Click here to view Part 2 – Choosing the right machine for your production line.

Click here to view Part 3 – Specifying your system.

What is Print and Apply technology?

Production lines tend to be optimised to run at high speeds to maximise the potential output of a manufacturing facility. That extends to fixing identification labels to the outer packaging, although as it happens at the end of the production line, it is sometimes overlooked.

Relying on anything other than a dedicated machine to carry out this task leaves manufacturers open to significant risk.

To overcome this risk, automated Print and Apply labelling solutions enter the equation. In its simplest form, a Print and Apply machine prints a label containing data relevant to the product on the line and applies it to the traded unit’s outer packaging as a single action. It prints and applies.

A well-configured, high-quality machine helps ensure the label is always applied, always legible, printed to a high standard and applied in the same location (or locations) to satisfy the needs of specific industries.

But really this is just scratching the surface. Labels often contain barcodes but can be so much more. Graphics, variable data (e.g. best before dates), QR codes, ingredients, personal information or pretty much any other type of data can be applied in real-time to a label and securely affixed to your packaging. Be that a case, a shrink-wrapped outer pack, a pallet, a keg, a barrel or a box (and in one or more places). And it all happens automatically.

So while the principle of automated print and apply is relatively simple, when the complexities of unique product lines and environments are considered, there are lots of factors to bear in mind when specifying a solution.

Does my business need a Print and Apply solution?

The first question to ask is do you actually need a machine to carry out this task? Well, before the invention of machines that were capable of automatically printing a label and sticking it onto some form of outer packaging, the whole process had to be done by hand. And there are many manufacturers for whom a manual approach is still the preferred labelling operation type.

But there are a host of reasons to consider barcode labelling automation as an alternative.

Consider a small manufacturer with a relatively low level of output and a limited number of products produced and packed on the line.

Such a scenario is one of the few production line environments that could be suited to a member of staff printing each label in turn, and hand applying it to a case, pallet or some other type of pack. But even with low throughput, hand applying is still a questionable approach.

It requires one or more individuals to dedicate at least a period of each shift to printing out and sticking on labels when they could be doing something else. At the very least it’s an expensive use of human resources, but more troublingly it relies far too heavily on the weakest link in the chain…people!

Unfortunately, people are flawed. They get lazy, tired and bored. And a repetitive low-skill task is precisely the sort of environment where less favourable human traits come to the fore.

Plus it’s hard to scale up if you’re reliant on a human resource for printing and applying labels. But with a machine that can cope with thousands of labels per hour, scaling up is rarely a problem.

In a larger production environment, where the number of products and labels is higher and changes are more frequent, then the risks grow exponentially. For most manufacturers there comes a tipping point when a machine is simply a more viable option.

And just because barcodes and labelling are at the end of the production line, it doesn’t make them any less important in the grand scheme of your manufacturing process. In fact, quite the opposite because if you get it wrong, there can be disastrous consequences.

So why is barcoding and labelling so important?

There are several very good reasons why it’s important to get this right. Take the food and drink industry as an example, the key reason is traceability, both internally and in the wider supply chain to allow for products to be traced in the event of a recall or the withdrawal of a product from sale.

Traceability is not just a ‘nice-to-have’. EC Regulation 178/2002 is the legislation governing the traceability of food and beverages in the UK and the rules are very clear. According to the Food Standards Agency website:

To achieve the fullest traceability of food products within a food business operation or between stages in a supply chain it is essential to identify the product unit concerned (batch, lot, consignment, etc.), and provide some form of data carrier facility for maintaining identification of the product unit.

A range of data carrier technologies are available to support identification of various levels of sophistication. Perhaps the most widely used and recognised in the food industry is the linear barcode.

This requirement is true for many other industries too. Barcodes are also universally recognised and allow for companies to quickly onboard products. Put simply, your products need to have a barcode.

Not only can mistakes in barcode labelling have dangerous consequences in terms of breaching traceability laws, but errors can also prove very costly in terms of business relationships.

Major UK retailers have historically taken a very dim view of incorrectly barcoded and labelled goods from suppliers, to the extent that three separate deliveries with errors will render you ineligible to supply that retailer again.

So, not only do you need a barcode, it needs to be accurate and it needs to be right.

What are the different types of print and apply machines?

There is a wide range of print and apply machinery and solutions available to fit the needs of any production line. Solutions can be configured to apply single or multiple labels on one, two or three sides of an item.

The application surface determines the type of machine best suited to each scenario. Different application methods are deemed more appropriate for softer, smoother, rougher or more rounded products, and the best solution is not always the most obvious.

Print and Apply solutions can also be configured to provide a continuous operation function for extremely high speed, high volume production lines. In this configuration, a second or third machine will automatically take part of the workload if one machine is not sufficient or an issue occurs with label media or print head. In such a case, the line will continue to run regardless of any problems, making it a failsafe operation for when unplanned downtime is simply not an option.

Beyond the primary function of printing and applying labels, a well-thought-out solution will also include in-line quality inspection. This means each item on the packaging line is checked to ensure a label exists, and that it is the right label. This additional step offers considerable peace of mind for a manufacturer in removing issues with incorrectly labelled or shipped products.

The exact requirements of a print and apply solution are very much dependent on the operating environment, and there is a range of factors to consider.

Part two of this guide will look at the specifics of your environment and how automating the print and application of labels will fit into your business and production line.

  • Labelling requirements (label position & quantity)
  • Type of product and packaging material
  • Variety of packaging/outer cases
  • Speed of production line throughput (and impact of downtime)

Click here to view Part 2.