Thermal Transfer Overprinting (TTO) vs. hot stamp printing

Thermal Transfer Overprinting (TTO) vs. hot stamp printing
White paper
Thermal Transfer Overprinting (TTO) vs.
hot stamp printing for coding on flexible
packaging materials
Both Thermal Transfer Overprinting (TTO) and hot stamp printing
apply a variety of information onto flexible packaging materials.
However, there are significant differences between the technologies,
especially in regards to cost and efficiency. This white paper will
compare the two technologies and provide considerations to
keep in mind when selecting one of these coding options.
Technology comparison
Cost of operation
costs of downtime
Variable or static printing
Regulatory compliance
Printer capabilities
It’s an ongoing challenge
for manufacturers and
co-packers to meet
today’s package coding
requirements while reining
in operating costs.
One simple way to achieve greater printing
capabilities on flexible packaging while actually
reducing costs is to upgrade from analog hot stamp
printing to digital thermal transfer overprinting
(TTO) technology.
Immediate cost reductions can be so significant that
some companies may realize a return on investment
in as little as three months. However, it is best to
fully evaluate the printing application and printer
options before making a purchasing decision.
the technologies
Both hot stamp printers
and thermal transfer
overprinters are designed
to transfer ink from an inked
ribbon onto a thin, flexible
substrate such as synthetic
films or labels. However,
operationally, the two
printers are very different.
Hot stamp
A hot stamp printer works much like an analog printing press.
An operator manually sets metal dies, or type, which are then heated.
Next, an inked printing ribbon sits between the type and the substrate.
The heated type presses onto the ribbon, melting the ink onto the
substrate. Hot stamp printers are well-known for their durability and
ow initial cost. Historically, hot stamp machines have been sufficient
for printing static information onto flexible packaging in intermittent
motion applications. Hot stamp systems can address applications
in both continuous (the film does not stop during printing) and
intermittent (the film stops during printing) applications.
Hot stamp type
Thermal Transfer Overprinting
is a printing process that applies
a code to a flexible film or label
by using a thermal printhead
and a thermal ribbon.
Flexible film
Thermal Transfer Overprinting (TTO)
TTO technology features a thermal transfer printhead and
ribbon that make contact with a flexible substrate (such as synthetic
films and labels). Miniature printing elements located under a glass
coating are precisely heated, then presses against the ribbon to transfer
ink to the target substrate. Print elements are program-controlled to
create digital, real-time images, including high-resolution bar codes,
text and graphics. TTO systems can also address applications in
both continuous and intermittent applications.
Hot ink
Printhead in
Transferred ink
Printhead in contact
Printhead lifts after
and returns
‘home’ typically
position, costwith
TTO printers
to operate
and provide
to ‘home’ position
transferring image
ready to print
data printing capabilities that are necessary for today’s track and trace
requirements. Such capabilities are well-suited for applications in the
snack food, bakery, confectionery, frozen and refrigerated foods,
bagged fresh vegetables and dried fruits, beverage, meat, coffee
and pharmaceutical markets.
Printhead platen assembly
packaging film
Printhead traverses substrate in this direction
Intermittent motion TTO
Printhead in
‘home’ position,
ready to print
Continuous motion TTO
Printhead in contact
with ribbon and film,
transferring image
Printhead lifts after
image and returns
to ‘home’ position
Printhead in
‘fixed’ position
backing film
Used ribbon,
rewound onto
waste core
Printhead platen assembly
packaging film
Printhead traverses substrate in this direction
motion print
packaging film
Direction of
substrate travel
Printhead in
‘fixed’ position
backing film
Used ribbon,
rewound onto
waste core
Cost of operation
The capital expense for a hot stamp printer and fixtures
is generally 50% less than the initial investment of a
TTO system because a TTO contains electronics.
However, TTO often costs less to operate.
Labor and downtime
Ribbons are a major portion of the operating expense when
printing on flexible packaging. Ribbons are made of polyester
material with a layer of ink on top of it. Hot stamp ribbon is
thicker than TTO ribbon as it must be durable enough to
withstand the contact and temperature involved in the hot
stamp process. As a result, ribbons tend to be more expensive
for hot stamp compared to TTO, particularly recently where
rising chemical costs have caused ribbon prices to increase.
