Barcode Label Printer


A label printer is a computer printer that prints on self-adhesive label material and/or card-stock (tags). A label printer with built-in keyboard and display for stand-alone use (not connected to a separate computer) is often called a label maker. Label printers are different from ordinary printers because they need to have special feed mechanisms to handle rolled stock, or tear sheet (fanfold) stock. Common connectivity for label printers include RS-232 serial, Universal Serial Bus (USB), parallel, Ethernet and various kinds of wireless.

Label printers have a wide variety of applications, including supply chain management, retail price marking, packaging labels, blood and laboratory specimen marking, and fixed assets management.

Label printers use a wide range of label materials, including paper and synthetic polymer (“plastic”) materials. Several types of print mechanisms are also used, including laser and impact, but thermal printer mechanisms are probably the most common. Two types of thermal printer are seen:

  • Direct Thermal – Uses heat sensitive paper (similar to thermal fax paper). Direct thermal labels tend to fade over time (typically 6 to 12 months); if exposed to heat, direct sunlight or chemical vapors, the life is shortened. Therefore, direct thermal labels are primarily used for short duration applications, such as shipping labels.
  • Thermal Transfer – Uses heat to transfer ink from ribbon onto the label for a permanent print. Some thermal transfer printers are also capable of direct thermal printing. Using a PVC vinyl can increase the longevity of the label life as seen in pipe markers and industrial safety labels found in much of the market place today.

There are three grades of ribbon for use with a thermal transfer printers:

  • Wax is the most popular with some smudge resistance, and is suitable for matte and semi-gloss paper labels.
  • Wax / Resin is smudge resistant, suitable for semi-gloss paper and some synthetic labels.
  • Resin is scratch and chemical resistant, suitable for coated synthetic labels.

When printing on continuous label stock, there is a tendency for the print location to shift slightly from label to label. To ensure registration of the print area with the target media, many label printers use a sensor that detects a gap, notch, line or perforation between labels. This allows the printer to adjust the intake of label stock so that the print aligns correctly with the media.


Types of label printers

  • Desktop label printers are usually designed for light- to medium-duty use with a roll of stock up to 4″ wide. They are quiet and inexpensive.
  • Commercial label printers can typically hold a larger roll of stock (up to 8″ wide) and are geared for medium-volume printing.
  • Industrial label printers are designed for heavy-duty, continuous operation in warehouses, distribution centers and factories.
  • Industrial portable label printers are designed for heavy-duty operation on location. Examples of applications are labeling for electrical installations, construction sites, production floors where there are no computers.
  • RFID readers are specialized label printers that print and encode at the same time on RFID transponders (tags) enclosed in paper or printable synthetic materials. RFID tags need to have printed information for backwards compatibility with barcode systems, so humans can identify the tag.
  • Label printer applicators are designed to automate the labeling process. These systems are common in manufacturing and warehousing facilities that require cases and pallets to be labeled for shipping.
  • Label software is computer software which runs on a general-purpose personal computer, and is designed to create and/or format labels for printing. The software can use native OS printer drivers, or embed drivers in the software, bypassing the OS print subsystem. It may work with dedicated label printers as described in this article, or use sheet- or continuous-fed labels in a general-purpose computer printer.

An electronic label maker, depicting buttons, LCD screen, and sample thermal label.

  • Personal label printers or label makers are handheld or small desktop devices. They are intended for home office, small office, or small business use. The cost of the printers is generally very low, making them popular with low volume users; but they print on special tapes, often thermal, which are usually expensive. In the past, mechanical systems which worked by embossing a colored plastic tape, called embossing tape, were common. A hammer in the shape of the letter caused a letter-shaped extrusion on the opposite side of the tape. The raised plastic would discolor, providing visual contrast. Today, this type has been almost completely displaced by electronic thermal transfer devices with built-in keyboard and display, and an integrated cartridge containing the label material (and print ribbon, if used).


Thermal transfer printing is a digital printing process in which material is applied to paper (or some other material) by melting a coating of ribbon so that it stays glued to the material on which the print is applied. It contrasts with direct thermal printing where no ribbon is present in the process. It was invented by SATO corporation around the late 1940s.[citation needed]


Color thermal printers

Thermal printing technology can be used to produce color images by adhering a wax-based ink onto paper. As the paper and ribbon travel in unison beneath the thermal print head, the wax-based ink from the transfer ribbon melts onto the paper. When cooled, the wax is permanently adhered to the paper. This type of thermal printer uses a like-sized panel of ribbon for each page to be printed, regardless of the contents of the page. Monochrome printers have a black panel for each page to be printed, while color printers have either three (CMY) or four (CMYK) colored panels for each page. Unlike dye-sublimation printers, these printers cannot vary the dot intensity, which means that images must be dithered. Although acceptable in quality, the printouts from these printers cannot compare with modern inkjet printers and color laser printers. Currently, this type of printer is rarely used for full-page printing, and is now employed for industrial label printing due to its waterfastness and speed. These printers are considered highly reliable due to their small number of moving parts. Printouts from color thermal printers are sensitive to abrasion, as the wax ink can be scraped, rubbed off, or smeared.


