Direct Thermal Printers - A Buying Guide

Thermal ticket printers and how to maintain them

Understanding how direct thermal printers work and the maintenance costs involved helps you make an informed decision on your thermal ticket printer purchase. Here in Part 1 of this whitepaper, we discuss two types of thermal printers and considerations for the proper care of your printer.

Types of direct thermal printers

Direct thermal printers are the most commonly used ticket printers on the market. These printers do not require toner or ink cartridges, and instead, produce a printed image by selectively heating specially coated thermal paper. The ticket stock heats up through the printhead which generates heat in the shape or pattern provided. The heating of the ticket stock turns the paper black when the thermal coating reacts with the heating element.

Two tickets printed on thermal ticket stockThe majority of direct thermal printers are able to handle 200dpi and 300dpi printing resolutions. A printer's dpi ( "dots per inch" ) refers to how many dots per inch they are able to print. Printers with a higher dpi will print images and text more clearly. However, print speed requires trade-offs. High quality printers offering 600dpi allow for highly detailed images and graphics. As a result, the print speed for these printers is much slower than lower dpi printers. Therefore, 600dpi thermal printers are not recommended in high volume environments.

A thermal printer's speed is measured in ips (inches per second). Most standard thermal printers operate at a speed of 8ips, but some models are able to handle faster speeds. The faster the stock passes through the printer, the less time the printhead has to heat and activate the stock. Faster speeds result in slightly lower print quality. Advanced thermal printers allow the user to control both the heat level of the printhead and the speed of the direct thermal printer.

The majority of direct thermal printers include optional cutters available. Cutters enable automatic cuts between each individual ticket as printing occurs. Thermal printers equipped with optical readers read the black marks printed on the back of the stock. These pre-printed bars help the printer determine the beginning and end of the ticket. The size and position of the black mark will depend on the printer model and manufacturer.

How thermal transfer printers work

A thermal transfer printer operates with the same basic printing principle as a direct thermal printer. However, the printer does not print directly on the ticket stock, but rather melts a coating of thermal transfer ribbon onto the paper's surface.

Thermal transfer printers do not require thermal coated stock, as the transfer ribbon adheres to a variety of paper textures and plastic substrates. This process allows for the customization of the non-coated back of your thermal ticket stock. Ticket backs often include paid advertising -- resulting in more revenue for your organization. Consequently, the flexibility of changing advertisers on ticket backs frees you from the commitment of ordering large quantities of pre-printed stock with a single advertiser. Transfer ribbons are sold in customizable rolls, prices depend on color, material, and length of the roll.

Maintaining your direct thermal printers

The average life of a printhead is approximately 2.4 million inches but will vary depending on factors such as humidity, dust, heat, moisture, and lack of proper maintenance procedures. Routine cleaning will extend the life of your printhead and maintain optimal print quality. Many direct thermal printer manufacturers offer annual maintenance plans that can help cover parts and printer repairs. A standard printer warranty covers your printer for one year after the purchase date.

Replacement of costly, direct thermal printer parts affects budgets, so understanding how to care for your printer and performing routine maintenance will save money. The following is a list of items that add to the print head's wear and tear:

  • Abrasion: the process of wearing down the printhead through friction caused by the passing thermal stock. A print head's protective coating will eventually wear off due to normal use, regardless of maintenance and printing conditions.
  • Corrosion: a gradual deterioration of the print head will occur because of inferior media, incorrect cleaning agents and the environment.
  • Contamination: particles such as dust and dirt can damage the printhead.
  • Moisture: humid or damp environments will drastically reduce printhead life.
  • Residue: Inferior thermal stock, incorrect cleaning agents, and security foils will cause buildup over time, which will affect print quality.
  • Dead Pixels: refer to sections on the print head that no longer heat up, causing the printer to no longer print on the affected areas.

Routine Maintenance extends the life & improves print quality

  • Cleaning frequency depends on the type of direct thermal printer, environment, and print volume. For moderate daily use, thermal printers should be cleaned two to three times per week, and daily if your stock is heavily used on coated paper or with color or security foils.
  • Extreme caution should be taken when cleaning your print heads. All jewelry and sharp objects should be removed prior to working on thermal printers to prevent accidental damage. A scratched print head is impossible to repair and will mar the results of your printed ticket.
  • Only approved cleaning solutions such as Isopropyl Alcohol should be used, as these type of solvents evaporate quickly without leaving residue.
  • Thermal cleaning swabs are readily available and come pre-dipped in alcohol. Swabs are easy to use and can access most hard to reach parts. Gently rub the printhead and rollers with the swab until all visible residue disappears.
  • Compressed-Air dusters can effectively remove dust and large particles from the printer.

Following basic maintenance procedures for direct thermal printers will extend the life of your printer. Please refer to the direct thermal printers' user manual for further and more detail instructions and recommendations.

Consider your print needs, options for advertising, and costs before purchasing direct thermal printers. With proper maintenance, your venue will maximize the life of your printer and the return of your investment.

Additional Thermal Ticket Resources

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