Ribbons for hot stamp printers tend to be much shorter than
TTO ribbons (300m for hot stamp versus up to 1,200m for TTO).
Combined with a larger gap between every print, hot stamp lines
are typically down much more often for ribbon changeovers.
TTO systems consume less ribbon than hot stamp printers because
TTO technology provides tighter control of the ribbon movement,
which maximizes ribbon usage. Generally, hot stamp printers leave
large gaps between print images, which results in wasting a large
portion of the ribbon. Digital technologies such as TTO allow for cost
savings through enabling ribbon save features that minimize the gap in
between prints and result in reduced ribbon use. Hot stamp ribbons
also are more prone to break – on average 1 to 3 times per shift –
causing downtime and waste while the ribbon is replaced.
Plus, the process of setting up or changing hot stamp type is cumbersome
compared to making changes digitally with TTO. Hot stamp operators
must wait for type to cool down so it can be handled or risk being burned.
Then they manually replace the type, make sure the type is facing the
correct direction and heat it up to operating temperature again before the
system can print. This process can take approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
To make a change with a TTO system, the operator simply makes
adjustments on the screen and printing starts again, which can take
a few seconds. This minimizes downtime and allows operators to work
elsewhere on the line instead of spending time maintaining the printer.
Hot stamp type (usually made of brass or steel) must be replaced
periodically due to wear or lost pieces. Individual characters are often
small (1/4 to 3/8 in.), which makes them hard to manipulate and easy
to lose. It is most common to have to replace a full set of type when
only one character may be needed. TTO prints digitally, so there are
no type expenses involved, however, TTO printheads must be
replaced periodically.
TTO Ribbon Save
feature (0.5mm
between prints)
Hot stamp ribbon
waste (6mm
between prints)
Operating costs and ROI
Consider a packaging application that produces 12.6 million products per year on one
line. They might accomplish this by running 60 packages per minute, 5 days a week for
50 weeks a year with 2 shifts running a total of 14 hours per day (this figures about an
hour per 8 hour shift is spent on film changes, production worker breaks and other line
stoppages). In a single day, a company may run four different products and want to
change the lot number for each new product. The operating costs for this scenario using
hot stamp printing and TTO can be calculated as follows. In this case, the downtime
with the hot stamp results in nearly 7 weeks of time by an employee that could be
utilized in other ways.
Estimated for North America in USD
Hot Stamp
Capital investment depreciation
Total predictable labor costs and downtime
Total Annual Cost of Ownership
Total unpredictable costs and downtime
Total Cost of Ownership (5 years)
Total Savings (5 years)
Payback Period (months)
unplanned costs
and downtime
Planned/predictable costs and downtime
Hot Stamp
Capital investment — equipment and accessories
Annual depreciation (5-year depreciation period)
Ribbon expense for 8 mm high image
Ribbon length (m)
Cost per roll of ribbon (standard black, 55 mm)
Waste/unused ribbon between prints (mm)
Total rolls of ribbon per year
Printhead cost
Cost of printheads per year (200km life expectancy)
1 min
3 min
89 min
1,386 min
Annual ribbon expense
Costs for replacement parts
Hot stamp type cost
Annual replacement parts cost
Total annual cost of supplies and parts
Cost/time for ribbon changes
Number of ribbon changes per year
Time to change ribbon
Annual downtime due to ribbon changes
Cost/time for changing print image data
Number of image changes per day
1 min
15 min
Annual downtime due to image changes
Time to change the image and prepare printer
1,000 min
15,000 min
Total predictable downtime
18.2 hours
273.1 hours
Total planned/predictable cost ($20/hour labor rate)
Seamless integrating
with your line
TTO machines are small, lightweight
and easy to install into a wide variety
of packaging equipment. Specialty
brackets and accessories can be
supplied to help ensure a simple
and neat installation.
