Barcode printers: Decoding the barcode printing process

Thermal printers are perfect for printing barcodes

Barcode printing is most often performed using a barcode printer (also known as a thermal printer). This is due to the efficiency of these printers in both speed and cost per label. 

Barcodes are produced by applying heat to the labels with a thermal printer. Thanks to technological advancements, speed and the quality of prints, thermal printing has become synonymous with barcode label printing. 

Interestingly, no toner or ink isn’t used in the barcode printing. The whole process relies on thermal paper to produce images like barcodes on labels; interesting, right? Now, let’s jump into understanding the complexities of printing barcodes in easy words.

Printing barcodes: How is a barcode printer different?

Unlike dot matrix or inkjet printers, barcode printers use a thermal printhead that almost magically produces images. The heated printhead helps create superior-quality prints consistently over and over again and are thus great for printing barcodes! 

Two types of thermal printers are used for printing barcodes: thermal transfer and direct thermal printers. One common thing in both printers is the thermal printhead, which applies heat to the surface being marked. 

Printing using a thermal printer: For cheap and reliable prints

If you need to print large volumes of barcodes, especially on boxes, cartons or pallets, then it is recommended to go for thermal printers. 

Thermal printing is the top choice when you are looking for:

  • Low-maintenance, reliable prints.
  • Application flexibility.
  • Media flexibility.

Barcode printing alternatives: Are they any good?

Some alternatives are available, but thermal-based printing is more effective. Impact printers are at a disadvantage in industrial and dynamic environments. They need more print quality to produce consistent and crisp scannable barcodes. Such barcode printers are also not optimised for adhesive-based label media. 

Most notably thermal labels are normally provided in rolls. Having the labels in this format allows thousands of labels to be printed at a time. 

In addition these thermal barcode printers have optional extras which improve handling and label application: 

  1. Label rewinders neatly roll the labels after printing, which makes it easy for when applying the labels, while also allowing for batching (i.e. labels are printed in advance of them being applied). 
  2. Peel and present units do exactly that… after a label has been printed, it is presented to the operator ready for application with the backing paper removed. The operator simply grabs the label and the next label is printed instantly ready for action. 

Printing barcodes to minimise mistakes 

There is no doubt that barcode printers are found across all industries and business processes due to their utility in the following ways:

Inventory management

Barcodes are the lifeline of inventory management as they facilitate tracking and recording stock levels with pinpoint accuracy. Each barcode acts as a unique identifier for an item, thus reducing stock discrepancies and preventing errors while fulfilling orders. 

Data Accuracy

Printed barcodes eliminate the scope of human error when it comes to manual data entry. Scanning the printed barcodes instead of manually entering all the information reduces the risk of mistyping or misinterpretation. 

Supply chain efficiency

Barcodes printed using barcode printers are especially useful for efficient real-time supply chain management. Businesses can monitor the movement of their goods, reduce delays, identify bottlenecks and ensure timely delivery of shipped items. 

Hassle-free point of sale

Printed barcodes make the checkout processes at retail stores convenient and easy. Scanning the barcode labels allows one to quickly get inventory updates, pricing and other critical information about the specific product. This also enhances the overall customer experience.

Ensuring optimal quality while printing barcodes

You can’t afford to have any printing issues when printing barcodes on shipping labels. Sub-standard quality print labels could disrupt the whole supply chain. So, it becomes essential to monitor your barcode printer for its print quality closely.

Heat settings

For a barcode scanner to recognise a specific barcode, there must be adequate contrast between light spaces and dark bars. If a barcode appears to be a little smudgy or the bars are printed very thick, The reason might be slow print speed or too high heat/darkness settings. 

Even the bars which are bleeding into the white spaces aren’t at times picked by the scanners. 

On the other hand, if the barcode is faded, you should increase the heat settings or lower the printing speed. 

Barcode printer maintenance

Platen rollers

If you notice visible missing spots/bars in your printed barcodes, this may be caused by a damaged or dirty roller. Cuts or dirt on a platen roller create an uneven surface which prevents the printhead from being able to get an even print on the label. Barcode printer platen rollers should be inspected and cleaned regularly. Using isopropyl thermal printer cleaning pens/wipes can sometimes damage the rollers. Check your user manual for advice on the best method to use, this is often just water and a clean cloth. 

Thermal printheads

Missing patches in your print is often the result of a dirty or damaged printhead. If the voids run vertically through the label then it’s a key sign that the cause is the printhead. 

Give your printhead a good clean with isopropyl alcohol (following manufacturers recommendation), if this doesn’t do the trick then it could be that one or more of the printhead elements have blown. Replacing a thermal printhead is costly, so it pays to clean them regularly to ensure you get as much value from them as possible. 

Barcode orientation: ladder or picket fence barcodes?

barcode layout landscape or portrait... it depends
barcode layout landscape or portrait… it depends

Picket fence barcode

When the lines of a barcode are parallel to the movement of the label through the printer, this is referred to as a picket fence barcode.

[Note: We do not recommend printing barcodes in picket fence orientation. A dirty or damaged printhead can result in a missing bar in the barcode. This means barcodes won’t scan properly costing you time and money]. 


  • Visually appealing if the layout suits your label design. 
  • High-quality barcodes with straight and crisp edges.


  • Very difficult to spot errors with the human eye.
  • Errors can result in the barcode not being read.
  • If the printhead burns out, a line or two aren’t printed.

Ladder barcodes

These barcodes are in a perpendicular direction to the label as it travels through the printer. 


  • Even when there is an error, the barcode is still scannable.
  • In case of a fault with the printer, a white void will be visible across the whole barcode. 
  • The orientation helps easily detect a lousy print. 


  • It can be challenging to fit the barcode in your label layout.
  • Printing can be at slightly slower print speeds.

Parting Words

Barcodes have undeniably penetrated our lives so profoundly for all good reasons. Thermal printers, on the other hand, facilitate great barcode label prints. We hope you enjoyed learning about printing using thermal printers. To deliver better prints, a barcode printer needs premium label media. So it becomes vital to use reliable printer labels for effective barcode printing.

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