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5 Steps to Selecting the Right Barcode Label Printer for Your Operation

Barcode printing is a mission-critical activity. Barcode label printer solutions are found in every conceivable industry around the world including transportation and logistics, pharmaceuticals, shipping and distribution centers, industrial manufacturing, automotive parts suppliers and more.

These industries require 100% accuracy. Every labeling error can lead to extreme consequences throughout the supply chain.  In order to help you size up and choose the right barcode label printer solution, we have created the following five-step process.  It includes:

  • Define your print volume
  • Define the use of the barcode label
  • Review print technologies for barcode printing
  • Define your needs for connectivity
  • Research the latest technology and innovation

When you take the time to select the right printer for your environment and your barcode application needs, you will ensure improved productivity, printer uptime, and higher quality labels. The five steps to selecting a barcode printer follow:


Step 1: Define Your Print Volume

How many labels will your company print in a day, week, and/or month?  Your print volume will help to determine the size or category of printer you will be evaluating.  The following are/include some general parameters by printer category:

  • Mobile Printers. These printers are designed for demanding printing environments/applications where accuracy and speed are key performance indicators. In this category, there are mobile label and receipt printers.
    • Mobile label printers are used to print barcode labels, receipts or tickets. They are ideal for warehouses, distribution centers, healthcare, and retail in-store environments.
    • Mobile receipt printers are ideal for direct store delivery, field service and sales, in-store mobile checkout, public safety and e-citation applications. 
  • Desktop Printers. These printers are designed for low-volume labeling applications of 2 rolls or 1,000 labels per day. They are ideal for offices, retail, healthcare, small and medium-sized businesses, packing and shipping, and light-duty manufacturing and warehouse environments.
  • Mid-Range Printers. These printers are rugged and reliable, for medium- to high-volume labeling applications of 2,000 to 7,000 labels per day. They are ideal for applications in distribution centers, warehouses, manufacturing operations, and transportation centers.
  • High Performance. These printers are built for critical applications and 24×7 operation. They standup to the most demanding environments typically printing 5,000-10,000 labels per day. They are ideal for warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and healthcare environments.


Step 2: Define the Use of the Barcode Label

Choosing a right barcode label printer begins with understanding and evaluating criteria of where and how the label will be used.  You need to know details like the type surface where the label will be place, temperature extremes, chemicals and life span. These factors will affect the choice of label (e.g., adhesive, face stock, topcoat). The label must be able to withstand its intended environment for the required duration of expected use. Consider the following: 1 2 3 

  • Surface. Different surfaces will affect adhesion. These factors will determine which label adhesive and label material you will need. Labels stick best to clean, smooth, non-porous surfaces. For example, if your surface is rough and unclean, then you will be needing a permanent label adhesive with high initial tack. Surface types include:
    • Shape: Flat, curved, angles
    • Composition: Glass, metal (e.g., stainless steel, powder-coated metal), plastic, paper, corrugated, wood, fabric, polycarbonate,
    • Texture: Rough, smooth, porous, non-porous
    • Cleanliness: Dirt, oil, frost, dust
  • Temperature. When you consider the temperature, you evaluate both the application temperature and the service temperature. Will the label need to withstand being in a freezer or the heat of an oven? Will the label be applied for a product before or after it is frozen? Temperatures outside the range of -65°F to 200°F (-53°C to 93°C) will require thermal transfer labels.
  • Chemical. Consider whether the label will be exposed to chemicals like cleaning solvents, oil, grease, alcohol. For example, a label that is exposed to moderate or extreme chemicals like oil/acetone will require a thermal transfer label with high durability resin to prevent label deterioration.
  • Indoor/Outdoor. Environmental factors will determine the label adhesiveness and print durability. If the label will be outdoors, define factors like exposure to sun, rain, humidity, extreme heat/cold, covered by awnings/roof. If the label is indoors, define factors such as lighting (e.g. UV, fluorescent, sky light), temperature (e.g. freezer, warehouse, storage, retail).For example, products that are exposed to outdoor rain/sun should use a thermal transfer synthetic material which provides the durability to survive extreme environments.
  • Regulatory Requirements. It is important to understand whether the label will need to meet specific regulatory agency requirements such as UL, CSA, RoHS, REACH, MIL-SPEC and SAE.Each agency has specific rules governing virtually every aspect of a part or assembly which will include even the label specifications. You will need to understand these specifications when selecting label material.
  • Lifespan. When discussing the lifespan with labels, you need to consider shelf life and service life. Shelf life denotes the length of time a label will be stored before it is unfit for use. Service life is the minimum length of time that a label will need to be affixed on a surface when it is being used for its intended purpose. Label materials typically have a life span of one-year when stored at 72°F/22°C and 50% relative humidity.
  • Label Size. Where will the label be used? Will it be used for a patient wristband, clothing, container, or as a shipping label?The size of your label will be used to determine the printhead size and printer dots per inch (DPI). Larger labels will require large printheads while small labels will require a higher print resolution (i.e., higher DPI) reserve the barcode quality.
  • Industry. Label barcode printers are best suited for transportation and logistics, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, shipping and distribution centers, industrial manufacturing, automotive parts suppliers, and applications that are regulated and require high precision and error-free printing.You should know the expectations of the industry and tap into your industry groups responsible for label specifications.Choosing the wrong label type can lower accuracy rates due to barcode label deterioration and misreads.


