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Laser or Thermal Transfer?

A frequent label question from startup medical device manufacturers, or existing companies implementing a new line, is whether it’s best to use laser jet or thermal transfer for in-house printing. 

The typical way which this is decided is by utilizing the “Pioneer Theory”.  This states that since pioneers in the past stood a risk of having arrows shot at them, most people wanted to circle the wagons and do what they were comfortable with at their former place of employment. If a group of engineers at a new startup are assigned to the new production line, and are familiar with laser printers and have had a positive experience with them, then there is a 90% chance that’s what they will use at the new company.  There are other considerations beyond the Pioneer Theory when choosing a print method for a new company or new manufacturing line.

Take Stock

The first consideration is the stock itself.  Due to the properties of toner vs TTR ribbon, laser stock is almost always uncoated with a relatively rough surface, while a TTR ribbon works best on a smooth coated stock.  This is where marketing input comes into play.

Printers match ink to the coated side of the PMS book for coated TTR material and to the uncoated side of the book for the uncoated laser stock.  If marketing has approved a beautiful SBS shelf carton with aqueous or UV coating, and insists the label ‘match the box’, then that label needs to be on coated stock. Take a look at your official, corporate style book approved logo color in both sides of a PMS book. On a densitometer they are identical, but to the human eye the reflectivity is completely different and they can appear to be different colors!  A marketing guru once brilliantly (and somewhat condescendingly) suggested that the best course of action would be to match all stock to the coated side of the PMS book and eliminate the issue. However, if the solution was that simple, ink companies would have quit going to the expense and effort to produce the uncoated side of the PMS book long ago. Coated laser materials exist, but to date we don’t have any customers who have successfully run them through the validation and qualification process, though it’s been tried on several occasions.

AWT has a number of customers who have moved away from laser printing their packaging labels in full color.  The 600 dpi color laser is the undisputed way to go for that process. Color TTR printers exist, but the quality, reliability, and media expense are all inferior to the laser printer.

Made to Last

Print durability is another story. In general, many AWT customers who use laser printers also shrink wrap the outer carton of their device package.  This is not necessary and usually not done for TTR printed labels since the anchorage and abrasion resistance of the ribbon is far superior to most toner and will usually pass the transportation testing process. 

When it comes to equipment, the TTR printers tend to be cheaper, more reliable, and less costly to repair. Most laser printer manufacturers only grudgingly admit that people actually run pressure-sensitive label stock through their printers. Problems like stock curl, adhesive ooze, environmental sensitivity, and spotty toner coverage seem to be more common on sheet-fed laser stock. Roll stock can be more forgiving, and problems like ribbon wrinkling or a deep die-cut on the roll label stock are simpler to fix. In both cases, a well thought out and executed preventative maintenance schedule can avert a lot of issues.  

Whichever method you choose, rest assured that both have an extensive track record in labeling terminally sterilized device packaging. Both toner and TTR ribbon survive most of the common sterilization environments and provide durable package labeling FDA requirements. 

If you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to reach out us.

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A frequent label question from startup medical device manufacturers, or existing companies implementing a new line, is whether it’s best to use laser jet or thermal transfer for in-house printing. 

The typical way which this is decided is by utilizing the “Pioneer Theory”.  This states that since pioneers in the past stood a risk of having arrows shot at them, most people wanted to circle the wagons and do what they were comfortable with at their former place of employment. If a group of engineers at a new startup are assigned to the new production line, and are familiar with laser printers and have had a positive experience with them, then there is a 90% chance that’s what they will use at the new company.  There are other considerations beyond the Pioneer Theory when choosing a print method for a new company or new manufacturing line.

Take Stock

The first consideration is the stock itself.  Due to the properties of toner vs TTR ribbon, laser stock is almost always uncoated with a relatively rough surface, while a TTR ribbon works best on a smooth coated stock.  This is where marketing input comes into play.

Printers match ink to the coated side of the PMS book for coated TTR material and to the uncoated side of the book for the uncoated laser stock.  If marketing has approved a beautiful SBS shelf carton with aqueous or UV coating, and insists the label ‘match the box’, then that label needs to be on coated stock. Take a look at your official, corporate style book approved logo color in both sides of a PMS book. On a densitometer they are identical, but to the human eye the reflectivity is completely different and they can appear to be different colors!  A marketing guru once brilliantly (and somewhat condescendingly) suggested that the best course of action would be to match all stock to the coated side of the PMS book and eliminate the issue. However, if the solution was that simple, ink companies would have quit going to the expense and effort to produce the uncoated side of the PMS book long ago. Coated laser materials exist, but to date we don’t have any customers who have successfully run them through the validation and qualification process, though it’s been tried on several occasions.

AWT has a number of customers who have moved away from laser printing their packaging labels in full color.  The 600 dpi color laser is the undisputed way to go for that process. Color TTR printers exist, but the quality, reliability, and media expense are all inferior to the laser printer.

Made to Last

Print durability is another story. In general, many AWT customers who use laser printers also shrink wrap the outer carton of their device package.  This is not necessary and usually not done for TTR printed labels since the anchorage and abrasion resistance of the ribbon is far superior to most toner and will usually pass the transportation testing process. 

When it comes to equipment, the TTR printers tend to be cheaper, more reliable, and less costly to repair. Most laser printer manufacturers only grudgingly admit that people actually run pressure-sensitive label stock through their printers. Problems like stock curl, adhesive ooze, environmental sensitivity, and spotty toner coverage seem to be more common on sheet-fed laser stock. Roll stock can be more forgiving, and problems like ribbon wrinkling or a deep die-cut on the roll label stock are simpler to fix. In both cases, a well thought out and executed preventative maintenance schedule can avert a lot of issues.  

Whichever method you choose, rest assured that both have an extensive track record in labeling terminally sterilized device packaging. Both toner and TTR ribbon survive most of the common sterilization environments and provide durable package labeling FDA requirements. 

If you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to reach out us.