Unplanned/unpredictable costs and downtime
Hot Stamp
1 per month
1 per shift
1 min
3 min
12 min
1,500 min
2 per year
2 per month
Time to change the image and prepare printer
1 min
15 min
Total production downtime/rework before error is caught
15 min
15 min
Annual downtime from printing an incorrect code
32 min
720 min
Total unpredictable downtime
44 min
2,2220 min
19 hours
310 hours
Costs for printer ribbon breaks
Number of breaks
Time to fix ribbon break
Annual downtime due to ribbon breaks
Costs for line stops due to printing an incorrect code
Number of line stops
Total unpredictable cost ($200/hour lost production rate)
Total downtime per year
Total downtime cost per year
Total annual cost of ownership
With TTO, it’s fast and simple
to get codes right. It can be
practically impossible to get
them wrong.
Variable or static printing
costs and downtime
Before choosing between hot stamp and TTO,
it is important to determine whether the printing
application requires variable, real-time data.
Hot stamp printers are analog,
so they can print static information
such as lot codes or expiration
dates. This information may be
manually updated for every line
change, shift change or even daily.
TTO automatically provides variable
data such as time stamps and unique
codes that change for every package.
Variable data is necessary to have
certain information – such as time
of production – on every package
that many companies require.
In the event of a recall, digital technologies such as TTO allow users to
more precisely isolate a product down to a certain time range, which can
be as targeted as a range of minutes or seconds. Users of analog systems
such as hot stamp would likely change the code after every shift, which
could mean as much as eight hours of production that is considered
‘bad’ would need to be isolated. Such a broad time range would result
in potentially scrapping or recalling a larger amount of product, even if
the entire batch wasn’t compromised. In addition to sustaining significant
recall costs, a company may suffer damage to the brand due to negative
publicity. Real-time, variable data can help pinpoint when a problem
occurs to minimize the scope and impact of a recall.
The truth is that
coding errors happen
so often they are
Counterfeiting and diversion
The challenges and importance of ensuring product integrity are
magnified by the flood of counterfeit products and diversionary
activity (unlawful distribution of a product) today. Though
manufacturers understandably may not be willing to disclose
the actual financial impact of counterfeiting and diversion, it is
believed to be in the billions of dollars annually.
As effective as a package’s structure and graphic design are in
demonstrating a brand’s attributes, they provide limited protection from
counterfeiting and diversion. The repetitive and commonplace nature
of packaging and labeling make a product vulnerable to duplication
and fraud, and also do not prevent unlawful distribution. As a result,
manufacturers are being forced to add multiple layers of protection
against these threats. These layers of protection have various goals
in mind, the most important of which are verifying the authenticity
of a product and tracing its pedigree from authorized start to end.
Printers that provide variable data marking and coding can play a key
role in providing those added layers of protection that help ensure the
authenticity of a brand and reduce potential product liabilities. One
common use of TTO for this need is printing dynamic 2D bar codes.
Increasingly, governing
bodies have placed the
responsibility to ensure
product and supply
chain integrity on
Regulatory compliance
For some levels of regulatory compliance, static information
may be all that is necessary. However, other regulations
may require variable data printing capabilities in order
for companies to be in compliance.
“Anecdotal evidence
indicates that many
retailers are asking
or requiring their
suppliers to
pre-label products”
Agricultural Marketing Service of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Country of origin
The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law requires that perishable
food sold in the United States be accompanied by information
noting where it was produced. The law mandates that retailers
make the information available to end consumers. However,
COOL also may affect information that food manufacturers and
co-packers mark or code on products or packaging –particularly
in instances in which a retailer mandates
pre-labeled products.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA): “Anecdotal evidence indicates that many retailers
are asking or requiring their suppliers to pre-label products”. This means
that suppliers may be required by their retail customers to ensure
individual products are labeled with country-of-origin information in a
manner appropriate for retail.
In many instances, because the information is not being changed very
often, a hot stamp printer should be sufficient to comply with COOL.
However, it is important to determine the print area needed in order to
add the COOL information. Typical hot stamp printers have a smaller
standard print area (maximum 2 in. by 2 in.; usually ¾ in. x 1 ½ in.).
