Barcode Printer Guide
The initial question on printing bar codes is usually whether to print them in-house or to use an outside agency to print them for you. The latter would normally be used if you know the data and quantities well in advance or if the barcode forms part of the packaging. This method is the least flexible taking the production out of your control. It is often inconvenient and impossible to plan.
Some things to consider when printing your own codes include:
Is there space allowed on your product - GS1 has guidelines on where barcodes can be placed!
How much space is available for data, text, graphics or barcodes - will it all fit?
What are the required volumes of labels - this may determine the size of printer required?
What is the length of the print run - how many do you print at once?
What is the size of the label - again this will determine the best size of printer to use?
What material is the barcode to be printed on - do you have special needs for the label?
Do you have lots of different formats - may determine the level of Software required?
There are two printer types that will support accurate, on-demand barcode printing on-site:
Thermal Transfer Printing
Direct Thermal Printing
THERMAL TRANSFER / DIRECT THERMAL PRINTING
The benefits of these technologies allow:
On-demand printing giving the precise number of labels needed without any wastage.
Unlimited label sizes available - can be affordable and custom ordered
When used with suitable label stock and ribbons the image can be very durable and scratch/smudge/solvent resistant. This is ideal for compliance type labels.
These printers produce a very high-quality barcode.
Square heating elements giving excellent bar code edge definition.
High speed – often up to 12” (30cm) of the label can be printed every second.
Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal printers are available with printheads, dot densities vary from 152, 203, 300, 400 and 600 dots per inch. These dot sizes dictate the x-dimension that can be printed (the size of the smallest bar in a barcode). To print a 100% EAN-13 digit barcode a density of either 152, 300 or 600 d.p.i. would be required.
Direct Thermal / Thermal Transfer printers generally operate in one of three modes. A convertible path allows configuration for:
1) Straight through – in this mode the stock runs straight through the printer with no attempt to wind the labels or separate the labels from the backing paper.
2) Peel & Present – in this mode the printed labels are fed out one at a time. The printer internally rewinds the backing paper. In this mode, one label at a time is presented to the operator without the backing paper, once the label is taken the next label is printed and presented.
3) Internal Rewind – Assuming the printer has an internal rewind system the printer winds the printed media internally onto a roll. The roll of ‘pre-printed’ labels can then be used on a manual label dispenser or automated applicator.
Examples of manual and Automatic Applicators:
DIRECT THERMAL PRINTING
These are special printers designed to print barcodes as well as other data onto labels, tags or continuous media. They can print onto a wide variety of sizes and use a specific material type. This generally makes it quite easy to find a suitable label that matches your application.
They all use chemically treated paper to create the image. Usually, a white or light coloured paper is impregnated with a clear coating that changes to black or a dark colour when exposed to heat. Labels of different colours are available in this media format. In recent times a synthetic stock has been created that can also be used.
The printer selectively heats areas of the label creating a dark image. The heating is performed by small elements in a printhead. The printhead is in contact with the label as is moves through its path. These heating elements are normally in the form of rectangular dots that are conducive to printing the bar patterns in a bar code. Thermal printers are often rated by the speed at which the labels can be printed. Typical speeds range from 2” to 12” per second.
A disadvantage of this technology is that the chemicals in the paper still remain active when the label is printed. These chemicals can react to heat and ambient light over a period of time and will corrupt the image. As these labels are in direct contact with the head and are more abrasive than standard nontreated labels, in time they wear on the printhead. The advantages are that it uses no ribbon so there is a cost saving in consumables and the image is smear resistant. In general, these are used widely in short life requirements such as transport labels and in refrigeration product labeling – where the heat or sunlight issues do not come into effect.
THERMAL TRANSFER PRINTING
The same basic technique is used for Thermal Transfer Printing as is used in Direct Thermal Printing only a plain “untreated” label is used with a Foil Ink Ribbon. With this method, the printhead is in direct contact with the ribbon and this releases its ink onto the label when heat is applied. The ribbon is run between the Thermal Head and the Label and thus the head is protected from any abrasion.
The resulting image is stable and unaffected by heat or exposure to light. Thermal transfer printers are just as versatile as direct thermal printers with the additional advantage that a large range of materials can be used for the label stock, this includes; gloss and matt paper, gloss and matt synthetic stocks, foils, as well as clear or coloured plastics. In all cases, the ribbon is matched for the material used, however, the process remains the same. The combination of label and ribbon allows the resultant image to be made suitable for outdoor use, use with chemicals, use in temperature affected areas etc. and the printhead life is longer. The only drawback is the requirement for additional consumables i.e. the ribbon.
* PLEASE NOTE: Most Thermal Transfer Printers are able to perform the function of a Direct Thermal Printer as well! The ribbon is simply not installed and method of print selected as Direct Thermal in the Label properties.
SELECTING THE RIGHT SIZE OF PRINTER
There are basically four sizes of barcode Printer available:
Lite Industrial Printer
Full Industrial/Mission Critical Printer
All of the above sizes will print you a 100% accurate barcode – the only real difference will be the speed that it performs this print process and the efficiency that it achieves the results – and this can translate to the cost per label.
A Mobile Printer is designed to be functional in its ability to be carried to the task location. For this reason, it usually is very small to be as lite as possible and therefore it will not take large amounts of labels. It is therefore NOT suitable for large batches of printing. They also operate on batteries and all of these considerations need to be assessed in your final choice.
Desktop Printers are ideal for situations that are tight on space, but require high-quality, reliable direct thermal or thermal-transfer printing. Engineered for ease-of-use, these printers offer a broad range of connectivity options, making them ideal for countless low to mid volume label, receipt or wristband printing applications. Desktop Printers are a favorite for courier freight label generation and well as office label generation. These are the most economical to buy of all of the barcode printers and are made of plastic to keep the purchase cost down. As such they are NOT the most robust and their small size also limits label runs. They are recommended for printing up to 1000 labels per week. Consumables are sold on smaller rolls and therefore generally cost more to buy.
A Lite Industrial Printer allows for fast, high-volume printing perfect for item labeling, package labeling, shipping and compliance labeling. The larger size allows the use of larger label and ribbon rolls so comsumables are kept at the lowest price. These printers have a duty cycle of approximately 100000 labels per week.
Full Industrial / Mission Critical Printers offer unparalleled speed and print quality for barcode, text and graphics print quality on labels, invoices, and packing slips. Designed to survive in the harshest industrial environments, these printers perform consistently in 24/7, mission-critical operations. If you rely on your barcode printer to get your products out the door – this is the range for you. These printers are also designed for service and feature replaceable components for field service requirements.
RIBBONS AND LABELS
The quality and durability of the printed image is the most important element of the bar code system. Poor quality printed barcodes result in slow first time read rates or on some occasions a mis-read or no read at all!. There are lots of combinations of ribbons and labels. These must be matched to withstand the environment in which the label is to be used. The barcode must be readable for its entire expected life cycle. This may be from days to years. There are two broad classifications of face material; paper and synthetics. Paper is the most common and least expensive. It can be coated or uncoated to meet most requirements. Synthetic materials are better suited to applications where the label will be subjected to excessive abrasion, heat, chemicals, rain, snow, or other destructive elements.
LABEL DESIGN SOFTWARE
If you need to print labels on Thermal Transfer or Direct Thermal printers, a label design package such as Bartender, LabelView, Nice Labels or a huge range of others can be used. These all supports over 400 different barcode printers and over 300 Windows printers. It will allow you to easily design your label, insert text, barcodes and graphics in minutes.
See our Guide to Label Design Software Guide in the Resource section of our website for more details!