Learn how to choose the best label printer for your needs.
Why invest in a label printer for your business?
Well, for a fairly reasonable price you’ll get a printer that is simple, easy to use, and produces excellent print quality labels. It also prints faster labels than multi-function printers, has single label capability, and spares you the hassle of switching media in your multi-function.
A label printer is a special purpose printer that prints on self-adhesive material and/or card tags. Other label printers are designed to print on film and foil substrates. Label printers operate either as standalone devices or interface with computers through their integrated operating system.
There are two types of label printers: Direct Thermal (DT) and Thermal Transfer (TT). They share many similarities, but DT does not require an ink ribbon because the labels that pass through it have a special layer of chemicals under the label surface. Those chemicals are activated by heat to generate printed images.
Choosing the appropriate label printer can be quite confusing. With a wide range of options, it’s tough to ensure that you’re getting the printer that suits your needs. This is where this article comes in handy. It will provide an in-depth understanding and professional advice to make sure you arrive at a smart and informed decision.
When shopping around for a label printer, there are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What are you printing for? (the application, i.e. Direct Thermal / Thermal Transfer)
- How many labels will you be printing?
- What label size do you need to print?
- What will you be printing?
- What will you use, flathead or near edge technology?
- What size of label roll will you be using?
Other important considerations include ribbon length, media sensors, ribbon-save, interface options, and printer options. Now let’s discuss them one by one.
Industrial printing with added speed and capacity
The Citizen CL-S700II series is designed for ease of use; the metal mechanism opens vertically to a full 90° to allow for easy ribbon access, while integrated ribbon control and positioning support precision printing on even small or specialist media. The CL-S700II also comes with the option to print in both direct thermal and thermal transfer modes.
- Capacity for ribbons up to 450 metres
- Optional rewinder (CL-S700RII) and peeler
All 'thermal’ printers use heat to print high quality barcodes and other text on labels, tickets, tags, or receipt paper.
Direct Thermal vs Thermal Transfer
All ‘thermal’ printers, as the name implies, use heat to print high quality barcodes and other text on labels, tickets, tags, or receipt paper. When compared to laser and inkjet printers, thermal units:
- Require less maintenance
- Have cheaper labels, tickets and ink
- Can print faster (up to 450mm per second) and print single labels or receipts
- Don’t suffer from fade as you find with some lasers or bleed as with some inkjet printers
DT label printers offer a simple and low cost printing platform since they don’t require any consumable replacement. Note, however, that DT labels are not intended for long-term use, especially if they will be exposed to UV light. DT labels are mainly chosen for affordability and ease of printer setup, with only one media supply to the monitor.
In a nutshell, direct thermal printing yields sharp print quality with excellent barcode scanning ability without the need for ink. It is generally recommended if you don’t need long life labels, such as for printing tickets, address and fresh food labels.
As for thermal transfer label printers, they are the best choice for high-quality and long lasting labels. They also cover more applications including signage, asset tags, product identification labels, among others.
TT printers use ink ribbons made of resin, wax, or a combination of the two. You need to make sure that the label material matches the right ribbon to obtain the best print quality and durability. These printers direct heat to substrates and transfer prints onto the form; hence, the name. This mechanism enables these printers to create high-density printouts.
It is important to note that TT printers use lower heat settings than other print technologies. This means you get the widest choice of adhesive and face stock options; and with more variety to choose from, you’ll find more solutions for tough label applications, including coloured text, scratch or smudge resistance, chemical and oil resistance, hot and cold temperatures, outdoor exposure, etc.
Here’s a summary of when to use Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer
|Type of Printing Job||Direct Thermal||Thermal Transfer|
Address or shipping labels
High temperature labels
How Many Labels Will You Be Printing?
Your answer will determine the type of printer you’ll need. A desktop printer is ideal for low volume printing, which is roughly 1,000 labels a day. If you will print up to 10,000 labels on a daily basis, then a mid-range printer is advisable. Go for an industrial printer if you need to print up to 60,000 labels every day. High performance label printers are recommended for mission critical printing involving up to 200,000 labels per day.
