Just About Everything You Need to Know Barcode Printer/Applicators

To comment how automated data collection (ADC) has made inventory and material tracking incredibly more efficient would be preaching to the converted. But now that things in the warehouse are moving so smoothly, have you noticed an area where the barcoding process bogs down? Getting the right barcode label onto all packages as you receive inventory can still be a time-consuming headache. It’s no surprise, then, that equipment that both prints and applies those labels is becoming popular. It gets the job done quicker, cheaper, and more accurately. Here are some of the advantages of an integrated printer/applicator:

Reduction of manual labor: Often these savings will justify the cost of an applicator system in less than two years.

System throughput: Because applicators often label products in conjunction with existing or new material handling equipment, the material continues to flow smoothly, instead of halting while labels are manually applied.

Consistency of label placement: Automatic applications can position labels exactly on each package, allowing them to be scanned much more efficiently. This might eliminate the need for a more expensive in-line omnidirectional scanner.

Data integrity: An applicator system can eliminate the risk of the wrong label formats or data being applied to the container, avoiding costly charge-backs or returns from customers.

Typical system configuration
Printer/applicators don’t work alone. A variety of other equipment makes up a complete working system. The following is a description of each component:

Printer/applicator: The print-and-apply machine incorporates a print engine and an application device using one of several technologies (such as tamp or blow-on). It also provides user settings and controls and media unwind and rewind devices. The applicator is mounted so that it can place the label exactly where it is needed on the package.

Applicator stand: An adjustable stand allows the applicator to be positioned properly. Or the applicator can mount directly to the conveyor.

Warning lights: A series of colored lights on a pole, easily visible to operators, flash to signify various errors or conditions, such as low media conditions and “no read” barcodes.

Photo eye (P/E): This sensor detects the product as it moves down the conveyor and sends a signal for the applicator to print a label. Sometimes other sensors serve this purpose.

Carton notification scanner: Usually a fixed-mount line or omnidirectional scanner, it reads the appropriate barcode on the container, such as a SKU/UPC number, and relays that code to the control software.

Meter conveyor: A conveyor upstream from the applicator, it provides adequate spacing between containers to be labeled.

Skew conveyor: A conveyor with skewed rollers, it drives the carton to the applicator side of the conveyor bed, positioning the carton properly. For batches of fixed-width cartons, a guide-rail system and belt conveyor may be used instead.

Programmable logic controller (PLC): Used to provide conveyor control, such as shutting off the conveyor in the event of a “no read,” it can also be used to activate warning lights or to actually send the firing signal to the applicator. More-sophisticated controls may be used for controlling induction into the applicator system and post-application sortation to outbound.

PC with applicator control software: This can be anything from a simple label design/printing package with database look-up capabilities to a software program that accepts downloads from the host, does database look-ups, generates printer formats and data streams, and sends data records back to the host or other system.

System integration
Companies often make the mistake of purchasing a printer/applicator and then treating it as a standalone piece of equipment, as if it were a tabletop printer. While most printer/applicators are robust, industrial-strength machines, it takes considerable skill to successfully install them, as the system’s success rests upon related material handling, software, and control systems.

Applicators are complex machines that must be precisely configured and installed. With a good system design, professional installation, and proper preventative maintenance, you can expect excellent, trouble-free performance from your printer/applicator system. Conversely, taking short cuts or skimping on necessary system components can mean weeks or even months of trying to tweak the system to get it to work properly.

Usually the systems integrator will want to conduct a site survey or engineering design study to assess your system requirements and constraints. You might have to pay extra for such a study, but it’s well worth the cost. It will save you thousands of dollars in the long run to get the right system initially and have it work efficiently. Compare this investment with the cost of shutting down a distribution center.

Your integrator should also look for opportunities to improve material flow and reduce handling. For example, you might place the printer/applicator system at the end of a filling or taping station to minimize additional product handling. On the other hand, it might be best to route the cartons through a high-speed sortation conveyor system or to a carton palletizer first, installing the applicator system further downstream in the material handling process after multiple lines merge. In fact, a good printer/applicator system design will frequently identify material handling bottlenecks or indicate ways to improve data capture, thus saving more than the cost of the applicator. You can make these changes when you set up the applicator. Sometimes you can make an overall upgrade to more logical and efficient material handling later on.

Software and controls
Software programs for applicator systems fall generally into two categories. One type is usually PC based and controls the host and warehouse management system (WMS) interfaces, provides database management and look-ups, and controls the printing process. It might also let you design your labels and perform system diagnostics via remote dial-in. The other type is usually PLC based and controls conveyors and material handling equipment.

Typically the applicator system software will connect to either a host or a WMS. The nature of this interface and how the system control is allocated between the applicator software and the host carries from project to project. For example, the host or WMS may download a complete carton record, including precise shipping data and label format. The applicator control software then identifies the appropriate record, based on a unique container ID, and uses this information to print the label. In other, more-complex systems, the applicator software receives customer order files and selects the proper destination, label data, and format based on a SKU identifier, moving from order to order as SKU requirements for a particular customer are filled.

Conveyor controls are also critical. These can vary in sophistication, from providing basic functionality that shuts down the line in case of defined events (barcode misreads, low air pressure) to software that allows operators to control merges and rates of induction into the applicator line. Some systems also offer high-speed sortation controls after the labels have been applied, requiring an even higher level of control engineering.

Keys to system success
While there are thousands of highly successful printer/applicator installations throughout the U.S., there are also systems that have experienced major problems or failed to meet user expectations. At most of these less successful installations, the problem has little to do with the performance of the applicator itself. Too often the wrong type of machine was used for the application, or there are problems in the material-handling environment in which the applicator is installed. In either case, it is a failure on the part of the supplier or the customer to fully do the pre-installation work needed to ensure that the equipment being proposed meets the application requirements.

Many warehouses or manufacturing plants that could benefit from printer/applicator systems have yet to implement them. Either they haven’t evaluated applicators as an option, or they’ve decided against an applicator system because it takes considerable initial effort to implement. It’s much easier in the short tem to buy a tabletop label printer, plug it in, and have operators start hand-applying labels. But those companies that are spending the money and making the initial effort are reaping long-term savings and increased efficiency that will continue to add up as the years roll by.

Robert Babel is vice president of engineering improvement for Mason, OH-based Forte (www.forte-industries.com), a supply chain consulting and engineering firm.
Other articles by Robert Babel:

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