A warehouse worker applies a label to a box
By Craig Swanson | October 21, 2019

Believe It or Not: Your Printer Selection May Not Have the Biggest Impact on the Performance of Your Printing Application

Here are just a few of the many reasons why it is far more important to pick the right labels – and the right quality of label – for any application that uses a printer.

To a layman, labels may just seem like sticky pieces of paper that enable one to easily mark an item – usually for shipment or storage. Beyond the size of the label, no consideration may be given to its quality, the type of adhesive used or the simple fact that not all labels are suitable – or secure enough – for all labeling scenarios.

That may be okay if you’re printing labels for personal use. But oversimplifying the label selection process can spell trouble for businesses. Especially when it comes to thermal transfer printing – which is the method used to produce approximately half of all labels used in enterprise, industrial and even small business environments.

See, the printer is often deemed the primary determinant of a printing solution’s performance. And printer performance certainly matters a great deal, as we’ve talked about before here on the Your Edge and I will revisit again in a minute. However, the printer is just one component of the printing solution and therefore just one influence on the quality of your printing solution’s output.

Honestly, the printer isn’t even the first thing you should really think about when you start shopping for a printing solution. Your focus should be on the labeling application.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

Labels do more than just store data.

Whether specific to inventory management or the “track and trace” of assets, sales or shipments, that label or tag being printed is designed to facilitate accountability through real-time visibility into asset status. They also improve productivity. Workers can get more done in less time when labels consistently print, adhere and scan properly throughout their intended life cycles. But your labeling application can fail to perform as needed if your labels are failing.

When many companies shop for their label/tag printing solution, they assume that all components of that solution will remain viable until the printer reaches end of life. The labels included. Yet, I’ve realized through conversations with customers and colleagues that one of two things typically happen:

1. The labels initially purchased were appropriate for the application – at the time. But the customer has never re-evaluated the selection since. The company simply continues to re-order those exact same supplies until it’s time to upgrade the printer, which could be 5-7 years later, as long as no major issues arise. This stems from a belief that change is risky. (Yet, failing to change can be just as risky.)

2.  Customers point to the printer as the point of failure when labels don’t come out to their quality standards, not realizing that the printing supplies such as the labels themselves could be the culprit.  All the while, they continue using the same labels/tags they’ve always used.

In each of these scenarios, we usually come to the same conclusion after close evaluation of the company’s “solution”: they are not using the right label for the application right now.

That’s because there are thousands of types of thermal labels alone, each customized to ensure that it will work as it should despite the environmental elements it will encounter. (Ruggedness is not a descriptive term exclusively reserved for hardware such as handheld mobile computers, tablets, scanners and printers.)

Plus, the labels needed for manufacturing, warehousing and distribution environments will likely vary greatly from retail, healthcare or field service environments. Even within each of those vertical sectors, there is tremendous variation in labeling applications. For example, within automotive supply chains alone, both barcode and RFID labels may be needed to tag, track and trace everything from pallets of raw materials to the thousands of individual parts arriving from suppliers – ranging from metal screws in bins to wire harnesses – as well as the finished vehicles rolling off the line. That means that, as a supplier to an automotive manufacturer, you may need to apply dozens of different types of labels and tags on the products you’re shipping out to the factory depending on each manufacturer’s specific labeling requirements.

And that’s just one example. Most supply chain organizations require multi-faceted labeling strategies and printing solutions to support the many different types of products they process, their palletization tracking requirements and the technologies used to track and trace assets. The printing system design – and supplies requirements – for a shipping label application can vary greatly from a precision-based, small-label application, even if both are used within the same facility. There are also compliance requirements around government regulations and industry mandates.

Don’t forget that your label selection also impacts printer performance and the total cost of ownership (TCO) for your entire printing solution. For example, ensuring that you’re using the best quality label available can help to prevent adhesive buildup on printer parts and premature printhead failures. It also helps to reduce frequent label reprints, which lead to frequent reorders and wasteful spending. Of course, using the right supplies for your labeling application also minimizes printing mishaps that disrupt operations on a massive scale.

The takeaway?

You should be constantly re-assessing your label/tag selection. Ideally, every couple of years. That way you don’t waste any money on incompatible or insufficient supplies for your current application requirements.

What Do You Need to Accomplish It?

Whether ordering labels for a completely new application or re-ordering for the same application a tenth time, the only way to confidently select the right labels and tags is to first list out your application mandates, environmental considerations and the overall workflow/asset flow. Then complete a “printing solution” requirements checklist for each application. From a label perspective, it should cover things such as:

  • Label Type and Size Do you need a label or a tag? Does your label need a barcode, RFID tag or both? How much typography needs to be on the label? How much surface space is available for the label?
  • Type of Surface to Be LabeledWill the label go on corrugate, glass, plastic, metal or some other material? Could the surface potentially be dirty or moist? Is it a curved or flat surface?
  • Readability – As noted in this white paper, “It is critical that the labels you utilize are not only readable and scannable when they leave your operation, but throughout the products’ safe and appropriate use and disposal.” In other words, will it still be legible by a scanner (or even the human eye) after being sent through a mail processing machine or steam autoclave? Or will it be too dirty, scratched or ripped to read? And don’t forget about read range. This is especially important for RFID labels that may be read by overhead locationing systems. But it also matters to barcoded labels. Often times, a worker in a warehouse will need to be able to read the tiny barcode on a pallet or individual item stored on the top shelf, which can be 40-50 feet (12-15 meters) away. There are also instances where data will need to be captured from over 65 feet away using a handheld, extended-range scanner.
  • Tamper Evident Do you need to be able to visually see if someone has tampered with the label? This is an especially critical consideration in environments prone to counterfeit goods, product contamination or even “clearance fraud” – a scenario in which a consumer attempts to remove a marked down price tag of one item and place it on another full-priced item.
  • Environmental Resistance/Tolerance Will the labels be used indoors or outdoors? Will they be somewhat protected from rain, snow, humidity, extreme temperatures and other weather events or completely exposed? What types of chemicals could the asset and, therefore, label, encounter in the course of handling, transport or finished good lifecycle? Brake fluid, anti-freeze, engine oil, diesel, acetone, cleaning solvents or oils/grease? Something else? How long does the label need to remain readable? Days? Years? Can it endure these environmental elements for that long? Can it survive gamma radiation, ethylene oxide sterilization and other extreme element exposures?
  • Unique Application (or Removal) NeedsThere are many instances in which the label/tag will need to be removed, replaced or repositioned frequently, such as in item pricing, retail shelf tagging or asset inspection and maintenance workflows where the old label is removed and a new one applied to indicate the date or mileage for the next service interval. In other scenarios, a “cover-up” label is more suitable. For example, some consumers may try to re-use shipping boxes; the new label needs to effectively hide the information on the label underneath it to ensure a clean scan during processing and transport. Of course, there are specialized applications that require labels that are retro-reflective or electrostatic dissipative, to name a few.
  • Compliance Are you responsible for labeling electronics that require a UL/cUL marking? Or food and beverage items that require an FDA 175.105 label? Do you need a Globally Harmonized System (GHS) label? A Unique Device Identification (UDI) label for medical device compliance with the FDA and other government regulations in other global regions? Or a UID label to comply with the Department of Defense (DoD) mandate in the U.S.?

From a printer perspective, you will need to consider the “speeds and feeds” of your workflow to start:

  • What is the target printing volume by size of a typical printing job or typical hourly throughput? A rough estimate of the peak number of labels to print per hour in a typical day, times label length, indicates the label length in inches to print and, therefore, the necessary print speed. Printer specifications include print speed ranges and you have choices.
  • Do any bottlenecks in your production workflow exist that act as a constraint on the maximum labeling or tagging rate? For example, how efficiently do workers peel labels from their backing and adhere them to packaging? Printing speed itself is rarely, if ever, as much of a bottleneck as other workflow tasks.
  • As far as the operating environment is concerned, are the printers subject to extreme temperatures? Is your plant or warehouse dusty or dirty and will workers switch between getting their hands dirty moving stock and operating the printer? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, has the manufacturer built the printer with rugged materials that keep contaminants away from the printing mechanism? And is it equipped with a thermal management system to ensure wide operating temperature and humidity ranges?
  • What level of detail does a typical print job require? Normally, if it includes a complex label format such as small characters, intricate images, rotated barcodes or 600-dpi resolution, you will need lower print speeds to produce readable labels.

That’s a lot of information to process, right? We’re not done yet. Other things to consider:

  • Are you servicing the printer according to the manufacturer’s recommendations? Incorrect service actions and inconsistent service in general can cause costly downtime and unnecessary headaches.
  • How easy and fast is it to adjust printer settings if/when you have to change out your media type? If your printer can print multiple types of media, you’ll want to ensure any setting update can be affected nearly instantly.

Mind you, this list of questions is not exhaustive for either the hardware or supplies considerations that must be made related to printing. There are dozens more. I just want to demonstrate how complex it can be to build a printing solution that will fully support the labeling applications that quite literally dictate the speed and performance of your business output.

But don’t worry: my team and I will help you navigate each of those decisions over the next several months here on Your Edge. In fact, I’ll be back here on Your Edge next month with a blog talking about the role that ribbons play in your printing solution.

Before I sign off, though, let me leave you with a final stat to ponder:

It is common for companies to spend between three and 10 times what the printer itself costs on printing supplies – each year.

So, you have a right to know the real impact that (not-so-simple) decisions about labels, ribbons, inlays and more have on the return on investment (ROI) for your printer – and the performance of your entire printing solution.


Editor’s Note:

Tune back into Your Edge in November to see what Craig reveals about how much your printer ribbon regulates the “speeds and feeds” of your labeling solution.

Warehouse and Distribution, Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Retail,
Craig Swanson
Craig Swanson

Craig Swanson is Senior Director of Product Management for the Supplies Business Unit at Zebra Technologies.  He is responsible for the strategy and management of Zebra’s supplies portfolio across the globe.  The supplies portfolio consists of specialty label materials, RFID labels, thermal transfer ribbons and thermal & laser printable wristbands.    

Prior to this role, Mr. Swanson has held a variety of progressive management positions at Zebra, including Supplies Product Manager, Industry Marketing Manager, Senior Business Development Manager and Senior Manager for Channel Strategy, Operations & Alliances.  Prior to joining, he spent six years with Rittenhouse Paper Company, where he held various product management positions within its label and ribbon divisions.

Mr. Swanson received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marquette University, a master’s degree in business administration from Keller Graduate School of Management and was awarded an Executive Scholar Certificate from Kellogg School of Management.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Spring of Life Partnership Habitat for Humanity. 

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