What Label Size Do You Need to Print?
The width of your labels will also determine the type of printer you’ll need. Label printers come in different printhead sizes. Some popular sizes include 76mm x 102mm, 51mm x 51mm, 102mm x 152mm, 38mm x 38mm, 101.6mm x 26mm and so on. It's extremely important to consider the availability, cost, and label types available for your chosen printer before making your final purchase.
What Will You Be Printing?
What you’ll be printing will dictate the type of printhead you need. The standard resolution for a label printer’s printhead is 200dpi. This is ideal for printing crisp barcodes and text. If you need to print 2D barcodes or small graphics, then it would be better to use a 300dpi printhead. For some printers, a 600dpi printhead is available, and it is used to achieve fine resolution for small barcodes.
Flathead or Near Edge Technology
Flathead and near edge are the types of printhead technologies used in thermal transfer printing. While both offer increased efficiency, there are major differences to note between them.
When you print using flathead technology, the printhead is horizontal and the heating elements are set back from the leading edge of the printhead. Ink is transferred to the substrate as the ribbon passes over the heating elements. The ribbon then continues to move towards the front end of the printer where it is guided upwards to the take-up spindle.
All desktop printers, medium volume printers, and majority of industrial printers utilise flathead technology. They use wax, resin, and colour thermal transfer ribbons. Some flathead printers grapple with print quality at higher speeds, but they are generally reliable and require less maintenance. They are suitable for common applications like standard shipping labels.
Near Edge Printing
Here, the printhead is angled at 45° with the heating elements at the edge of the printhead. With this setup, the ribbon and media only stay together very briefly, making the printing process a lot faster. It also allows the printhead to heat up and cool down quickly, provide better print quality at higher print speeds, and print onto a wider range of label substrates.
If you need to print onto different materials like plastic tags, near edge printers will get the job done much better because of the angled printhead which automatically adjusts to the thickness of the substrate. This means near edge technology makes the printhead more tolerant to changes in label substrate thickness.
What Size of Label Roll Will You Be Using?
The size of the label roll and the number of labels that the printer can accommodate depends on its class. For desktop printers, they can accommodate label rolls with a 5-inch outside diameter, wound on a 1-inch or a 38mm core. However, some desktop printers can accommodate larger label rolls with an external media hanger. Medium volume and industrial printers usually accommodate label rolls with 8-inch outside diameter, wound on a 76mm core.
In general, the length of the ribbon needed to print a roll of labels is equivalent to the length of the roll of labels. The length of the ribbon indicates the number of inches that one roll can print. For instance: a ribbon that is 244 inches long will have enough ink to print 244, 1-inch long labels or 122, 2-inch long labels. Desktop printers normally have shorter ribbons while medium volume and industrial printers usually have longer ribbons.
Unless you’re printing in continuous mode, you’ll need to calibrate the printer according to the specifications of the labels you’re using. The printer does it by detecting a black mark on the backing paper or a gap between the labels. The black marks are used when the printer cannot detect a gap, such as in card tag labels or transparent labels. Most printers have both gap and black mark media sensors.
If you’re printing labels more than one across, then a moveable sensor may be needed. See to it that the gap detector doesn’t coincide with a vertical gap. A moveable sensor may also be necessary if you’re printing circular labels. In this case, see to it that the gap detector is in line with the top of the circle.
Moveable label sensors are installed in all medium volume printers, industrial printers, and in some desktop printers.
Ribbon Save Feature
As the name suggests, the ribbon save feature conserves ribbon when it’s not needed in order to reduce consumable costs. This is achieved by lifting the printhead and stopping the ribbon on parts of the label where printing is not required. This is very handy if you have long labels and printing only on a small section of the labels, such as when over-printing best before dates. However, the ‘no print’ portion must extend for over 20mm for the ribbon save function to activate.
