How businesses are using barcode printers to cut costs and increase quality. In the days before the proliferation of barcodes, businesses large and small relied on clerks to manually input data about packages, ensure inventory control and keep costs down while still maintaining speedy service. Now, basic barcode printing equipment and scanners are commonplace, used by small retail businesses and large manufacturers alike. The barcode printer has become a standard piece of office equipment that no competitive business can do without.

Thanks to this relatively inexpensive technology, barcodes have become standard for a myriad of uses across all industries, helping businesses create unique identifiers as easily as consumers, often using just their smartphones, can read them. But for years, small businesses in particular relied on third-parties to design, create and deliver barcode labels for use in shipping and inventory control. With a barcode label printer, the power is now in the hands of businesses themselves, which leads to reduced costs and increased flexibility.

Not every barcode printer is alike, the basic types are dot matrix, ink jet, laser and thermal. While dot matrix, ink jet and laser methods create barcodes of moderate to fair print quality, they also have high long-term maintenance costs, produce a large amount of material waste and can only provide, at best, moderate scanner readability. Thermal printing, which is broken down into direct thermal and thermal transfer, create high quality barcodes that are more cost efficient and environmentally friendly. There are subtle but important differences between the two types of thermal barcode label printing:

Direct thermal: These barcode labels are made with chemically treated materials that blacken when heat is applied via the thermal print-head. It doesn’t use toner, ink or ribbon (and therefore does not print in color). Depending on exposure to heat or light, these labels may fade or become otherwise unreadable over time. While not good for a lifetime, their lifespan is sufficient for common barcode applications such as receipt or shipping labels.

Thermal transfer: As opposed to direct thermal, thermal transfer labels use a thermal print-head to apply heat to a ribbon, which melts ink onto the label surface. These labels have excellent print quality and scanner readability over a long period of time (they are considered “near-permanent”), and can print logos, graphics, text in color and other variations on a wide variety of material types. These labels can be used for inventory, asset labeling, product identification and more.

In addition to print technologies, another variable to note in barcode printers is size. You can divide thermal printers into two categories: desktops and industrials. Desktop barcode label printers are, fittingly, a fine size for being kept on your desk. They come in two-inch and four-inch label-width varieties. Four-inch label printers can utilize both direct thermal or thermal transfer technology, and the best-in-class models connect to your network using internal ethernet, USB, parallel connectivity and more. Industrial printers are heartier, used for high-performance print jobs and better suited for labels used in manufacturing, distribution, healthcare and logistics.

Choosing which style of barcode printer is best for you depends on a number of factors, including your needs as a business, what environment the printer will be used in, how often you’ll be printing and what kind of connectivity you’ll need. If you run a small business from home and will mostly print shipping and inventory tracking labels on demand from your office, a desktop model is a good choice. On the other hand, large manufacturers that need to print off thousands of labels in a single run and requires integration into a large-scale system would be better off with an industrial option.

Barcodes help business owners keep track of inventory, reduce shipping errors, minimize costs and improve customer service. By investing in a barcode label printer of your own, regardless of the size and scope of your company, you’ll see a return on investment and open up new possibilities for your business that you never thought possible.