Thermal Transfer Solutions For Intelligent Transportation Systems

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) represent a rapidly emerging, multi-billion dollar industry that depends on advanced electronic imaging technology to streamline the flow of people and products through existing and future transportation networks. To do this, the system must be able to automatically capture data about people, packages, containers and vehicles as they travel from place to place. One of the most important means of identification are tags, labels, tickets and ID cards with fixed and variable information images produced by thermal transfer printers.

The advantages of thermal transfer images, versus magnetic stripes, smart cards and RFID (radio frequency identification), include simplicity, high reliability, low cost and adaptability to a wide range of applications. Thermal transfer technology can serve either as the primary means or as an adjunct to other identification technologies to provide the most balanced and lowest total cost solution for ITS applications.

Advancing Technology
Thermal transfer printed bar code labels have long been the foundation for automatic data collection in sophisticated warehousing, distribution and supply chain management systems. Thermal transfer industry suppliers cooperate at many levels to assure printer, ribbon and substrate compatibility.

The thermal transfer industry is continually developing new printing technologies that are likely to provide ITS developers with a wider range of data imaging solutions. For example, Sony Chemicals Corporation of America (Mt. Pleasant, PA) recently introduced a new ribbon, TR5070, that is highly resistant to chemicals such as brake fluid, gasoline and isopropyl alcohol. Combined with its abrasion resistant characteristics, images produced with this ribbon stand up in the harshest transportation applications including inter-modal freight and vehicle identification.

Traditional, near edge, and corner edge thermal transfer printers, used in conjunction with resin and wax/resin thermal transfer ribbons, produce better quality rotated bar codes, higher print density and gloss, and superior long-term durability versus laser, ink jet or dot matrix technologies. The use of specialty backcoats helps prolong printhead life, even at speeds up to 12ips.

New Dye Diffusion Thermal Transfer (D2T2) technology expands the traditional monochromatic options to on-demand, full-color printing of digitally captured images. D2T2 printer ribbons have multiple layers of ink, typically magenta, cyan, yellow and black. The printhead applies various amounts of heat to the ribbon and printing substrate causing inks to sublime and transfer to the specially treated substrates, producing picture-quality images in about 30 seconds. It is ideal for producing driver's licenses (currently used in 30 motor vehicle registries in the United States), railway passes, credit cards and other photo IDs. For security at airports, for example, digital images can be stored in a master electronic file and downloaded to a computer screen at the gate to check against passenger photo IDs.

Raising The Stakes
The universal impact of ITS has raised the stakes for thermal transfer product manufacturers. The solutions they provide must be:

  • Fast. Accommodating both rapid printing and scanning to meet high volumes of traffic.
  • Dependable. Meeting the highest standards so that equipment always performs as intended and images are always 100% readable.
  • Versatile. Modular and adaptable to the widest conceivable range of applications.
  • Secure. Extremely resistant to counterfeiting and fraud.
  • Global. Research and development, applications support and supply of thermal transfer products must be global in scope.
  • Economical. Contributing to the lowest total life-cycle cost for ITS.
Thermal transfer printing technology will play a continually important role in ITS imaging solutions for transportation applications such as high-speed scanning of bar codes on cars driving through non-stop toll booths, sophisticated fraud-deterring photo IDs, ultra-durable tracking labels, high-speed, low-cost ticket imaging, and hybrid identification devices combining smart cards or RFID with human readable variable information.

Kevin Young