I need to print bar code labels - what are the options ?
Generally, there are two main approaches to producing your own bar
a. Using office printers
Buying an "off the shelf" bar code labelling and printing
package that can run on your office PC, along with your existing
dot matrix, ink jet or laser printer, is a viable option for many.
The principal benefit of this approach is the relatively low initial
However, you may need to consider the following issues:
» You will need to load the printer with label stationery
so, unless you dedicate a printer to the labelling task, other printing
must be suspended.
» You are generally limited to paper labels, not ideal if
you need robust and scratch-resistant labels.
» Printing one label may waste blank labels, particularly
with laser printers. This approach is therefore less suitable if
you are likely to require varying quantities of labels "on
» Labels for office printers are often of the permanent adhesive
type, which may not be ideal for all applications.
» Dot matrix printing of bar codes requires some care. Because
each bar is made up of dots, it is not always possible to produce
the dead straight dark edges that bar code readers generally require.
However, with care it is possible to produce readable codes on even
a 9-pin dot matrix printer. 24-pin printers give better results.
» Ink jet printers can suffer from similar problems as dot
matrix printers. Problems arise especially when printing on absorbent
paper as the ink can spread on the page causing the edges of the
bars to be blurred.
» Beware also that worn printer ribbons, damaged pins and
low ink/toner are common causes of badly printed and unreadable
b. Using "on demand" thermal transfer printers
These are special printers designed to print bar codes (and other
data) onto labels or tags supplied in rolls. Most thermal transfer
printers can print onto a variety of label types of differing sizes
and materials. It is usually possible to find a label type that
meets a given need. Other benefits provided by thermal transfer
» On demand printing, giving the precise number of labels
you need at a given time without wastage.
» When used with suitable label stock and ribbons, thermal
transfer printers can produce very durable, scratch-resistant labels.
» Thermal transfer printers normally produce very high quality
bar codes of good definition.
» Speed; these printers can print labels very fast, often
up to 26cms of label material per second, making them ideal for
high volume applications.
The biggest downside to thermal transfer printers is the higher
initial cost. Because these are specialist printers that are not
made in the same mass produced quantities as office printers, they
do cost more. However, it is often worth considering the overall
running cost, in terms of cost per label, over the expected payback
period. The higher initial cost can often be significantly offset
by a lower overall cost per label. When volume label production
is required, thermal transfer is usually the best and most cost-effective
If you choose thermal transfer printing, you will also need to consider
software to drive the printer. The two main approaches here are
either to use a PC package that supports the appropriate printer,
or to drive the printer directly from your application software.
Driving the printer directly is not as complex as it might at first
seem. Thermal transfer printers are usually controlled by sending
the printer special control commands in a similar fashion to the
way ordinary printers are software controlled. Most bar code label
printers are supplied with Windows drivers. If you are producing
your own software for the main application (or having it produced
for you), it should be quite viable to include the correct sequences
to control the printer.
Some label printers are 'direct thermal' and some are 'thermal
transfer' - what's the difference ?
Direct thermal printing uses coated paper that turns dark when exposed
to heat, similar to the older type of fax paper. As the paper passes
over the print head, the image is "burned" onto the paper.
The major downside to direct thermal printing is that you need to
use specially coated paper. Also, the images on coated paper will
eventually fade, giving a useful life sometimes of no more than
three months, although full barrier coated labels can last for up
to two years.
Thermal transfer is a different technique. Here a ribbon (also known
as a "foil") is used. The ribbon consists of a clear liner
or carrier coated with wax, resin or a wax-resin compound. It is
heated by the print head and the wax or resin transfers onto the
label creating the image. Labels produced in this way are much more
durable than direct thermal labels. Resin based ribbons especially
provide a very durable print that can be resistant to abrasion and
With thermal transfer you are not limited to paper for your labels.
Filmic bases such as polyester provide labels with long life and
substantial resistance to abrasion and chemicals for harsh environments.
Can I use pre-printed labels ?
The answer here is very dependent on the nature of the application
and what you are trying to achieve. Clearly, if you need variable
data - or unique and specific information that is not previously
known - represented in your bar code, then pre-printing may not
be a viable option.
On the other hand, if you are only intending to use the bar code
as a form of identifier, then buying sequentially numbered pre-printed
labels (e.g. 1000 labels numbered 000 to 999) can be highly cost
effective. For example, in an asset identification application,
you might assign the bar coded number 4567 to the office photocopier
by attaching the bar code label to the copier and recording that
this number is now the identifier for this item. Your asset database
will now know that the number 4567 represents the photocopier; once
a number is assigned, it does not change and remains unique to that
One note of caution though: ensure that you keep a record of the
ranges of numbers you have used and make sure that you never re-use
the same number twice - otherwise great confusion could ensue! Naturally,
if your application requires that "all of x have the same number",
then identical pre-printed labels would be required.