Most thermal printers have built-in parallel, USB, and serial interfaces. Integrated LAN and wireless LAN interfaces are usually optional.
Most printers don’t need accessories or options, but many of these will save you time and money. Once you have used them, you’d be able to appreciate label printing a tad more. Majority of these extras are available only on desktop or industrial printers, and specific add-ons differ by model.
Cutters do precisely what their name implies. They are available on most printers, including desktops. If you want individual labels cut from the roll immediately after printing or if you are using continuous rolls of material, a label cutter is the solution. Once a label or tag is printed, the cutter cuts through the gap between the labels and every label falls onto a catch tray.
Printers have a built-in tear off bar which is a serrated ‘cutter’ that allows you to tear the printed labels off the printer. You will also able to purchase perforated rolls of labels so it’s easier to tear them off the printer. However, when you are using special or continuous media, a cutter is needed.
You can also use cutters with card and synthetic tag material. They come in handy when tag labels must be cut individually before being stitched to bags of animal feed. Most cutters are of the guillotine type, which is available in different configurations and with varying levels of automation and computer control. Some printers have the option for a rotary cutter, where a rotating blade cuts against a flat one. The label is cut without the need to stop the printer, thus providing a faster throughput.
A word of caution: Cutters can become unreliable if they are not properly maintained. They must be cleaned regularly so the label glue won’t jam them up. The blades must also be replaced before they become blunt.
2) Label Rewinder
Label rewinders automatically rewind the label material after printing. By rewinding the label roll and using a label dispenser, your labels are readily available, making the printing process easy and time-efficient.
A rewinder comes in two variants: internal or external. The former is used to collect entire printed rolls onto a take-up spool inside the printer. The result is a neat roll of printed labels instead of a pile of labels in front of your printer. This is particularly useful when you are printing thousands of labels in huge batches at one time.
The internal rewinder is normally a factory fitted option that you choose when ordering your printer. It is usually available for industrial printers, but not for desktops and medium volume printers.
External label rewind units are standalone motors with rollers. They offer a unique alternative to internal rewinders. They have the ability to rewind 8-inch to 12-inch label rolls and one external rewinder can be used with multiple printers. As the printer spews out the labels, they are rolled onto a cardboard core, activating the rewind unit.
The external rewinder is a wise choice if you are using several printers and you don’t always need to rewind labels. You will be able to set it up with whichever printer you want to use. It takes a few minutes to set up but this will save you plenty of time if you are printing huge batches of labels.
3) Peel & Present
Peel and present is designed to speed up label application by taking each label as it is printed and separating most of it from the backing paper. The printer takes the backing liner and rolls it back onto a core. It then presents the peeled labels to you, hence the name. When the printer detects that you took a label, the next one is printed.
Peel and present is available on most printers. It is perfect when you are printing individual labels and sticking them directly to a product. It saves the time it takes to tear off the label and peel it. This may seem trivial but if you are manually applying hundreds of labels daily, then you’ll appreciate the value of the peeler. Note, however, that if you print labels in batches, a peeler is not a good option because the printer will stop printing until you take the label after it has been peeled.
4) In-line Barcode Verifiers
Every so often, barcode printers encounter print quality issues. Printhead elements burn out, ribbons wrinkle, among others. If you are printing a barcode, this means it is rendered useless. It’s a massive headache if you didn’t notice and you have just labelled up thousands of products and shipped them out to your biggest client to scan.
An in-line verifier mounts to the front of the printer and analyses each label to ensure that it meets certain print quality standards. When a printer equipped with an inline verifier starts to print labels below the grade you specified, the verifier will automatically halt the printing process. You can make the necessary adjustments and know that you’ve saved yourself precious time and money.
Bear in mind that big retailers have strict guidelines relating to the print quality of the labels on products you send to them. The penalties involved in failing to meet such guidelines are often higher that the price of the in-line verifier. Any business that needs to meet any kind of print compliance must consider investing on an in-line verifier to avoid the fines associated with poorly printed labels.
