Produce Color Labels On-Demand With Information From Color Label Solutions

Thermal Transfer VS Color Inkjet

Color labels cost too much or something similar is probably the most common objections I hear from people. Most people “know” that monochrome thermal transfer labels are much less expensive than print-on-demand color labels.

After comparing printing labels with color lasers to the Epson inkjet color label printers (BLOG: Laser Versus Inkjet), I wanted to look at the cost differences between thermal transfer printers and the print-on-demand color label printers from Epson.

Inkjet Coating

As background, I decided to gain a better understanding of the differences between the types of thermal transfer ribbons; wax, wax/resin, and resin. This Wikipedia entry covers the basics;

* Wax ribbons are for printing onto paper labels. These labels must be kept dry and must not be abraded or subjected to certain chemicals or oil, which would dissolve the wax image.
* Wax/resin ribbons produce a finer image on very smooth paper or coated paper labels. The printed image is much more durable than wax, but can still only stand slight contact with water.
* Pure resin ribbons are formulated to print onto plastic labels such as polyester, polypropylene, and vinyl. The “ink” is designed to slightly dissolve into or adhere to the plastic surface of the label and becomes extremely durable, depending on the plastic material and ribbon used.

To complete this analysis, I first looked at the cost of thermal transfer ribbons. The first thing I found is that the cost of thermal ribbons has increased significantly. In this article from VDC ( Capacity for Thermal Ribbons to Create Opportunity for Direct Thermal Solutions), they discussed the impact of raw material constraints on prices for thermal ribbons. It seems the same films used in thermal transfer ribbons are being used in more profitable applications such as flat screen displays. VDC predicts users may switch to a different technology away from thermal transfer.

And here is a 5% to 10% price increase from a specific manufacturer of thermal transfer ribbons ( This same manufacturer suggests price increases will continue.

To look at the cost of ribbons, I found on the Zebra website Services/Supplies/Ribbons a list of recommended ribbons for the ZM400. From this page, you can click “Buy Ribbon Supplies” to get the price of these products. From this page, I found the other consumable cost for thermal transfer printers; print heads.

After getting the prices for the different ribbons and printhead, I converted the costs to MSI (thousand square inches). By making this conversion, I can compare the printing cost between thermal transfer, laser and inkjet printers. One key point to remember: laser and inkjet printers are rated on ISO standard images that cover a small percentage of the page (see sample images in this post) (BLOG: Laser Versus Inkjet). Thermal Transfer printers cost the same amount for 1% or 100% coverage.

For the thermal transfer ribbons and printhead, the cost per MSI ranged from $0.31 for the standard wax ribbon to $2.71 for the premium resin ribbon.

Inkjet Coating

When adding in the costs per MSI for the laser and inkjet printers, you’ll find the costs of many of the monochrome thermal transfer printers are actually higher.

Inkjet Coating

Based on this analysis, if you or your customers are using resin or wax/resin ribbons, you may save money by switching to the Epson TM-C3400 or the new GP-C831. Assuming the type of coverage depicted in the ISO charts, the new GP-C831 may be the least expensive means to print labels on-demand, either monochrome or color.

After reviewing this analysis, you may want to rethink the actual cost of thermal transfer printing; and adding color may not be that much more expensive. If interested in learning more about the cost of printing or adding color to labels, give me a call to discuss.

Posted at 10:53 AM
Guy Mikel

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