Comparably, TTO process allows a larger print area for providing a
greater amount of data. A typical TTO system in continuous mode has
a print area of 2 in. by x 6 in., while a TTO system in intermittent mode
provides a print area of 2 in. x 3 in.
E-pedigree and serialization
Food Safety Act
Regulatory compliance is a fact of life in most consumer
product manufacturing segments. Compliance with legislation
has forced manufacturers to gather information about their
products electronically, culminating in an electronic pedigree (or
e-pedigree). Concerns about counterfeiting and diverting also are
driving the development of e-pedigree technology.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety
Modernization Act provides the FDA with more authority to mandate
recalls of unsafe food. It also enhances the way the FDA tracks and
traces domestic and imported foods for the purpose of controlling
foodborne illness outbreaks. Variable data codes and package
serialization will likely be a part of this regulation’s implementation,
requiring manufacturers
to apply unique codes to products.
For example, California’s e-pedigree law (enacted by the California
Department of Consumer Affairs Board of Pharmacy) states that for
all prescription drugs, wholesalers and pharmacies must provide an
electronic form containing information about each transaction in the
supply chain, from manufacturer to the point the drug is distributed
(wholesaler, repackager or pharmacy). Companies must have 50 percent
compliance by 2015 and the remaining 50 percent compliance by 2016.
An important part of this e-pedigree information is a unique identifier
(serialization number) that is placed on the smallest saleable container.
This unique code must be applied using a variable data printing
technology, such as TTO.
In addition to the United States, many countries have their own
regulations for product serialization and e-pedigree to protect
consumers. Brazil, China and Korea are leading the way in defining and
implementing e-pedigree-like requirements. Most of these regulations
involve a symbology, like a unique bar code or 2D DataMatrix code,
which cannot be printed with hot stamp or any static coding system.
Printer capabilities
When evaluating the differences between printing
technologies, an important step is to determining
current and future printing needs in a variety of areas.
Packaging types
Quick changes
Does the printer need to be used on multiple production lines?
If a printer will be used on different packaging lines that have a
combination of hard and flexible materials (paperboard, plastic and
films), a hot stamp printer may be a good solution. Although less
than an ideal application, hot stamp printers can also be used to
print on hard rubber or plastic parts.
Code changes may be necessary for a variety of reasons. Some products
have short runs, requiring lines to switch often. Also, product packages
and industry demands experience periodic changes (such as ingredient
or nutritional information) that dictate a change in the way they
are marked. If quick changes between flexible packaging lines are a
necessity, digitally-based TTO systems allow operators to make coding
changes easily and quickly with minimal line disruption. A larger available
print area also lets TTO users print more data on packages to meet
requirements that may vary widely by product or client.
A TTO system is intended for printing on flexible materials such as
plastic and foil films or paper labels. For printing on more delicate film,
such as low-density polyethylene (like shrink wrap), TTO works best.
A hot stamp printer can melt through thinner materials causing product
contamination because it delivers more heat over a larger area and is
in contact with the film longer. A TTO printhead has small resistors that
heat the print area precisely and with a fast on/off action, so it is not in
contact with the substrate long enough to impact the package integrity.
Substrate motion
Packaging lines may have a stop and go motion where the printing occurs
when the substrate is stationary (intermittent printing) or they may flow
continuously while the printing occurs (continuous printing). Hot stampers
operate in an intermittent printing mode only. TTO systems have the
ability to print in both intermittent and continuous modes.
When making code changes, a TTO operator uses a digital interface
(controller) to adjust the code or access pre-programmed codes.
This process takes typically takes one to two minutes. Adding new
graphics and logos to a TTO system can be completed almost
instantly by uploading the images to the printer and positioning them
appropriately on the package through print locations on the controller.
In contrast, a hot stamp printer must have its type manually changed
by an operator. To add new characters, logos or other marks to a hot
stamp printer may require ordering new type that may need to be
custom machined. This can take days for completion.
For further quality control during code changes, a TTO system can minimize
operator error by restricting access to the code. A TTO system can block
operators from making unauthorized changes to a code, preventing
accidental mistakes due to incorrect date codes or other information.
