Choosing the right lab label for your samples and experiments can be challenging. There are a large variety of label options available, and their durability and use can vary depending on the printing method of choice. Here we will review the various printing options currently available and discuss their benefits and drawbacks.
Thermal label printing systems use a heated print-head to produce a sharp, high-quality printout. These laboratory label printers are equipped to use rolls instead of sheets, allowing them to print the exact number of labels needed at a time, with no waste. There are two types of thermal printers, direct thermal and thermal-transfer, that work in slightly different ways. They will often come with printing software required for printing barcodes and other data.
Direct thermal printers use specialty labels coated with a unique leuco dye that changes colors when exposed to color. This layer of heat-activated ink will blacken when it comes in contact with the print-head, generating a printout. Direct thermal label printing printers are a great cost-effective choice, perfect for general use or cryogenic sample storage using barcodes for tracking. The main drawback with direct thermal labels is their sensitivity to UV light, heat, and chemical exposure. This can cause the labels to fade over time or even turn entirely black upon direct exposure.
Thermal-transfer printers use ink ribbons along with thermoplastic labels to produce durable labels with a sharp, clear printout. Thermal-transfer printers are ideal for printing serialized information, variable data, as well as 1D and 2D barcodes. Their ribbons come in three varieties, wax, wax/resin mix, and resin, with the resin ribbons offering the highest resistance level. These laboratory label printers offer the greatest variety in label materials and adhesives, perfect for challenging label applications. This includes label printing solutions that can withstand chemical exposure, extreme temperatures (cold and heat), and abrasion. Their main disadvantage is they don’t offer a selection of color options when printing.
Digital printers include traditional desktop laser and inkjet printers. These printers work with label sheets, are typically found in most offices and labs, making them an inexpensive option when printing labels. Microsoft word label templates are also available for free for digital printers, allowing you to format your data prior to printing. Laser desktop printers use toner cartridges that are great for printing in color. They produce smudge and water-resistant printouts that will resist long-term UV exposure but are not recommended for chemical exposure.
Inkjet printers use ink cartridges that can produce photo-quality graphics, logos, and images. Unfortunately, these cartridges can be relatively expensive and are prone to smearing and smudging. Their printout can offer some resistance to chemical sprays, though not to the level provided by thermal-transfer printing.
Custom Label Printing Services
Most label manufacturers, like LabTAG, also offer comprehensive label printing services, providing pre-printed labels as well as custom label options to suit your exact needs. This includes a selection of various shapes, sizes, materials, and configurations and will perform extensive testing to ensure the quality of the products. They can also provide unique label printing solutions, such as variable data printing, printing from a database, offer full-color graphics and barcode grading services.
So, which label printing system is right for your lab? If you primarily need eye-catching labels with full-color graphics and logos, you should choose a digital printer from HP or Brother. Laser labels will provide better long-term durability, while inkjet labels deliver photo-quality graphics. If cost is a principal concern, direct thermal label printing printers, like DYMO, are a viable, cost-effective solution, as they provide high-quality printing in a small portable printer. However, if you need labels that will withstand the rigors of various lab environments, thermal-transfer is the obvious choice, using thermal-transfer printers such as Zebra, cab, and CODY. These thermal-transfer labels will resist chemical exposure, cryogenic storage, sterilization, and general wear-and-tear. They can also be printed with high-quality barcodes, perfect for inventory management, asset tracking, and long-term identification.