Print-and-apply evolves to meet demands of e-commerce

For many parcel-shipping operations, automating label printing and application is no longer productive enough to keep up with e-commerce growth. Here’s a look at the latest developments in print-and-apply technology.

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Thanks to explosive growth in e-commerce—a $263 billion U.S. market in 2013 that Forrester Research projects to grow 57.4% by 2018 to $414 billion—shippers can no longer afford to rely on manual parcel packing stations at the end of their fulfillment lines. That’s because today, instead of shipping 12,000 items in 1,000 cartons, they’re sending 12,000 individual packages with one item apiece. Volumes like those can easily overwhelm pack station operators.

In response, companies are investing in a variety of automated technologies to eliminate shipping bottlenecks. Many high-volume operations have transitioned away from manual application of printed labels to automated label printer applicators. These print-and-apply machines imprint and affix shipping labels to cartons or parcels.

Printing most frequently employs either direct thermal (burns an image onto specially formulated label stock) or thermal transfer (heats a wax- or resin-coated ribbon to melt the coating onto a label) technology to mark information on paper-based labels.

Once printed, the machine applies the label using a pneumatic or electric cylinder to actuate a pad that presses it onto the package. Other machines use an air-blow system that releases a burst of air to propel the label onto the carton. Throughout the process, a device controls the speed of the roll of label stock fed into the machine, separates the label from its backing, and rewinds empty backing for later removal.

However, for many parcel-shipping operations, automating label printing and application is no longer productive enough. The latest developments surrounding this equipment also accommodate the application and/or insertion of order-specific documents and special offers; select (or modify) right-sized packages to minimize shipping costs; and offer enhanced device connectivity for performance communication and diagnostics.

Confidential packing slips print with labels simultaneously
For the convenience of both recipients and internal operations, more shippers seek labelers that apply a confidential packing slip with the label on the outside of the package. Doing so can save time and cost.

For retail e-commerce fulfillment, 6 x 4-inch shipping labels are commonly used. New technologies permit the shipping information to be printed on the face of the label, and the packing slip information printed on its backing. Machines might use solely direct thermal or thermal transfer printing, or pair them.

For example, the Twin Print solution from Fox IV Technologies uses label material with a liner that has been specially die cut so a portion remains when the outer perimeter is peeled off, explains company president and CEO Rick Fox. Both sides of a special label material are marked with direct thermal print heads, eliminating a thermal transfer ribbon and the information that remains on it after the imprint is made, he says.

“The exposed adhesive secures the combination label/packing slip to the package,” says Fox. “By repurposing the liner, we cut the waste by as much as 50%, as well as eliminating adhesive-backed plastic pouches dedicated to packing slips.”

For certain applications, however, one or more full, 8.5 x 11-inch packing sheets may be required that include additional information about the shipment or a return label. Dan Hanrahan, CEO of Numina Group says these applications are a particular interest from shippers of medical equipment.

“For medical suppliers shipping orders directly to a surgery center or hospital, compliance documentation must be included, and that information is typically more than can fit on a 4 x 6-inch, label-sized pack slip,” he explains.

Because of the sensitivity and sterility of these items, both shippers and receivers prefer to have all the compliance and shipment details on the outside of the package so it isn’t opened until needed. To keep documents confidential, Numina Group developed a labeling automation system that prints information on a standard 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper using a high-speed laser printer. “This is the same technology used to print documents inserted into a parcel,” says Hanrahan. The system automatically prints, folds and tucks the sheet underneath a direct thermal- or thermal transfer-printed shipping label.

“In the medical field, that document is critical for traceability, may need to be signed by authorized personnel, and is likely to be kept on file,” he adds. “The 4 x 6-inch pack slips don’t lend themselves well to storage.”

Other equipment is able to print a single, long label (such as 4 x 11 inches) with packing information, fold it to hide the contents, and apply it to the package. There are also technologies that use high-speed laser printing to output multi-page, 8.5 x 11-inch documents, fold and insert them into a single clear plastic pouch (label side up) and present them for manual or automatic application to packages.

The ultimate key to combination packing slip/label print-and-apply machines is a control system that guarantees the shipping address matches the order information—typically sourced from two different databases—correctly, adds Fox. “For that reason, the machines are designed so that they will not print the label and pack slip until both print heads have the data,” he says.

On-demand printing of customized, order-specific information
E-commerce retailers in particular are becoming savvier about leveraging Big Data for expanded marketing opportunities. This goes beyond including a copy of the upcoming season’s catalog or a special promotion coupon as an item picked and inserted into every outbound package. Today, retailers examine customer demographics and purchasing habits, then expect end-of-line print-and-pack systems to output, apply or insert unique offers tailored specifically to a package’s content and its recipient.

