In the early days of the computer age, supermarkets and other retailers began using various point-of-sale (POS) systems. This increased the demand for durable barcode printing. Initially, direct thermal printers offered a solution, but businesses soon realized that direct thermal labels would only last a few days if exposed to heat or sunlight.

In 1981, SATO Corporation invented the world’s first thermal transfer label printer. The SATO M-2311 forever changed the way inventory is tracked, shipped, and sold.

What Is Thermal Transfer Printing?

Thermal transfer printing uses heat and a thermal printhead to transfer ink onto a material. As the name implies, thermal transfer printing utilizes a heat-sensitive ribbon. As this ribbon passes over the hot printhead, the ink melts. It is then transferred onto the substrate, resulting in the desired text or image. Ribbons are often made from resin, wax, or a wax-ribbon compound. Different ribbons are available for different projects, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

In addition to the thermal printhead, all thermal transfer printers share the following components:

  • Ribbon unwind: The primary function of the ribbon unwind is to hold the thermal transfer ribbon in place. The ribbon unwind is pulled under the thermal printhead by the platen roller.
  • Label unwind: The label unwind is located behind the ribbon unwind. Its primary purpose is to hold the roll of labels in place and feed the labels through during the printing process.
  • Platen roller: The platen roller is directly under the thermal printhead. It is normally a stationary roller that has multiple functions. A motor spins the platen roller, guiding the thermal transfer ribbon and label under the printhead.
  • Ribbon take-up spindle: The ribbon take-up spindle collects the used ribbon, enabling quick and easy disposal.
  • Ribbon sensor: The ribbon sensor ensures that the thermal transfer ribbon is in place. It also detects when the thermal transfer ribbon roll is nearly depleted. Some thermal transfer printers use an end core sensor instead to detect the lack of motion at the end of every roll, signaling the computer to cease printing.

Compared to direct thermal printing, thermal transfer printing offers some key advantages. Thermal transfer printing can print high-resolution images that are easily scanned. The images are also durable, ensuring that they will be readable from the moment they are printed to their final point of sale. The printers themselves are also more durable than laser printers, making them more suitable for industrial environments.

Thermal transfer printing is widely used for printing barcodes, expiration dates, serial numbers, identification numbers, and tracking numbers. Most thermal transfer printers are either flathead or near edge, which we will discuss below.

Near Edge vs. Flathead: Which Is Better?

There are two main types of thermal transfer printers: near edge and flathead. While both use the same fundamental process, their components are positioned in slightly different ways, achieving different results.

A flathead thermal printer positions the printhead in a flat, near 180° orientation in relation to the substrate. This means the heating component is located in the middle of the printhead. The ink takes seconds to solidify without smearing.

Key attributes of flathead printing are:

  • Fixed printhead
  • Typical print speeds ranging from 6 to 16 inches per second (ips)
  • Print resolution ranging from 203 to 600 dots per inch (dpi)
  • Can print on a variety of substrates (vinyl, paper, synthetic, polypropylene)
  • Can use wax, resin, or wax resin transfer ribbon

A near edge printer changes the orientation of the printhead. Instead of being flat against the substrate, the near edge printhead is placed at an angle and called a floating printhead. The heating component is located at the edge of the printhead, which allows for much faster printing and the ability to print on thicker substrates. Floating printheads have less surface contact, requiring more frequent cleanings.

Key attributes of near edge printing are:

  • Floating printhead
  • Ribbon and substrate are instantly separated after transfer melting
  • Can work on thick substrates up to 0.023 mm
  • Fast printing speeds up to 40 ips
  • Contains a ribbon saver feature
  • Can use resin or wax resin ribbon

Flathead and Near Edge Label Printer Use Cases

Near edge label printers can be more than twice as fast as their flathead counterparts. Given that near edge printers can print faster, it is often the preferred option in high-volume applications. The floating print head also provides the extra benefit of being able to print on thicker substrates without needing to make any adjustments. The printer automatically calibrates itself.

Flathead printers have their own advantages for low-volume production. Given that they use a standard form of printing, they can print at higher resolutions. Generally, flathead printers are also slightly less expensive. For operations that don’t demand high volumes, flathead printers may be preferable simply for the cost savings. However, this can cause scalability limitations as the business grows.

Near Edge vs. Flathead Industry Applications

Different businesses in the same industry may have different preferences when it comes to choosing a near edge or flathead printer. These lists generalize which printer is most common in specific industries.

Near Edge Printer Applications

  • High-volume logistic operations
  • Manufacturers with high inventory output
  • Food and beverage
  • Beauty and health
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Textile
  • Horticulture

Flathead Printer Applications

  • Low-volume logistic operations
  • Manufacturers with low inventory output
  • Electronics
  • Automotive
  • Healthcare (patient bracelets, labeling lab samples, etc.)
  • Chemical
  • Home appliance
  • Furniture
  • Power tools and equipment

Near Edge and Flathead Label Considerations

In most industrial applications, near edge printers are preferred for their fast printing speeds and automatic calibration to substrate thickness. They can benefit any operation that demands fast, consistent results. For industries that must print on thicker substrates, near edge printing is the only option. This is the case for most businesses in the horticulture industry. Whether printing on nursery pots or plant tags, most horticulture industries are restricted to printing on thicker materials.

While near edge printing is better suited to thick substrates and flexible packaging, flathead thermal printing may be sufficient for low-volume shipping and labeling applications.

Work With Technicode, Inc.

Technicode has been in the thermal printing business for over 25 years. We provide a variety of printer products, including direct thermal printers, thermal transfer printers, thermal transfer labels, ribbons, paper laser sheets, integrated sheets, and barcode labeling software. Our printing materials are compatible with major brands like Zebra®, SATO®, Datamax®, Monarch®, and more.

All of our products are made in the USA, allowing us to circumvent global supply chain problems. We have multiple distribution centers across the country, which enables us to fulfill orders fast. Whether you are looking for a near edge thermal transfer ribbon supplier or are building a distribution center from the ground up, we can help. No client is too big or too small for our dedicated team.

If you have any questions about our capabilities, feel free to contact us any time.

Brands We Support Include: