March 19, 2012
Column | problem solved

Problem: Unreadable bar-code labels

The solution for cookware maker World Kitchen was a printer with verification technology that ensures shipping labels are 100 percent scannable, 100 percent of the time.

By Peter Bradley

The Problem: For World Kitchen, a manufacturer of cookware and kitchen tools, faulty bar codes were fast becoming a big headache—mainly because they were costing the company a lot of money. The problem was chargebacks from customers when shipments arrived with unreadable labels. Some of World Kitchen's clients have highly automated receiving operations that rely on bar codes to function smoothly. Because any failure to read a bar code required costly manual processing, these customers often hit World Kitchen with compliance penalties if a label failed to meet their requirements.As for the source of the problem, it was typically one of two things. Sometimes, it was the label itself. The labels produced by the printers World Kitchen was using at the time were easily damaged during warehouse handling. Terry Moore, senior network administrator for World Kitchen, says the trip through the material handling system at the company's DCs often caused smearing or tearing of the labels. "The quality was not always the best," he says.

Other times, the problem arose from a misprinted bar code. Although World Kitchen's printers were performing relatively well, there was inevitably the occasional error. And with a high-volume operation, even a failure rate of 0.1 percent adds up quickly. "As a result, we were getting substantial chargebacks," Moore says. All told, the company was paying thousands of dollars a month in compliance penalties.

The Solution: A few years back, World Kitchen went shopping for a printing system that would produce more durable labels and address the readability problem. After reviewing its alternatives, the company selected Printronix's T5000r high-speed thermal printers with integrated verification technology known as the Online Data Validation (ODV) option.

Not only do the printers produce higher-quality labels than their predecessors did, but the integrated verification technology has eliminated problems with misprinted codes. Essentially, the technology allows World Kitchen to set the symbology specifications it wants for bar codes and then verifies that every bar code meets that standard. (The American National Standards Institute has a grading structure for bar-code print quality, with ratings that range from A to F. World Kitchen has set its verifiers to reject any bar code below a B.)

In daily operations, the Printronix system makes use of a scanner mounted in the printer that scans every label as it's printed. Should the printer produce a label that fails to meet the standard, the system sends a signal to the printer to overstrike that label and print a new one.

Andy Scherz, director of product marketing for Printronix, which specializes in printing technology for business applications, says the verification technology addresses the realities of industrial printing. While companies like Printronix have made great strides in reducing failure rates, he says, the rate will never get to zero. "You can have a blemish in the ribbon, something in the environment, or a wood chip in the label stock. Plus, print heads wear out," he explains. But in-line validation stops the problem at the source, he says. "What you get is 100 percent good labels."

World Kitchen originally bought 12 of the printers, installing eight in its distribution facility in Monee, Ill., and four in its DC in Greencastle, Pa. It has since bought four more for use in a DC it added last year with its acquisition of Snapware, a supplier of food storage containers.

Today, World Kitchen DC managers can be confident that every label that leaves the printer for the DC floor meets the established standard. The investment has paid off for World Kitchen. In the years since it switched to the Printronix technology, the company has not had chargebacks as a result of label issues. The printers "paid for themselves relatively fast," says Moore.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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