Selecting the Right Printer
Selecting the right printer is not as intimidating as it first appears. By describing the barcoding functions in specific terms and answering a few simple questions, users can narrow their printer choices considerably. The primary questions to ask are:
- What are the intended uses of the barcode labels?
- Where will the printers be located?
- In what kind of environment will the printers operate (temperature fluctuation, vibration, high humidity, exposure to chemicals, etc.)?
- What are the anticipated duty cycles for the printers?
- Are there any minimum speed requirements?
- What are the dimensions of the labels to be used?
- How frequently do label specifications change?
- What kind of environments will the labels be exposed to (temperature fluctuation, abrasion, high humidity, exposure to chemicals, etc.)?
- Will the printers be connected to a network or to stand-alone terminals?
- What is the budget for the project?
Other performance variables include the following:
What sort of environmental conditions will the printer encounter? Some Zebra® printers, for example, are specifically designed for harsh industrial environments and have sealed cabinetry to prevent dust from interfering with operations. Rugged desktop printers may be ideal for light industry, commercial applications and office use.
What is your daily label output? Zebra’s high-performance Xi™ series printers are designed to operate continuously, during peak print cycles or nonstop for 24-hour cycles. Other models are better suited for lower volume, intermittent printing. Print speed is also a factor in meeting print volume requirements.
Print speed is an important consideration if you require a high volume of labels to be printed daily or during peak cycles. Print speed is an element of “throughput,” which is the time lapsed between receipt of the print command and completion of the printing process. Throughput depends not only on printing time but also on label formatting time (i.e., the time required to convert the program and data to an image on the label). Depending on the complexity of the label format and the printer’s ability to process this information in an efficient manner, label-formatting time can sometimes cause significant print delays, affecting a printer’s overall print speed capability. Such delays can be costly in productivity if they occur in a production environment where time and on-demand print capability are of the essence.
Label Image Durability
Thermal transfer is the only solution if crisp, long-lasting images are required to last for a number of years. Direct thermal printers, in comparison, are ideal for short-term applications where the label is only required to last for a limited amount of time — from one week to one year. Direct thermal is not as durable as thermal transfer, especially when exposed to direct sunlight or chemicals. Direct thermal paper varieties are also somewhat more limited than those available for thermal transfer printers.
Depending on your application, higher resolution (measured in dots per inch or dpi) may be required to facilitate the printing of text and barcodes on very small labels, such as those commonly used in the electronics or pharmaceutical industries for component or specimen labeling. Higher print resolutions provide crisp, detailed printing of much information in small spaces, without impairing scanner readability. While many Zebra printers have 203 dpi resolution — adequate for most normal applications — other models offer 300 dpi and even 600 dpi for high resolution in applications where limited label real estate exists or where high-resolution text and graphics are needed.
Another factor in choosing a printer is determining the widest label you need to print. Zebra thermal printers, for example, offer an assortment of maximum print widths ranging from 2" (on mobile and some desktop printers) to 8.5" (for printing 8.5" x 11" packing slips and invoices faster and less expensively than laser printing). If your application demands large labels (e.g., shipping labels, multi-part invoices, or labels on large products and packages, chemical drums, or pallet wrap) you need to choose a wide-label printer with a print width of 6" or more.
Even if the application does not require large labels, sometimes a wide-label printer can still be advantageous. For example, while a 4"-wide printer is able to print the common 6" x 4" compliance label format, it must rotate the information and print it lengthwise (4"W x 6"L). A 6"-wide printer can print the same label laterally (the wide way) as 6"W x 4"L.