Step 3: Review Print Technologies for Barcode Printing

When reviewing printers for barcode label printing, it is important to match the print technology with the application and environment.  Labels can be preprinted with UV-cured/flexographic inks or printed in-house as needed.  In this instance, we will focus on printers used for printing labels in-house.  The first three printers can be used for printing barcode labels but are usually not suitable for industrial applications:

  • Laser Printers. They can print high-quality text and graphics on paper/adhesive labels. The density of the barcodes is high and can easily be read by an infrared scanner. Laser printed barcode labels are not suitable for industrial environments. Laser printers cannot produce water/chemical resistant barcode labels.
  • Inkjet Printers. Usually used in high-production settings where barcodes need to be applied at rapid speeds. Inkjet printers can be costly and complicated. These printers require constant supervision to prevent ink jet clogging and to maintain print quality. You cannot print barcodes on some materials or items with dark backgrounds because the ink will bleed and become hard to read. If you choose inkjet as your printer, buy one specifically for barcodes.
  • Dot Matrix Printers. Barcode image is composed of hundreds of dots.They can be an effective solution for a few manufacturing and distribution companies. The printer can print on various surfaces using multi-pass ribbons. The barcodes are low-to-medium density and may not match up to barcode standards. Barcode labels may be hard to read and can blead on the paper. Labels are not durable and cannot withstand water or chemicals.

Now let’s turn our focus to thermal transfer and direct thermal printers. Direct thermal and thermal-transfer printing solutions both use a heated print-head to print on blank labels. Thermal transfer printers can print on a wide selection of surfaces. Overall, thermal label printers are an ideal choice for printing barcodes, text and images because they are very precise and deliver consistent quality with fast speed times. They are usually capable of printing either thermal transfer or direct thermal. Now let’s take a closer look at some of the differences between direct thermal and thermal transfer printers:

  • Direct Thermal Printers. In direct thermal printers, the print-head must be in direct contact with the label material which reacts with the label’s coating to generate a printout.They are highly reliable/durable with few moving parts, which minimizes repair and maintenance. Direct thermal media is sensitive to light, heat and abuse, and typically has a shorter life than thermal transfer. For example, if a label is used on a pallet and exposed to the elements, the surface will darken and make the barcode unreadable.The best use is for applications like shipping labels, patient and visitor identification, receipts, food and beverage items and ticket printing.  Thermal transfer printers that only direct thermal (not using a ribbon) are less costly to purchase because they do not contain hardware necessary for driving and controlling a ribbon. With no ribbon and ribbon hardware components, the printer has fewer parts to wear and/or break, resulting in lower service costs and less downtime over the life of the printer.
  • Thermal Transfer Printers.In thermal transfer printers, the print-head applies heat to an ink ribbon to print. The ribbon is made of wax or resin that is absorbed onto the media surface.It is an ideal choice if you are printing barcodes because thermal technology is very precise. Unlike the direct thermal printers, the thermal transfer printer accepts a wider variety of media including paper, polyester and polypropylene. materials.Media and ribbon must be carefully matched to ensure print performance and durability.There is a wide selection of media-ribbon combinations and specialty adhesives. You can count on the printer to create barcode labels that can stand up to extreme temperatures, ultraviolet exposure, chemicals and more. For example, pharmaceutical products or hazardous materials are ideal candidates for thermal transfer printed labels. Cost is higher than direct thermal printing, but the label readability and endurance is much higher.

Step 4: Define Your Needs for Connectivity

Barcode printers must receive print requests and usually allow for a variety of connectivity options. The following are examples of connectivity that you see by printer category.

  • Mobile Label Printers. USB 2.0, Serial (RS233), Wireless 802,11b/g & 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Mobile Receipt Printers. USB 2.0, Serial (RS233), Bluetooth, Wireless 802,11b/g, Bluetooth, iRDA
  • Desktop Printers. USB 2.0, USB Host 2.0, Ethernet LAN (10/100), Serial (RS233), Parallel, Wireless 802,11b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Mid-range Printers. USB 2.0, USB Host 2.0, Ethernet LAN (10/100), Serial (RS233), Parallel, Wireless 802,11b/g, Bluetooth, Industrial Interface, SDIO, GPIO
  • Industrial Printers. USB 2.0, USB Host 2.0, Ethernet LAN (10/100), Serial (RS233), Dual Serial (RS232), Parallel, Wireless 802,11b/g, Bluetooth, Industrial Interface, SDIO, GPIO

Step 5: Research the Latest Technology and Innovation

Like all technologies, barcode printers have been seeing exciting developments.  Take time to research the latest models in your desired category and understand what the latest enhancements are that are designed to improve the productivity of your operations and maximize workflows. These enhancements are often a breakthrough in engineering-based customer feedback and intense market research.  Let’s look at a recent breakthrough from Honeywell with the PX940 series of heavy-duty industrial printers featuring the industry’s first internal label verification system that delivers 100% error-free printing.


Source Ref: Barry J. Ewell –

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