Label Conscious; more than getting the right label on the right box
March 01, 2010 - MMH Editorial
Since everything in your supply chain has to be identified and carries a label packed with vital information about the product and its path, taking a closer look at your print and apply process could give your operation a competitive edge.
Higher levels of automation, applying multiple labels to a product, repositioning product on a conveyor, and combining print and apply steps are a just a few ways companies are moving product faster and reducing costs.
“The print and apply industry continues to evolve because the volumes have become too high to accomplish the tasks manually, and it’s not efficient or cost effective for one or multiple workers to apply labels anymore,” says Jim Thompson, president of Panther Industries (800-530-6018, http://www.print-n-apply.com). Automating these tasks reduces labor and human error, ensures higher levels of accuracy, and keeps the process running smoothly.
In print and apply, it’s nearly impossible to separate hardware from software. The hardware is the vehicle that prints and applies the label, but the software provides the intelligence. The labeling process is a seamless relationship between the two and requires communication. So how can each component contribute to enhanced performance?
Levels of automation
In some respects, the print and apply market is dividing into two segments, says Wink Faulkner, president of Logopak (866-901-9343, http://www.logopakcorp.com). The first is the end user who wants to make a low capital investment and can tolerate some downtime in their operations. “These are companies that have relatively low levels of automation and have a technician on staff who knows and can maintain the machine,” says Faulkner.
The second is the larger company that has made a significant investment in an automated order fulfillment system. That end user needs a more sophisticated, industrialized printer that can integrate with an automation control system. In that environment, the trend is to put more computing power and communications capabilities at the local level.
“We have a customer operating a highly automated parcel fulfillment line,” says Faulkner. “The printer can query an order management system and download a database of orders that will be filled later in the day. When it’s time to fill an order, the system can look up the order number and print the labels faster because the information is right there at the local level.”
Speed vs. accuracy
One of the reasons print and apply technology is constantly pushed forward and driven to the next level is the need for increased throughput, says Mike Soloway, labeling systems product manager at Weber Marking (800-843-4242, http://www.webermarking.com).
Printing labels faster is a good thing, but how fast is too fast? Well, when you increase the speed, you introduce legibility issues. And, legibility is not negotiable. “We may be able to go faster, but speed may create problems. We have to ensure that a label is printed clearly and legibly so there aren’t any problems down the line,” Soloway says.
“Print and apply technology is limited by the print engine because there is a limit as to how fast you can go while maintaining the clear quality and legibility of a label,” says Soloway. “Typically we try not to print faster than 8 inches per second, even though the equipment can actually go up to 16 inches per second.”
If the print engine is limiting speed, how can you go faster? Many are looking at and adjusting other steps in the process, like how product is handled. For example, if product comes down a conveyor closer to the print-and-apply equipment, the reach of the label applicator can be shortened. And, shortening the reach can shave milliseconds off the application time. Milliseconds don’t seem like much until you do the math, then the time and savings add up.