Incorporating new technologies or best practices into the manufacturing process can lead to greater efficiencies and cost savings. However, taking the leap to make those changes can be daunting, no matter how large or small they are.

Label printing is seeing a significant shift in the label printing process. High-mix, low-volume manufacturers across multiple vertical markets, including food, beverage, chemical and pharmaceuticals, are actively moving from a two-step label production process to a one-step process. This article will explore why that is and look at the benefits it can bring.

Two is not always better than one

The incumbent two-step labeling process favored by many manufacturers involves ordering pre-printed color labels in bulk and then printing black and white variable data in-house. While the process sounds basic, it brings with it a multitude of challenges, especially when dealing with a high number of stock-keeping units (SKU).

For example, a regional cookie manufacturer sells a company’s product at its specialty stores. The company’s portfolio contains 10 different kinds of cookies, and each type of cookie is available in two different package sizes with a low-sugar, regular and organic version. That company alone has 60 SKUs to manage.

Sixty SKUs will require a high number of labels, which will occupy a large amount of storage space. As products are packed on the manufacturing line, staff need to pull the label with the correct cookie type, package size and formulation from inventory and print variable data, such as the best-by date, before applying the label to the package. At this step in the production process alone, issues can arise with pulling the incorrect label or misprinting the best-by date. Staff may even find that the pre-printed labels for a particular cookie type or size have been depleted and need to be reordered, creating delays in the fulfillment of orders and potentially leading to cost premiums if replacement labels are needed in a short time frame.

Stockpiling pre-printed color labels also complicates matters when manufacturers seek to redesign graphics or reformulate their products because they must either exhaust their existing label stock or absorb the cost for inventory that becomes obsolete. This is an increasingly common challenge for manufacturers as they work to meet demands from consumers for personalization, introduce brand extensions and deliver exclusive versions of products to retailers to help drive sales.

For tightly regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals, the flexibility to adapt to change becomes even more important. For example, under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals directive, hazard pictograms must be printed with red borders. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permits manufacturers to produce labels via pre-printed color labels, this method means the variable data
printed in-house must perfectly align with the pre-printed pictograms. More often than not, this does not work out as planned. Instead, manufacturers end up with labels containing empty pictogram frames, orphaned icons, overlapping borders and symbols, or large, black overstrikes. Errors like these put compliance into jeopardy and make the product being shipped look inferior.

Benefits of a one-step solution

The nature of on-demand color labeling is that manufacturers only produce as many full-color labels as they need — precisely when they need them. On-demand color printers produce all color label information as well as variable data in a single process, pulling pre-saved data and label formats that have been programmed into their memory. This process enhances operational efficiency by eliminating long lead times and high inventories of pre-printed labels as well as reducing shipping errors.

Overall, the on-demand process can reduce total label costs by up to 50 percent through streamlined processing and reduced waste. The real-time label production combined with with printing on blank stock allows manufacturers to quickly and seamlessly adapt to branding or product formulations or regulations that are directed by
the government.

The ability to produce high-quality color graphics on labels offers many additional benefits. For example, as more warehouses serve as dual fulfillment centers for both online and brick-and-mortar retail operations, secondary and primary labels may fuse, taking on shared responsibility for enhancing a brand’s image. Color labels can also help introduce organization and order into the inventory management process, helping to categorize products and improve picking accuracy as well as ensuring the right products and the quantities get delivered to customers on time.

On-demand color labeling technology is easy and cost-effective to adopt. Manufacturers that currently have a thermal transfer printer-based, ZPL-based solution in their manufacturing line should choose a color printer that has a ZPL emulator. This feature will allow the printer to be plugged directly into their existing system and software workflow. Instead of using pre-printed color label stock, the color image can be loaded into the printer’s memory. At run time, this color background will be merged with the monochrome ZPL data to produce a full color label on demand.  

Andrew V. Scherz is a senior product manager at Epson America Inc., who develops the market for on-demand industrial color label printers. Scherz is a veteran of the industrial label printing market with over 22 years of experience, most recently at Epson and before that at Printronix as director of product marketing. Scherz previously founded Pacific Intesys Inc., an automated electronic patient medical-record system for hospitals and doctor offices. He also managed design engineering for Die Bold Inc., which developed online transaction systems for financial tracking and security authorization. Scherz began his career at Beckman Instruments as a test engineer working on instrumentation systems. He holds a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering and a master’s in business administration from California State University, Long Beach. He may be reached at andy_scherz@ea.epson.com.