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There are two thermal printing methods: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Each method uses a thermal printhead that applies heat to the surface being marked. Thermal transfer printing uses a heated ribbon to produce durable, long-lasting images on a wide variety of materials. No ribbon is used in direct thermal printing, which creates the image directly on the printed material. Direct thermal media is more sensitive to light, heat and abrasion, which reduces the life of the printed material.

Thermal transfer printers can accept a wider variety of media than direct thermal models, including paper, polyester, and polypropylene materials. Thermal transfer printers can create extremely durable wristbands, asset tags, and certification labels, in addition to common labels, tags, and tickets. The specific label material and ribbon must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability.

Direct thermal printing uses chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that blackens when it passes under the thermal printhead. Direct thermal printers have no ink, toner, or ribbon.

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