In the tough economic climate we face, businesses are turning to technology to improve their profitability, either with improvements in efficiency or by attracting more customers says Sato UK general manager Jason Wise

In this context, the labelling industry is under constant pressure to make use of the latest developments in computers, data capture and printing technologies to play their part in the cost cutting and efficiency solution.

In the days of integrated systems, of which packaging and labelling are just a part, we have been compelled to concern ourselves with the whole chain of manufacture, production, distribution and retailing in order to offer labelling solutions that fit each customer’s particular need.

It’s hard to believe the quantum leaps in label printing technology that have taken place to bring us the in-house label printing systems we have today.

Every two or three years new barriers are broken to give us faster, smaller, more flexible, higher quality label printing equipment. And, comparatively speaking, the cost/performance ratio is still working in favour of the user.

Gone, too, are the days when a label printer was all things to all men. There are now machines specifically designed for almost every type of application. For example, retailers have to fight harder and harder for our custom and image plays a key role in this.

The quality of packaging and labelling by nature implies the quality of the merchandise itself and, therefore, high quality ticketing for clothing items has become essential.

A high proportion of the tickets we have seen in the high street have been produced with thermal printers and, up to now, this has often been the reason for their low quality.

Traditionally, thermal printers have been manufactured for the printing of self-adhesive labels and they have not coped well with the required thickness of a quality ticket or in their ability to cleanly cut a card material.

Surprisingly, it’s only now that there are models generally available designed specifically for ticketing. These can handle a much thicker material than standard equipment.

As their cutting mechanisms are designed with card materials in mind, the user is able to over-print roll-fed tickets through a thermal printer and cut them in line to a quality usually associated with offset litho.

Label printing equipment is not the whole story. To keep pace label materials have had to evolve. It’s no longer possible, if it ever was, just to offer a standard peelable and permanent self-adhesive or ticket material.

Label substrates are every bit as sophisticated in their own way as label printing equipment. The best label printers in the world will not perform if the substrate they’re printing on is not up to the job.

The tasks labels are being asked to fulfil are pushing forward the technological boundaries in both the materials and in label conversion.

Who would have thought, for example, that direct thermal labels could be made to print in two colours, but red/black print is now becoming routine, each colour activated by different temperatures.

In cryogenics, thermal transfer printed labels have to remain secure in ultra-low temperatures around -80°C for use in storing DNA.

Current developments in the composition of labels incorporating ‘smart’ chips, making them thinner, more robust and, of course, cheaper, are certain to make this technology more accessible too.

Looking ahead, it’s possible to predict some of the major developments in labelling generally that will impact on us all.

One way in which all the major retailers try to win our custom is by shortening the time we spend going through the checkout. The packaging supply chain has seen many innovations in retailers’ attempts to improve this, including Safeway’s ‘Scan and Go’ self-scanning system.

More recently, the Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op Society introduced ‘U-Scan’ – a self-checkout facility.

As far as labelling technology goes, one of the more recent developments helping retailers with the queuing issue is radio frequency communications utilising the new generation small portable printers. We have seen printers available for some time now with narrow band local radio frequency capability, but now we are seeing small portable printers with more modern wireless connectivity options.

The IEEE802.11b standard for wireless LAN communications is becoming ever more popular and the industry can now supply portable printers with this as an option. With a wireless network in place, store staff can use barcode terminals to retrieve product information from the store’s central computer and use this data to produce price reduction labels, shelf edge tickets and, perhaps, for queue busting.

Utilising a wireless LAN network leaves the user without the restriction of any cables. The barcode terminal can be held in the hand while the printer can be worn on a belt loop, over the user’s shoulder or, as most often found, on a trolley.

The benefit of utilising a thermal printer over the more conventional hand labeller is that price reduction labels can be printed with a barcode on them. This will typically incorporate the existing product barcode number and the reduced price.

This technology speeds up the checkout operation as there is no need to scratch or tear off a label before scanning the item.

An additional benefit is that the label can include a basic product description of the item and stop label swapping from reduced item to non-reduced item.

A further way to use these printers is to combat the queuing issue and for this there are a number of variants to the system. Typically carried out in a non-food environment and at busy trading periods, staff can use barcode terminals to scan customers’ goods while they are queuing. The three most popular options after that are:

  • Customer completes the transaction and receives a printed receipt from that staff member. This has potential issues if the customer is paying with a credit card, as getting authorisation is difficult so a floor limit is usually set.

  • When all items are scanned a receipt is given to the customer detailing the date/time, number of items being purchased and including a barcode with a unique number. At the same time, via RF communications, a file is written on the store’s computer detailing the transaction. When the customer gets to the till, the operator then need only scan the one barcode on the receipt. Any transaction is recalled back from the computer using the unique number.

