If you have ever looked at the tag on an item you’ve purchased from the store, you will have noticed an image of black bars. These lines are referred to as a barcode and a special machine called a barcode printer is necessary to make those labels. A regular computer printer or copier cannot produce barcodes without special upgrades. Even then they are usually limited as to how many barcode symbols they can produce.

Instead either a direct thermal or thermal transfer barcode printer is generally used. Both systems use heat to make the images, but they do so in distinctly different ways.

A direct thermal barcode printer requires special paper that has a chemical reaction with the heat from the print head. This reaction causes the paper to turn black, thereby producing the lines of the barcode. While direct thermal printers are less expensive, they have a couple inherent problems. First, the barcodes can only be printed on the thermal paper. The second issue is with the paper itself: the images can degrade if exposed to direct sunlight, heat or chemical vapours.

A thermal transfer barcode printer costs more, but it allows the option of printing directly onto the material, thus allowing barcodes to be printed on a variety of materials. These printers use heat in two steps. First a resinous substance is melted onto a ribbon, and then the ribbon is run over the material. Heat transfers the ink to the material.

In an effort to enhance security measures, some of the latest generation of barcode printers also includes RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips along with the barcodes. These chips help prevent counterfeiting.

While all these types of printers can produce the same images, their different methods of doing so affect not only where the barcode can be printed, but also the durability of the barcode itself.

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