August 19, 2013
material handling update | Printing and Labeling

What to think about when you think about printing

What to think about when you think about printing

DCs have a head-spinning array of choices when it comes to printing and labeling systems. Here are some tips for picking the right device for your operation.

By Peter Bradley

Printing and labeling systems in the distribution center can sometimes cause indigestion for managers. They can be a bottleneck in the process of getting goods out the door. Labeling errors can cause shipping errors that result in unhappy customers and possible chargebacks. Downtime can bring a whole line to a halt. But nothing can go out the door without a label.

Whether an operation uses inline print-and-apply systems or portable printing tools, the devices' speed, accuracy, and uptime are crucial to DC productivity. What's important is to determine what solution would work best for your operation. Here a few things to consider in selecting a printing and labeling system:

Think about people first. Larry Boroff, director of automation systems engineering for Forte, emphasizes that the technical capabilities of staff to maintain and program the devices should be an important consideration in which one you select. Some systems, particularly automated print-and-apply systems, require a fair amount of in-house expertise.

A veteran of Amazon, where he was an operations engineer, Boroff has a fine appreciation for the need for fast and reliable printing. He recalls that at Amazon, "we looked at both manual and automated [printing] systems. One of the drivers for that was what the workrce looked like." That applies as well for the clients he now works with at Forte, a supply chain consulting organization. "If a customer does not have a semi-skilled workforce that can correct any issues or troubleshoot problems, it gets tough to design a print-and-apply system for that customer," he says. "There will be times when you have to interface with the system, reset the orders, or manually rectify issues that come up. I want to make sure they are able to support it." If the DC's operations or maintenance staff doesn't have the skills to maintain an automated system, then a manual system may make more sense.

Get smart. While the skill of the workforce is important, printing system providers are building more intelligence into the printers themselves. Karl Perry, senior product manager for printer software at Intermec, says that although printers have been able to host applications for some time, manufacturers are now making the process simpler. For example, in August, Intermec launched a major upgrade in its printer software from the reliable but dated GW-BASIC to the more modern and robust C# (pronounced C sharp) language. The result, says Perry, has been to make application development easier for the average developer skilled in C#.

To illustrate the utility of built-in applications, Perry cites the case of a Midwestern high-tech distributor. The shipping department was having problems with shipments that were misdirected or contained incorrect items. Systems integrator ToolWorx Information Products wrote an application for Intermec printers and linked a scale and scanner to the printer. Now, orders are pulled into the printer via Wi-Fi from the firm's order system. The clerk responsible for picking and shipping the order scans and weighs each item, prompting the printer to check the actual weight against the expected weight to ensure a match. It signals the clerk in the event of a mismatch. Using the program eliminated inaccurate shipments for the customer.

Consider the budget and the required throughput. Automated systems are substantially more costly than manual systems but have a much higher throughput. If the goal is to limit touches or to label items at high speed, that argues for automation. But it's important to note that opting for a print-and-apply system also has implications for the design of the overall material handling system, Boroff warns. "My customer has to expect to have enough accumulation to support a print-and-apply system," he says. "You can't just have four or five or 20 feet of accumulation for products because you're going to starve your system or overload it."

Does portability have value? In the past, manual systems—with the printer in a closet or office for access to power and connections to the facility's IT network—often required printing large numbers of labels at once, then bringing them to the floor to match up with shipments. No more. Portable, battery-operated systems with Wi-Fi connectivity allow for a great deal more flexibility, says Perry.

"Rather than have the printer at a fixed point in the warehouse, you can take the printer anywhere you want. If you have a battery cart, you don't need a power cord. It is driving productivity in the shipping room." And, he adds, some portable printers have their own batteries built in, eliminating the need for the cart.

What are you labeling? Cartons? Totes? Polybags? Do products vary markedly in size? Do you have a full-case picking operation or are you picking mixed cases? Those are all factors in the print-and-apply technology decision. Full-case operations lend themselves to automation. In mixed-case picking, where multiple products are picked into a single shipping container, manual systems are perfectly adequate as the picking and packing process is likely to be slower than the printing and labeling operation.

Can you accelerate throughput? Boroff says a typical print-and-apply system can label 15 to 25 cartons a minute. Including a packing slip with the label would cut that almost in half.

For print-and-apply systems, especially those handling cartons of varying heights, he suggests installing two print engines on the same line with advanced control systems. That would come close to doubling the throughput speed, depending on product size, by having each head printing and applying to every other carton.

The biggest constraint in the whole print-and-apply system, he says, is the product mix. Most often, labels are applied to the top of a product for shipping. The print head has to move down to the carton to apply the label, then move back up out of the way before the next carton comes through. The time it takes for the print head to lower and raise again, he explains, is the limiting factor in how quickly cartons can move along the conveyance system. If the height of the cartons varies markedly—say, from six inches tall to 20 inches tall—the print head needs time to lower and raise as much as 14 or 15 inches in each direction.

One way to improve throughput in a system with a broad range of carton heights, he says, is to assign each print head to a small range of carton heights. For example, one print head could handle cartons from six to 12 inches high, a second those from 12 to 18 inches; That limits the stroke each machine must take to lower, apply, and retreat. But it requires some advanced skills to set up and manage that sort of system. "This is where the technology skill of your workforce is important," Boroff says.

Uptime and maintenance matter. Not too long ago, a malfunction in a printer could bring shipping to a standstill. But the development of smart printers, with technology that alerts managers to an impending failure so they take preventive action, can sharply diminish downtime, especially when combined with more modular printer designs that make maintenance easier. Says Perry about smart printers, "It's not just the capability to print labels, but to do preventive maintenance based on predictive algorithms that are coming from the device management system."

Perry says that current printers' warning systems offer screens that provide specific information on printer issues, as opposed to a simple warning light. And maintenance is simpler. "You're able to replace the print head without using a screwdriver, which you can never find when you need one," he says. "What was once a 20-minute job now takes 15 seconds."

Going forward, logistics managers may find themselves having to check with the company IT department before deploying printers in the warehouse or DC. That's because today's printers are no longer simply tools for expediting shipping. As manufacturers build more intelligence into them, these devices are becoming important nodes in companies' overall IT networks.

"CIOs are becoming more powerful in device management," says Alexander Babic, product manager industrial printers for Intermec. That doesn't mean the CIO will be looking over a DC manager's shoulder and trying to tell him or her what printer to select. What the technology people are interested in is ensuring that smart devices fit in the overall IT infrastructure, he says. Their concern, says Babic, is network security and ensuring that smart printers comply with the rules and regulations that govern the company's IT infrastructure.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

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