By Ravi Panjwani, Contributor
In today’s packaging industry—especially as we move toward a “new normal,” the demand for efficiency at all levels of production is essential. Whether it’s related to packaging for perishable food, beverages, craft beer, cannabis, eCommerce, household products, pharmaceutical, medical or personal care products, printing barcodes is critical to providing seamlessness and visibility across the packing facility, warehouse and loading dock.
Barcode labeling is often considered a “low-hanging fruit” to drive operational improvement. That’s because, compared with other technology investments, barcoding is relatively inexpensive; easy to implement; and can offer a quick return on investment. In addition, barcoding can help identify bottlenecks and reduce errors—and even improve communications with suppliers, logistics providers and customers.
Here are some key ways on how packaging providers can use barcoding today, along with recommendations on how an organization can choose the optimum label printers.
Adding Value: Packing Facility, Warehouse or Loading Dock
Step one in implementing barcoding is to determine the areas within the packaging operation that will create the most value for the organization. In these facilities, operations typically center around packaging machining, cartoning, case packaging, conveyors, coding and marking, palletizing, inspection and end-of-line. At many points throughout these processes, barcode labeling can easily be used to track inventory levels, supplier lot numbers, work in process, finished goods and quality inspection areas.
Barcode labeling can also add value related to areas such as compliance—in the printing of regulatory or safety warning labels. Across the facility, labeling can include the printing of asset tags for marking equipment control panels, switches or cabling. In the warehouse, key uses include printing labels for racks, shelves and bins to ensure accurate put-away locations. On the loading dock, barcode labeling can benefit areas such as printing labels on inbound goods in receiving, for put-away and inspection labels or for outbound shipping.
The Right Printer for the Right Task
Once you determine the primary areas across the packaging operation where labeling can play a role, it’s critical to identify optimal label sizes and their required lifespan—or how long each label needs to remain 100% scannable. For example, printing medical or pharmaceutical labels might need to be smaller or last longer than the labels for shipping cartons of finished goods.
This information is important when selecting which of the two types of thermal printing technology is best for the packing application.
- Direct thermal printers use heat to burn text and barcodes onto thermal-sensitive paper. This printing method is widely used for generating receipts and shipping labels that are used immediately. The print technology is fast and efficient, but images are more sensitive to light, heat and abrasion—making them best suited for short-term or indoor applications. However, recent innovations in thermal media have paved the way for high-resolution, direct thermal labels that can last for extended periods before fading.
- Thermal transfer printers are the preferred method for labels that need to be more durable and withstand the test of time. Thermal transfer printers use ribbons and heat to melt the ink, generating high-resolution images, barcodes and text that become part of the label. The output is more durable and permanent, even when exposed to chemicals, high heat or the sun’s rays. Thermal transfer printers work with standard and specialty media, available in a wide variety of paper and synthetic materials including mylar, polyester and polypropylene.
Next, estimate how many labels of each type will be needed to print on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. For departments with a high printing volume, today’s advanced direct thermal and thermal transfer printers are fast, and some print up to 8in of high-resolution labels per second. That’s equivalent to 40ft of labels every minute.
The printers selected should include software that provides an easy design for a wide range of barcode and text labels. They should also seamlessly integrate with and print directly from ERP, WMS or other core business software systems and should be compatible with laptops or PCs, as well as tablets and smartphones used in operations.
It is important to know the printer’s standard wireless and wired connectivity options, such as Ethernet LAN, USB, Bluetooth® Wireless Technology or Wi-Fi® to best determine your printer selection. Lightweight printers with rechargeable batteries are space-savers that can move around as needed. These compact, desktop models fit easily on a desk or work bench compared to the ruggedized mobile printers that are clipped to a belt or worn with a strap by always-mobile workers. It’s not unusual for companies to select a combination of mobile, desktop and handheld printer models based on their applications.
To ensure a seamless implementation, printer models should be tested for usability and be set up with intuitive controls. Also, make sure it is easy to change ribbons or load new media. This is critical, if you have high turnover or use temporary employees, so printer downtime doesn’t bring productivity within the packaging operation to a halt.
Once the optimum mix of printers has been selected, it’s critical to ensure they’ll be up and running for the long haul. For that reason, look for models with a minimum of a two-year warranty to give you the satisfaction that these printers are built to last and backed by the manufacturer to deliver dependable performance. Today’s IoT-based, mobile device-management platforms are helping to keep fleets of printers in busy facilities secure and running at peak efficiency—with less human resource.
HaaS Acquisition to Ease Budgets
As budgetary pressure is commonplace in today’s ever-changing world of packaging, it’s important to make sure your budget can withstand the technology that best matches your packing applications.
Fortunately, advances in thermal printing have narrowed the price gap between direct thermal and thermal transfer methods. Some next-generation printers now offer the best of both worlds: printers that give you the option of printing with either method, for the ultimate in versatility and cost-effectiveness.
In addition, looking for a provider that offers a Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) option for technology acquisition can shift acquisition costs from a capital equipment expense (CapEx) to an operating cost (OpEx)—which reduces pressure on the bottom line. With HaaS, your packaging facility can quickly deploy barcode printing across operations and take advantage of improved efficiency and performance across operations. WMHS