5) RFID Label Encoding
Radio Frequency identification is a technology that’s comparable to Near Field Communication (NFC) that you find on smartphones. RFID has made its way to label printers. In the case of barcodes, you can use it as a secondary form of identification, or used in instances where one part of a supply chain has yet to use RFID technology.
The barcode reader must be positioned correctly before a label can be read. This typically involves human effort, but with RFID, the reader only needs to have the tag near it. RFID tags can also be reused, they can store more data than barcodes, and they can be encrypted to add an element of security.
Some label printers offer options for printing RFID-based labels. This will allow you to print on the front of a label while encoding data into the RFID chip. RFID options vary depending on the frequency range you’ll be working with and most label printers support HF or UHF ranges.
Other Types of Printers
There are different types of printers on the market today — from inkjet to laser printers and everything in between. Let’s take a close at each one.
Desktop printers refer to the hardware used in homes and businesses. They are small enough to fit on a desk, but are also available as bigger floor-model units. They are designed to print fewer labels than their larger counterparts.
While it’s tough to provide an exact number of labels that desktop printers can handle, they can print on and off for an hour or so a day. That can be a few hundred labels on a daily basis. They are usually used by retailers who print price labels, small businesses printing courier labels, or small manufacturers printing product labels a couple of times a week.
In general, desktop printers are capable of printing the same size and quality of labels as industrial printers, but in less quantity. They are perfectly suited for printing labels on demand, as well as receipts and tickets less than four inches wide.
Industrial printers are designed and engineered to print more labels and work almost autonomously. They are generally bigger and more durable than desktop units, and can handle larger rolls of labels, tags, or tickets so you don’t have to change ink ribbons often.
These printers are capable of printing several thousand labels daily, and they are fast. High end models come with a wide range of features that leverage the printers’ computing power.
You can program them to print without any computer or network support. In fact, you can just plug in a Bluetooth keyboard or a barcode scanner and print directly.
Industrial label printers are your best bet if you are printing any kind of media in large quantity – from a few thousand per day to non-stop printing. Aside from easily handling high-volume printing needs, they are also best suited for:
- Rough handling situations
- Changing industry standards and regulations
- Situations where print speed is crucial
- Situations requiring ability to create custom labels
- Mission critical situations where down time is a huge problem
Mobile printers (a.k.a. portable printers) deliver rugged and reliable label printing, whenever and wherever you need it. They utilize the same thermal technology while being small enough to carry around and capable of printing without cables. They connect to a handheld terminal wirelessly via Bluetooth or Wifi network. Models equipped with USB cables are available and there are still some models that use Infrared.
While convenient to use, mobile printers do have limitations because of their small size. For instance, they have narrow print widths, with 100mm being the widest that you can get. These printers are not designed to print large quantities of labels because of their small roll capacity. They are usually direct thermal only, which is not ideal if you need long life asset labels.
What mobile printers are known for is printing labels, tags, and receipts on the go. They offer a high-quality print in a compact unit that can sit on the palm of your hand. Use these portable printers for sales agents or delivery drivers so they can issue receipts in the field. And since these printers are not hooked to a computer, you can use them with a smartphone and other mobile devices for printing wherever you go.
In general, mobile printers are best suited for:
- Printing small numbers of labels
- Printing at the point of transaction
- Printing despite punishing field situations
- Access to power isn’t always possible
As the name implies, these printers are intended for ‘special’ printing needs – such as printing tickets and wristbands, making them versatile and easy to use.
Ticket printing is a specialised niche of on-demand printing where savvy business owners are leveraging the superb print quality (both text and graphics), broad range of connectivity options, and intelligent battery management.
Tickets are typically printed on thicker substrates. If they are not perforated, then a cutter must be installed on the printer so the tickets can be cut neatly. Specialist ticket printers are produced with a taller case so they can be easily loaded with more fanfold tickets. If the tickets come on a roll then these specialist printers can be equipped with a hanger. Ticket printers can be found in a variety of applications including event ticketing, transport ticketing, and pay station kiosks.
