What is a Thermal Printer?

A worker loading a new label roll in a Zebra thermal printer.

Unlike inkjet or dot matrix printers, thermal printers use a heated printhead to produce an image. This process creates images with high-quality prints that can withstand greater abuse. There are two types of thermal printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Both use a thermal printhead that applies heat to the surface being marked.

Why Consider Thermal Printing?

If you’re printing barcodes—especially on labels, tags or wristbands that have a long lifespan or are exposed to sunlight, moisture or harsh conditions—it’s likely you’re using or considering using thermal printers.

Thermal-based technology is also a great option if you’re looking for:

  • Media flexibility
  • Low-maintenance, durable printers
  • Application flexibility

Alternative technology such as impact printers* are more likely to break in dynamic and industrial environments. They often lack the print quality to produce crisp, consistently scannable barcodes and aren’t optimized for adhesive label media.

*Impact printers operate by striking a metal or plastic head against an ink ribbon. Ex: dot matrix, daisy-wheel and ball printers.

How does a Thermal Printer Work?

There are two types of Thermal Printers:-

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal transfer printers work by using a heated printhead that applies that heat to a ribbon that has a wax or resin coating, depending on the type of media. The heat from the printhead melts the wax or resin and transfers it from the ribbon and onto the media. This is why this process is called thermal transfer. The wax or resin is absorbed by the media so that the image becomes part of the media. This technique provides a high-quality image and durability that is unmatched by other on-demand printing technologies. Thermal transfer printers can accept a wider variety of media than direct thermal models, including paper, polyester and polypropylene materials.

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct thermal printers work by creating images directly on the printed material without using a ribbon, toner or ink. Instead, this method uses chemically treated, heat-sensitive media that blackens when it passes under the thermal printhead. As a result, this media is more sensitive to light, heat and abrasion. And, labels and tags are not as long-lasting. Images can fade over time, and media will darken if overexposed to heat, light or other catalysts.

Neither thermal transfer or direct thermal printers use ink.  Read more about the differences and advantages of Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Printing.

Thermal Printer Models

There are four types of thermal printers:

Mobile Printers

These portable tools are designed to meet your on-the-move barcode printing needs. They should be lightweight, durable and feature wireless connectivity. You should be able to install media easily. They should have an easy to read display, and withstand bangs and bumps. Some mobile printers have incredible durability to withstand sprays of water, immersion, drastic temperature ranges and repeated drops to concrete from a distance.

Mobile printers are ideal for retail, hospitality, healthcare, warehouse management, transportation and manufacturing to print a variety of labels, receipts and tags.

Desktop Printers

Desktop printers are designed to do just that—fit on a desk or other small space. They should require minimal maintenance, be easy to use and offer varying wired and wireless connectivity options. Media should be simple to load.  Desktop printers should be reliable, cost effective and able to handle a moderate level of print jobs. Premium models should evolve with technology and changing business needs.

Desktop printers are ideal for use in retail, healthcare, hospitality, transportation and light manufacturing to print a variety of labels, tags, wristbands and receipts.

Industrial Printers

For more demanding environments and higher volume printing, industrial printers are ideal. Larger in size, they are typically more substantial in construction. They should be easy to integrate into your existing enterprise and intuitive for your teams to operate. Premium models are incredibly rugged and can even support 24/7 environments and critical business operations. They can help you see your entire supply chain in real time, increase efficiencies and leverage Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to gain a competitive advantage. Incredibly rugged models can even support 24/7 environments and critical business operations.

Industrial printers are best suited for use in applications in manufacturing, transportation and logistics, government, retail and healthcare to produce labels and tags.

Print Engines

Print engines are designed to integrate into a print-and-apply system, such as a packaging line. They are typically accompanied by a product sensor to activate printing and an applicator (tamp) to affix the label to the item being marked. Print engines need to be durable workhorses that can perform nonstop. Because they are integrated into a system, you need easy access for speedy maintenance. And, it is ideal to have swappable components that can be removed to keep production lines moving.

Print engines are used in manufacturing, shipping and fulfilment environments to produce labels.

What is a Thermal Printer used for?

Thermal Printers have many uses in a variety of applications across various industries:

Transportation and Logistics 

  • Cross-docking and stocking
  • Picking and packing
  • Shipping and receiving
  • Inventory management
  • Proof of delivery
  • Rental car return


  • Work in process
  • Compliance labeling
  • Parts management
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Traceability
  • Quality assurance


  • Positive patient identification
  • Laboratory/pharmacy management
  • Asset management
  • Accurate specimen labeling
  • ID and access control

Retail and Hospitality

  • Product pricing 
  • Cycle counts
  • Mobile point of sale
  • Proof of purchase
  • Gift and loyalty cards
  • Event and season passes 
  • ID badges
  • Membership cards


  • E-citation
  • Health and human services
  • Emergency management
  • Military supply chain
  • Identity management
  • Code inspections
  • Exchange services

Zebra’s Thermal Transfer and Direct Thermal Solutions

At Zebra, quality and customer input and satisfaction are critical. These are our focus. We’ve been engineering and innovating thermal printers, and associated technologies and solutions, for 50 years. Our customers and partners are our focus groups, benchmarks and driving inspiration.

Zebra has a globally recognized reputation for quality and performance. When you select a Zebra product—such as a mobile, desktop, industrial printer or a print engine—you are selecting a proven solution engineered for your purpose. We offer an extensive portfolio to match your environment, print volume and application needs.

Explore Zebra Thermal Printers