“Most special offer direct mail campaigns fail by 90% because they’re not opened or read,” explains Tom Napier, senior account manager at PSI Engineering. “However, e-commerce purchasers commonly check the full contents of their order, including the packing slip.”

For this reason, PSI’s customer Market America asked the company to engineer an automated packing slip insertion system to automatically add a special promotion code tailored specifically to a customer and related to the item they purchased, says Napier.

“Using our document management software and Autoslip system, the special promotion is printed in-line, on-demand and inserted into the customer’s order,” he says. “As a result, they’ve experienced an immediate increase in revenues of 5%.”
Other technologies are developing that can imprint a special, customized advertisement or message directly on the face of, or immediately adjacent to, the shipping label, says Doug Jones, director of business development for Datalogic’s Systems Integration Group.

“Adding a message on the shipping label is highly likely to catch the attention of a customer,” he says. “When you buy something online and receive the package, the first thing you do is pick it up, and the second thing you do is look to see who shipped it. What’s even more notable is that these systems can print text and graphics in full color, which sets the message apart from a standard black shipping imprint on white label.”

Right-sizing to reduce shipping charges
With parcel carriers UPS and FedEx recently announcing that shipping rates will be assessed based on package weight and dimensions (DIM weight) in 2015, shippers are looking for cost-effective ways to minimize their package sizes.

While large shippers tend to use a single carrier service because their high volumes translate into the best rates, smaller volume shippers are likely using multiple carriers, says Datalogic’s Jones.

“The end-of-line packaging equipment can be leveraged to make real-time decisions about which carrier offers the best rate for a given parcel,” he says. “Shippers can also pull the captured data from these machines about their types of parcels and volumes, and use that information in negotiations for better rates.”

Automating that process all the way back at the point of order release using the item or stock keeping unit’s (SKU) dimension and weight data, is critical to ensuring that the shipping package has minimal empty space and void fill, says Numina Group’s Hanrahan.

“Based on order item cube data information, warehouse control software can manage the automated print-and-apply labeling process and can also determine the optimum package or carton selection prior to the beginning order picking,” he says.
“Depending on each order’s SKU size requirements, the package type is selected and items can be picked directly to the package,” says Hanrahan. “It’s then conveyed and routed to the required packaging lines, giving an operation the ability to automatically direct each specific package to different packaging lines based on document requirements, void fill type, carton heights or other processing needs.”

For small items, there’s been movement away from corrugated boxes to padded envelopes or pouches, a switch-over that may require labeling equipment modifications, such as different tamp pads or label materials.

For larger items that require corrugated boxes, there are solutions available that create a custom-sized corrugated shipping box designed to match the cube of the order on demand. However, those systems still generate waste from the unused material, says PSI Engineering’s Napier.

“Because regular slotted containers (RSC) boxes represent roughly 90% of all corrugated sold, there’s an economy of scale that can be gained from reducing the headspace by of the box whose footprint best matches the dimensions of the products inside,” he says.

PSI’s robotic Optimizer system uses sensors to detect the height of the tallest item, then vertically slices the corners and scores the box sides to reduce the box height, Napier explains. The machine closes the box to the new finished height size and seals it.
“This allows distribution centers to use a variety of boxes ranging in size from 7 to 30 inches long in a variety of widths and heights,” he says. “The system can handle variable size cartons as fast as 10 to 15 cycles per minute.”

Troubleshooting, performance analysis
The latest print-and-apply equipment has expanded communication and connectivity capabilities, allowing suppliers to monitor and troubleshoot any issues over the Internet.

“This ability allows manufacturers to offer support for their equipment no matter where it’s located in the world,” says Fox IV Technologies’ Fox. “It’s become very appealing to large companies with multiple plants around the world. They want both service and support.”

Likewise, the machines can be equipped to share information about their operation within a given time period. By analyzing the number of cycles per day within a 24-hour period, drops or spikes in productivity from shift-to-shift might indicate a training need, says Fox. “If a machine is down for a label substrate changeover for only 5 minutes on first shift, but 30 minutes on third shift, then that’s something that needs to be addressed,” he says.

Companies mentioned in this article
FOX IV Technologies,
Numina Group,
PSI Engineering,

About the Author

Sara Pearson Specter
Sara Pearson Specter has written articles and supplements for Modern Materials Handling and Material Handling Product News as an Editor at Large since 2001. Specter has worked in the fields of graphic design, advertising, marketing, and public relations for nearly 20 years, with a special emphasis on helping business-to-business industrial and manufacturing companies. She owns her own marketing communications firm, Sara Specter, Marketing Mercenary LLC. Clients include companies in a diverse range of fields, including materials handing equipment, systems and packaging, professional and financial services, regional economic development and higher education. Specter graduated from Centre College in Danville, Ky. with a bachelor’s degree in French and history. She lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where she and her husband are in the process of establishing a vineyard and winery.

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