Standard label printers can print on wristbands but you can go for a dedicated wristband printer as it produces clean, sharp images. When printing wristbands for a hospital or a theme park, a dedicated wristband printer is the perfect choice. It offers a number of advantages and in most cases, a lower price.
Dedicated wristband printers have cartridges as compared to standard printers that have their media on a roll. The cartridges slot into place so loading is fast, easy, and requires no training at all. These printers usually have a print resolution that’s optimised for accurate and clear printing of images or logos. If you are considering to buy a hospital wristband printer, there are various models with anti-microbial case to meet the cleaning regulations of your healthcare setting.
How to Connect Your Printer to Other Devices or Wireless Network
You need to feed every label printer with data so it can print something out. It must be able to communicate with a computer to receive print tasks and label designs. While some printers have a standalone option, you still need to link them to a computer in order to set them up. Most printing applications still require constant and stable connection in order to receive printing commands.
Older printers connect to a parallel port. Some printers are directly linked to a network, while a few use a rare serial port connection.
Serial and Parallel Connections
Early computers connected with printers through a serial port. This limited connection speed because data can only be transmitted one bit at a time. It’s quite unlike to find a new printer that allows an old style serial connection. And while there are still old printers in use that connect via the RS-232 standard, new devices no longer come with a connector. A special adapter is needed to connect this type of printer to a modern computer.
The parallel printer interface was introduced by Centronics in 1970. The single wire of the serial port was replaced with eight wires, allowing the interface to operate at a higher speed because it can send eight bits of data simultaneously. While many kinds of devices used serial interfaces for connection, the parallel port became known as the ‘printer port’ and remained the standard of the computer industry for decades.
The vast majority of desktop and industrial printers provide multiple options for connectivity, with the universal serial bus (USB) being the most common. When it was introduced in 2000, both the RS-232 serial connector and the parallel ‘printer’ port became almost extinct.
The latest models of personal computers and laptops have USB connection since it offers an easy way to connect to your printer. All you need to do is turn on the printer, plug it into the computer, install the driver, and you are all set. However, USB printers are not easy to share with other computers across a network. An Ethernet or Wireless interface is a better solution for networking purposes.
Connecting to Your Network
Network connectivity is now more important so Ethernet and Wi-Fi have become a lot more common in label printers. Many high volume industrial printers now come with Ethernet connectivity as standard because of the convenience it provides.
An Ethernet cable equipped with an RJ45 connector allows a printer to connect directly to a Local Area Network. While you can use several types of USB to Ethernet adapters, most high-end printers come with both USB and Ethernet ports. Ethernet is roughly four times as fast as USB and an Ethernet cable can be up to 300 feet long without the use of hubs. When your label printer has an Ethernet connection, you just connect the cable to a network port so it can be shared across your network.
The World Has Gone Wireless
People appreciate the convenience and versatility that Bluetooth and WiFi offer. Wi-Fi is often an added option on thermal printers. With it you can place your printer pretty much wherever you want.
Wireless printers are a different case because by design, wireless connectivity is a must nowadays. Most portable printers come with a USB cable for connection but you still need to use Bluetooth or WiFi in order to get full advantage of mobility. With the growing trend towards the use of mobile devices, a wireless printer setup will increasingly become more common.
Wi-Fi technology utilises a wireless network to communicate much like a fixed printer. For as long as your printer is within the range of the network access points, it will work. However, Bluetooth is a better option for fully mobile applications. It reduces the wireless range to 10 meters and works without a network since your printer and computer communicate directly.
How to Choose the Right Label Printer
With all the information provided in this article, choosing the right printer should be easier. You should be able to strike the right balance between paying a fair price and getting the printing job done. If you still have questions or still having a tough time deciding, feel free to contact us and we’ll be more than willing to help you find the printer that perfectly suits your needs.