  • When all items are scanned a receipt is given to the customer that will detail the date/time, number of items being purchased and include a 2D barcode incorporating the barcode numbers of all items being purchased. This 2D code is then scanned at the till to complete the transaction.

In addition to these applications, portable printers can also be used for the production of shelf edge tickets. This saves time since they can be produced on the shop floor and materials, such as shelf edge tickets, are usually produced on sheet-fed printers with a high wastage factor.

While 802.11b certainly has its advantages, it also has one disadvantage for portable printers – high power consumption, leading to a shortening of the battery life.

Bluetooth wireless communications, however, consume about one third of the power of 802.11b and can offer a better communications method for these retail applications.

Bluetooth is effectively a cable replacement technology, fast becoming common in many everyday electronics items. Mobile phones, PDAs, and all computer peripherals are now available with a Bluetooth option.

In the case of portable printing, the barcode terminal will still be equipped with 802.11b capabilities to enable it to talk to the store computer but it would also be Bluetooth enabled to talk to the printer.

Bluetooth can only communicate over distances of up to 10m so the terminal will retrieve the information from the computer and then send the information to the printer rather than it being sent directly from the computer, as is the case with 802.11b.

Portable applications are certainly becoming more popular and not just in-store. The packaging industry can expect a huge growth in this sector as the technology is refined.

Labelling on the move can reduce costs and improve efficiency in a warehouse environment for example.

Here, though, the volumes of labels required could make belt printers inappropriate due to both battery life and the size of the roll of labels that can be held within the printer.

Where such applications arise we now see traditional tabletop thermal printers being built into trolleys with a rechargeable power source.

Again, utilising RF 802.11b communications allows the user to wheel around their printer producing labels as they go.

While talking about radio frequency, mention must be made of RFID technology or ‘Smart’ labels.

Traditional tabletop printers, combining both thermal print and RFID technologies, are now available.

This technology allows users to continue with bar coding and human readable print in a conventional manner while, at the same time, encoding an RFID circuit with selected information.

RFID labels allow items to be read without contact and for a number of items to be read in one go, thus speeding up any transaction.

The often quoted utopia for RFID is that we will see it incorporated into the primary packaging or labelling of all products we purchase, thus truly eliminating queuing.

Unfortunately, cost restrictions at this moment in time mean this is not yet generally available.

Costs are coming down though and RFID is being used on clothing items that retail at less than £50, which is a major development.

How far and how fast this new technology will work its way through to the average retailer and how much it will impact on the packaging sector as a whole is very hard to predict.

Looking at the way labelling technology has developed in the past, it’s likely to be sooner than most of us think.


Playing to the gallery

Sato UK’s Label Gallery enables staff at all levels to design and print labels. There are three versions, the simplest of which can be upgraded at any time. All three versions will print industry standard bar codes, graphics and alphanumerics and have a multi-lingual user interface.

Label Gallery Easy Version is for simple label printing and can be used to create conventional and 2D bar code labels. Label Gallery Plus Version is for advanced and compliance label design.

Label Gallery True Pro Version is a complete software package for any kind of label design and print need. It has custom data-entry forms for increased productivity and allows operators to integrate the label printing with other software or use it as a stand-alone label printing system.

Sato UK, T. freephone: (0) 800 6141,

Taking care of your lunch box

Weber Marking System’s sandwich labelling system has been designed around the Geset Alpha 86 applicator and AP4040 printer applicator. It can print and/or apply up to three labels to each pack and, with its split conveyor design, can handle both traditional wedge shape packs and other designs for baps, buns and bagels.

Weber Marking Systems, T 0187 5611111,

Perfect PC portability

Toshiba TEC Europe’s B-SP2D’s 2in portable thermal printer is compact and designed to produce barcode labels. Weighing in at 390g including battery, it is perfect for price mark-down labelling on shop floors.

It can communicate with pocket PCs or other mobile and static devices six times faster than its predecessor, the B-211, either through its serial, infra-red or Bluetooth interfaces.

Toshiba TEC Europe, T +44(0)1923 421274,

Multi print system blows hot and cold

Pago’s multi print system EP 420 nine-colour web printing press includes advanced UV flexo and rotary screen technology and online finishing. It is designed for both hot and cold foil options.

The combination-print system offers customers quality, flexible printing services incorporating excellent register and print pressure control and is suitable for use in the manufacture of labels with strong colours and subtle vignettes.

Repeatability, with fast set up from the MPS can meet the need for rapid response to changing demand, and high print speeds with economic plates and tooling are said to bring many advantages over alternative processes.

Pago, T +44(0)1206 755206,