A hot stamp printer cannot provide such safeguards and relies on an
operator to accurately place manual type during code changes.
Print resolution
Print resolution can impact the readability of a code and
become an extension of a product’s brand. The ink layer on
a hot stamp printer ribbon is thicker and has more colorant,
delivering a darker, more opaque print. This can be particularly
important when printing on darker backgrounds (green or
black) with a lighter colored print such as yellow or white.
However, hot stamp’s thicker ink layer results in prints with
blurrier edges, lower resolution and has a tendency to flake
(small pieces of ink come off the ribbon backing or printed
substrate). TTO provides sharper edges and a higher print
quality over hot stamp printers. A TTO printhead has
12 thermal printing dots per millimeter to deliver a
print resolution of 300 dots per inch.
Networking printers can streamline printer set-up, help track production
and provide central management of coding specifications for each
product – even if a product changes production lines or is coded
by different printers within the facility. Because TTO systems are
digital, they can be networked; hot stamp printers do not have this
functionality. By networking a group of TTO printers, messages can
be sent directly to the printers from a central location. Apart from the
convenience of managing job changes for all printers and monitoring
their performance, it also supports efforts on code integrity by
removing operator intervention.
Networking also facilitates convenience for line operators. For example,
a company may require a simple two-line date and lot code but have
different production lines with different coding technologies to suit the
packaging used: one using a thermal transfer overprinter and one using
continuous inkjet. The same product could be coded on any line, so the
plant can utilize networking and message management software to
ensure coding consistency, regardless of the technology used to print
the information.
Similarly, there may be secondary or tertiary coding equipment on the
same line (such as a print-and-apply labeler or a case coder), which is
required to label or directly print information or a bar code on the case
to match the product. The line operator would need only to call up the
assigned product code on whichever product line he or she is working
on, and the pre-installed message would be accessed from the network.
In this manner, the two-line date code would be sent to the
primary coding equipment and the corresponding case code
to the secondary equipment.
Packaging coding management (PCM) extends to integration of new
digital marking and coding solutions within a production line when a
network is already in place. New printer setup is faster and easier because
the coding profiles for specific products are independent of printer type
– as long as a new unit connects to the network, it can access all profiles.
PCM is a seamless approach compared to redesigning hundreds of
code formats for individual printers.
A networked approach also is crucial in light of a packager’s
likely or potential future variable data printing applications –
or in the case of a co-packager, changing customer requirements.
For example, products that require date and lot codes today may
require unique package identifiers in the future. Adding new
data via message management and networking software is much
easier because it can be done within the centralized database.
There are many things to consider when choosing a printer to
put a code on flexible packaging. Although a hot stamp printer
may have a lower initial cost, TTO systems are actually much less
expensive to operate and can provide a short return on investment.
Today’s manufacturers and co-packers need to look at variable
data printing as a way to stay in line with modern track and trace
requirements, which ultimately protect a brand and its consumers.
Long-time hot stamp users can realize immediate benefits
by upgrading from static printing technology to TTO.
Peace of mind comes as standard
Videojet Technologies is a world-leader in the product identification
market, providing in-line printing, coding, and marking products,
application specific fluids, and product life cycle services.
ur goal is to partner with our customers in the consumer
packaged goods, pharmaceutical, and industrial goods
industries to improve their productivity, to protect and
grow their brands, and to stay ahead of industry trends
and regulations. With our customer application experts and
technology leadership in Continuous Inkjet (CIJ), Thermal
Inkjet (TIJ), Laser Marking, Thermal Transfer Overprinting
(TTO), case coding and labeling, and wide array printing,
Videojet has more than 325,000 printers installed worldwide.
Our customers rely on Videojet products to print on over
ten billion products daily. Customer sales, application,
service and training support is provided by direct operations
with over 3,000 team members in 26 countries worldwide.
In addition, Videojet’s distribution network includes more
than 400 distributors and OEMs, serving 135 countries.
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©2015 Videojet Technologies Inc. — All rights reserved.
Videojet Technologies Inc.’s policy is one of continued product improvement.
We reserve the right to alter design and/or specifications without notice.
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