How to Prevent and Fix Common Thermal Transfer Ribbon Issues

Thermal transfer printing is one of the most popular label printing methods. In fact, almost everyone encounters several items that rely on thermal transfer labeling daily. Mostly used within the transportation and logistics industry, but also common for consumer durable and healthcare labeling, thermal transfer labels require a thermal transfer ribbon for printing. This transfers the ink from the ribbon to the label and works as a buffer to protect the printhead from the label material.

Thermal transfer printing is versatile across multiple applications, has a lower heat requirement for printing and boasts a longer shelf life than direct thermal labels. However, printing issues can occur and are often related to the thermal transfer ribbon.

In this blog post, we will be sharing five common thermal transfer ribbon issues, as well as recommendations for how to prevent and fix them.

Common Thermal Transfer Ribbon Issues

When using thermal transfer ribbons, there are several common issues that can occur, such as:

  • Ribbon wrinkling: When the ribbon isn’t properly tensioned or aligned, ribbon wrinkling occurs. As a result, printing is often uneven or smudged.
  • Ribbon breakage: Most commonly, ribbons can break due to excessive tension or incorrect loading. However, ribbons also break from being stored in an environment that is too hot/cold, or from incorrect printer settings with too much pressure.
  • Ribbon jamming: Printer ribbon jamming typically occurs because the ribbon is not threaded correctly, or the printer settings were not adjusted to the proper ribbon type or size prior to printing.
  • Poor ribbon ink transferring: When the ribbon isn’t in close enough contact with the label substrate, incomplete or smudged printing can occur.
  • Poor quality printing: Low ink saturation, incorrect printer settings, or using incompatible ribbons and label materials can all be causes of poorly printed labels.

Methods to Prevent and Fix Common Issues

Most ribbon issues can easily be prevented by selecting the right ribbon for your needs, properly setting up the printing, and conducting regular maintenance on the printer. Below are several ways that you can avoid and fix these common thermal transfer ribbon issues:

  • Selecting the right ribbon: Thermal transfer ribbons are classified into three main categories: wax, wax/resin and resin. When selecting your ribbon, it’s important to make sure the ribbon is compatible with your printer and the materials on which you are printing. Different ribbons have varying ink formulations and backings that work best with specific print applications.
  • Installing the ribbon correctly: Sometimes issues such as wrinkling are a result of the ribbon being installed wrongly. If a ribbon is becoming wrinkled or jammed during the printing process, it’s best to double check that the ribbon was installed correctly and that the tension level has been properly adjusted.
  • Adjusting the printer settings: Printer settings must be optimized for the ribbon selected. When the print settings, such as temperature and speed, are too high or too low, it can result in uneven print density. Adjusting the print speed, darkness and temperature settings prior to printing ensures the printer is set to the correct intensity and speed for optimal results.
  • Cleaning the printhead: Using a clean cloth and safe cleaning solution, the printer should be cleaned regularly to prevent dust and debris from accumulating on the printhead and rollers. A clean printhead will result in crisper, more even prints.
  • Storing ribbons in a safe location: Many materials need to be stored in a cool, dry place away from sunlight and excessive heat. This same rule applies to thermal transfer ribbons. If stored properly, the ribbons will last longer and avoid the risk of cracking or flaking.
  • Selecting high-quality print materials: To eliminate ribbon-related printing issues, it’s important to use high-quality labels and barcode tags. Using low-quality materials can lead to wearing out the ribbons too quickly and poor-quality end products.
  • Conducting regular maintenance: Conducting regular printer maintenance and replacing parts like the printhead and rollers as soon as they start to show signs of being worn out can prevent damage to the ribbons and ensure optimal print quality.

Generally, most ribbon-related printing issues can be avoided or fixed by following the tips above. When thermal transfer ribbon issues occur, it’s important to go back to the basics and double check the printer/ribbon compatibility, printer settings, ribbon installation and printer conditions. If the issue still isn’t resolved after some troubleshooting, it’s possible another underlying issue is to blame, such as a dried-out ribbon or a malfunctioning printer.

When thermal transfer ribbons and label materials are selected and handled properly, thermal transfer printing can help you achieve high-quality prints at a faster rate and lower cost than many other available printing options.

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