Thermal printing (or direct thermal printing) is a digital printing process which produces a printed image by selectively heating coated thermochromic paper, or thermal paper as it is commonly known, when the paper passes over the thermal print head. The coating turns black in the areas where it is heated, producing an image. Two-colour direct thermal printers can print both black and an additional colour (often red) by applying heat at two different temperatures.

Thermal transfer printing is a very different method that uses a heat-sensitive ribbon instead of heat-sensitive paper, but uses similar thermal print heads.[1]

Thermal printing is notable for being the only[verification needed] form of (non-embossing) printing which involves no ink or toner.



A thermal printer comprises these key components:

  • Thermal head: generates heat; prints on paper
  • Platen: a rubber roller that feeds paper
  • Spring: applies pressure to the thermal head, causing it to contact the thermosensitive paper
  • Controller boards: for controlling the mechanism

In order to print, thermo-sensitive paper is inserted between the thermal head and the platen. The printer sends an electrical current to the heating elements of the thermal head, which generate heat. The heat activates the thermo-sensitive coloring layer of the thermosensitive paper, which changes color where heated. Such a printing mechanism is known as a thermal system or direct system. The heating elements are usually arranged as a matrix of small closely spaced dots—thermal printers are actually dot-matrix printers, though they are not so called.

The paper is impregnated with a solid-state mixture of a dye and a suitable matrix; a combination of a fluoran leuco dye and an octadecylphosphonic acid is an example. When the matrix is heated above its melting point, the dye reacts with the acid, shifts to its colored form, and the changed form is then conserved in metastable state when the matrix solidifies back quickly enough (a process known as thermochromism).

Controller boards are embedded with firmware to manage the thermal printer mechanisms. The firmware can manage multiple bar code types, graphics and logos. They enable the user to choose between different resident fonts (also including Asian fonts) and character sizes. Controller boards can drive various sensors such as paper low, paper out, door open and so on, and they are available with a variety of interfaces, such as RS-232, parallel, USB and wireless. For point of sale application some boards can also control the cash drawer.


Thermal printer used in seafloor exploration

Thermal printers print more quietly and usually faster than impact dot matrix printers. They are also smaller, lighter and consume less power, making them ideal for portable and retail applications. Roll-based printers can be rapidly refilled. Commercial applications of thermal printers include filling station pumps, information kiosks, point of sale systems, voucher printers in slot machines, print on demand labels for shipping and products, and for recording live rhythm strips on hospital cardiac monitors.

Many popular microcomputer systems from the late 1970s and early 1980s had first-party and aftermarket thermal printers available for them – such as the Atari 822 printer for the Atari 8-bit systems, the Apple Silentype for the Apple II and the Alphacom 32 for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and ZX81. They often used unusually-sized supplies (10CM wide rolls for the Alphacom 32 for instance) and were often used for making permanent records of information in the computer (graphics, program listings etc.), rather than for correspondence.

Through the 1990s many fax machines used thermal printing technology. Toward the beginning of the 21st century, however, thermal wax transfer, laser, and inkjet printing technology largely supplanted thermal printing technology in fax machines, allowing printing on plain paper.

Thermal printers are still commonly used in seafloor exploration and engineering geology due to their portability, speed, and ability to create continuous reels or sheets. Typically, thermal printers found in offshore applications are used to print realtime records of side scan sonar and sub-seafloor seismic imagery. In data processing, thermal printers are sometimes used to quickly create hard copies of continuous seismic or hydrographic records stored in digital SEG Y or XTF form.

The Game Boy Printer, released in 1998, was a small thermal printer used to print out certain elements from some Game Boy games.

Early formulations of the thermo-sensitive coating used in thermal paper were sensitive to incidental heat, abrasion, friction (which can cause heat, thus darkening the paper), light (which can fade printed images), and water. Later thermal coating formulations are far more stable; in practice, thermally printed text should remain legible at least 50 days.[citation needed]

In many hospitals in the United Kingdom, many common ultrasound sonogram devices output the results of the scan onto thermal paper. This can cause problems if the parents wish to preserve the image by laminating it, as the heat of most laminators will darken the entire page—this can be tested for beforehand on an unimportant thermal print. An option is to make and laminate a permanent ink duplicate of the image.

