How to Apply “Lean” Principles to Your Labeling

Don’t wait for a system “failure” alert to assess the performance of your labeling strategy and solutions – especially if efficiency matters to your organization.

A warehouse worker wearing a mobile printer pulls a box off a shelf.
by Your Edge Contributor
June 13, 2021

*This post was written by Kevin Ledversis, Sales Director for Newcastle Systems, a registered Zebra ISV.

How much work have you done evaluating your labeling processes in the last two-to-three years? When drilling down into process improvements, labeling is by far the most overlooked process in today’s manufacturing, warehousing, retail, government, utility, and even healthcare facilities. In fact, one of the most common things we hear from our own resellers is that most customers don’t think about labels until they have a visible problem – and that’s an issue considering the label is the most critical piece of information attached to your product or package. If it falls off easily, has blurry or faded print, or can’t be read accurately, then the entire order or product loses its value. (We take a deeper dive into solving for this in our downloadable “Warehouse Guide to Lean Labeling”).

But labeling problems can hurt operations long before they appear on the floor or any performance dashboard. And ignoring the critical role your labels play in being an efficient facility can result in costly “solutions” that don’t really address the problem. That’s why “Lean Labeling” should be a natural add-on to your checklist of standard processes to measure.

What’s Involved in “Lean Labeling”?

Many tend to think of the “Lean” philosophy of continuous process improvement relative to manufacturing. However, it can be used by any business to reduce or eliminate waste within any process. “Lean Labeling” facilitates the review of the whole process, top to bottom, from design to discard to identify opportunities for improvement. (Remember, problems related to label performance aren’t just limited to the physical labels.)

Here are some signs to indicate issues might either exist now or arise in the future and need to be addressed via Lean Labeling:

Label and Ribbon Combinations

We’re often asked why there are so many combinations on the market, and the simple answer is that “printing is highly personalized.” A single printer may be capable of producing 10 different types of labels and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in support of just as many different production, inventory management and fulfillment requirements. And using the right label/ribbon combination really makes a difference in the output quality. There are potentially dozens of factors to consider:

o   Where is your facility? Hot humid summers require different labels than locations with cooler, dryer ones.

o   How cold does it get? Applying the label to a cold surface requires a different solution than one just stored in or passing through cold environments.

A pint of ice cream sits in a cooler

o   Will the label be bumped or rub against other boxes? Your facestock, varnish, and ribbon will be factors.

o   Does it need to display ingredients or chemical names for legally-mandated periods? For example, chemical barrels are legally required to be readable 10 years after they get lost in the ocean!

If you have any of the factors listed above – or any of the others listed in this blog post – but did not consider them when choosing your label and/or ribbon supplies, then it is possible you are experiencing quality issues (or will at some point). If you’re a manufacturer, you should also read this post about how to select the right supplies for product ID applications.

-  Printer Output vs. Capacity

Is your printer able to print at its advertised pace and speed? Many users find themselves slowing down the pace of printing because the quality suffers at top speeds. But this issue can also be addressed with a different label and ribbon combination, designed for high speeds while maintaining high quality. (You can read more about the solution here.)

DIY Modifications

Like any good “Lean” analysis, a “Gemba Walk” to your printers and the stations where labels are being applied might reveal problems that don’t appear where you normally expect to see them. Some typical DIY “solutions” you might find might include:

o   use of additional glue or tape to ensure they adhere better.

o   marking up with colors or other visual cues to reduce errors.

o   adding a second blank label underneath to improve visibility.

o   bagging RFID tags to improve readability on metal objects.

o   relabeling due to inability to scan.

o   excessive printer downtime from poor maintenance.

Non-standard (and entirely unproductive) steps in your labeling processes like these are indications you have the wrong label/ribbon combination or a maintenance issue.

What Else Does “Lean” Say?      

There is one additional angle that matters when looking at your labeling process. While a typical audit of your process will follow the path of the label, its quality, and the like to identify waste, the paths of the people who create and apply the labels must also be included in the process.

You’ll likely find the biggest source of waste comes from the location of your printers relative to where the labels are being applied. If your team has to walk to a centrally located printer to get the labels needed for their work, you need to consider the value you might gain from transitioning to either traditional mobile printers and/or cart-based mobile printing solutions. Footsteps result in wasted time, as well as unnecessary fatigue.

The cost of wasted steps in your labeling workflow

There’s No Standard Solution to Common Labeling Issues, but There is a Standard Process You Can Follow to Find One

The first step to determining an appropriate solution is to understand the true cost of your problem. Every problem identified above can be measured and have a value placed on it – both in terms of actual cost and opportunity cost (i.e., the cost of a lost customer or the lost labor capacity from hours wasted reapplying labels or manually marking up labels). Again, though, the biggest cost for many facilities comes from the time workers spend walking to and from printers.

Putting your printer and the other items from your workstation on a cart powered with a Lithium battery will instantly eliminate waste in terms of time and effort.

A mobile cart printer solution

In fact, the return gained by making this simple change as part of your Lean Labeling process improvements usually pays for itself within six months. By bringing label printing capabilities directly to the process area where they are needed, you reduce steps, fatigue and even mistakes. Based on our customers’ experiences, a typical first-time application in the Receiving department of a warehouse – or even a hospital – can expedite the receiving process by up to 50%!

This certainly isn’t the only use case, though. If you’re curious how carts with mobile power have generated savings for other organizations, visit our resource center or watch this webinar on “Lean Labeling” co-presented by Newcastle Systems, Teklynx and Zebra. Of course, you can always contact me or your Zebra representative to learn more about the Lean Labeling process and solutions to identified problems.

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Your Edge Contributor
Zebra will occasionally publish insights from members of our partner community, our customers and other subject matter experts across the global industries we serve on the Your Edge blog. Background information about each individual author can be found at the bottom of their contributed blog post.