to print basic information—size, color, bar code, style number, etc.—on the other side. Additional basic information could even be printed on the “pretty side” using direct thermal. This example involves high creativity with a low cost.
With direct thermal printing, everything needed to print is included in the direct thermal coating. The only thing required to create an image is heat from the printer’s print head. Other printing technologies require an external colorant to be jetted or transferred (like toner or thermal transfer coating).
Lubrizol Enters the Market
Lubrizol entered the direct thermal coatings market in 2019 with the acquisition of NuCoat direct thermal formulas, which joined Lubrizol’s extensive line of PrintRite™ ink receptive coatings. With Lubrizol direct thermal coatings, preprinted film or paper can be taken one step further and coated in one area to enable direct thermal printing for a specific application.
Lubrizol is one of only a few companies that manufacture and sell direct thermal coatings in pails or drums, making it easy for label manufacturers to create their own configurations without the need to purchase an entire roll of thermal paper.
Contact us to learn more about Lubrizol’s line of direct thermal coatings.