Health concerns

A phenol-free thermal cash receipt

Reports began surfacing of studies in the 2000s finding the oestrogen-related chemical Bisphenol A (“BPA”) mixed in with thermal (and some other) papers. While the health concerns are very uncertain, various health and science oriented political pressure organizations such as the Environmental Working Group have pressed for these versions to be pulled from market, but BPA-free and totally phenol-free thermal paper is available.[2][3]


A barcode printer is a computer peripheral for printing barcode labels or tags that can be attached to, or printed directly on, physical objects. Barcode printers are commonly used to label cartons before shipment, or to label retail items with UPCs or EANs.[1]

The most common barcode printers employ one of two different printing technologies. Direct thermal printers use a printhead to generate heat that causes a chemical reaction in specially designed paper that turns the paper black. Thermal transfer printers also use heat, but instead of reacting the paper, the heat melts a waxy or resin substance on a ribbon that runs over the label or tag material. The heat transfers ink from the ribbon to the paper. Direct thermal printers are generally less expensive, but they produce labels that can become illegible if exposed to heat, direct sunlight, or chemical vapors.

Barcode printers are designed for different markets. Industrial barcode printers are used in large warehouses and manufacturing facilities. They have large paper capacities, operate faster and have a longer service life. For retail and office environments, desktop barcode printers are most common.


Zebra Technologies is a manufacturer of thermal bar code label and receipt printers, RFID smart label printer/encoders, card and kiosk printers, based in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Zebra has products in 100 countries around the world. Zebra-brand printers are used by more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Zebra was incorporated in 1969 as ‘Data Specialties Incorporated’, a manufacturer of high-speed electromechanical products. The company changed its focus to specialty on-demand labeling and ticketing systems in 1982, and became ‘Zebra Technologies Corporation’ in 1986. Zebra became a publicly traded company in 1991. Today, with more than $800 million in annual sales, the company specialises in speciality printer products, printer supplies (consumables) and RFID technologies.

The company with its headquarters in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has facilities worldwide, for example in Vernon Hills, Illinois; Wisconsin; Rhode Island; California; Bourne End and Preston, England; Heerenveen in the Netherlands; Singapore and Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou in China.

In October 1998, Zebra Technologies merged with Eltron International.[3]

All of Zebra’s design and manufacturing sites are certified to the ISO 9001 international standard for quality management. Since 2008, Zebra has outsourced the majority of its printer manufacturing to Jabil Circuit in Guangzhou, China.

Zebra’s printers make use of a specialized page formatting language called Zebra Programming Language (ZPL). Some printers also use a “Zebra Basic Interpreter” (ZBI 2) to allow the user to capture and manipulate incoming data for use in printing. Labels and documents can be designed using the ¨ZebraDesigner Pro” label design software and printers can be remotely configured and controlled using the ¨ZebraNet Bridge¨ printer management software.

On September 14, 2004, RedPrairie’s RFID Igniter or RFID Accelerator compliance systems provided EPC codes and product information to the Zebra OEM print engine for encoding on the RFID chip and printing on the smart label.[4]



Datamax-O’Neil is a manufacturer of barcode label printers, used mostly in industrial and commercial applications. Datamax was formed in 1977 and the main manufacturing plant is in Orlando, Florida, USA.

In 2005, Datamax was acquired by the Dover Corporation who own a number of technology based companies within the Auto-ID industry. Dover acquired O’Neil Product Development in 2006. Datamax and O’Neil merged into one company in 2009 and became Datamax-O’Neil.

The printers made by Datamax are either thermal printers or thermal transfer label printers, these printers are almost exclusively used for the production of barcode labels for products and packaging, within manufacturing plants and warehouse and logistics operations. Examples of these barcode labels are most likely to be on the outside of boxes and cartons, or attached to parcels delivered by carriers such as FedEx or UPS.

Datamax make a range of printers all based on the same technologies. Although basically of the same type the printers are grouped into classes which indicate the environment in which they are to be used.

  • office or desktop
  • healthcare, education or light industrial
  • heavy industrial, manufacturing or shipping.

Standardisation of use has caused these printers to be manufactured in three widths, 4 inches, 6 inches and 8 inches wide. These widths are based on the most common label sizes used in product and shipping labels, although any label size, less than the maximum width, can be printed on each printer. i.e. a 3 inch label can be printed on a 4 inch printer, or two x 3 inch labels can be printed, side by side on a 6 inch printer, or a 7 inch label on an 8 inch printer. This allows for a very wide range of label to be produced from the basic 3 widths of printer. However the 4 inch wide printers are by far the most common size used worldwide, across all manufacturers of thermal printers

The versatility of the printing process also allows the whole image to be rotated, so that the label can be printed sideways or upside down (upside down labels are most commonly needed if they are to be used with an automatic label applicator). However barcodes printed sideways, sometimes referred to a “ladder” barcodes, are normally not printed as accurately, due to the way the print mechanism works.