It all seems so simple. Print a label. Peel it off. Slap it on a box, pallet, or container.
But it turns out that effective labeling isn't quite that easy. For one thing, it's not enough just to crank out labels that are reasonably legible and meet your own operation's needs. Your customers will almost certainly want a say in the matter—in fact, many have rigorous requirements regarding the way their incoming shipments are labeled. Fail to meet these requirements and you risk getting hit with penalties and fees or even having your shipments rejected.
And these customer requirements can range all over the map. Some, for example, require information to be printed within precise tolerances to assure the labels can be read by their automated receiving equipment.
Others have special requirements that are driven by government regulations. For example, Marty Johnson, product manager at Zebra Technologies, which makes bar-code and label printing products, tells of a company that ran up against a rather unusual labeling requirement for a product it planned to ship from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States by ocean. The company came to Zebra for help after learning that federal regulations required it to use a label sturdy enough to withstand salt water for an extended period of time so that if the ship sank, salvage crews could determine what was in the container.
"That was a request that when it came in, we said, 'Huh, we never did anything like this before,'" recalls Johnson.
In addition, some customers have special requirements related to specific industries. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, tend to be sticklers about data accuracy—partly because they themselves are subject to stringent data and drug tracking requirements. If a company is required to track products down to the place of manufacture and expiration date, it's going to expect the same attention to detail from its label suppliers, says Perry Cozzone, CIO of Colorcon, a company that makes coatings for pharmaceutical products like tablets and pills.
So what can you do to ensure your labels are both readable and customer compliant? What follows are some tips.
1. Choose the right material
There are many different types of label material out there, including paper, coated paper, and synthetic material. So how do you determine what's the right one for your application?
The first consideration, says Johnson of Zebra, is how long the label has to last. While some labels are intended only for short-term use, others have to be archived for 10 years or more to meet government regulations, he explains. In those cases, you'll need to select a synthetic label or a paper label that has been coated with chemicals to preserve it. "Otherwise, you're going to be disappointed in what happens," says Johnson.
Next, think about the environmental conditions the label will be subjected to. Exposure to water, dust, or light—whether it's direct sunlight or office light—can cause ink to fade and labels to deteriorate. If fading or deterioration is a concern, paper might not be an appropriate choice.
Also consider what type of surface the label has to adhere to, says Michael Shacket of Corner Office Consulting, which provides middleware as well as labeling and printing-related consulting services to distributors and manufacturers. If the surface is greasy, for example, a Mylar or polyester label might be the best choice, he says.
No matter what type of label material you choose, it pays to use high-quality media, says Johnson. Low-quality or inconsistent material can degrade an image's resolution and may hasten fading.
2. Keep your printer in good working order
Print quality also has a big impact on readability. An important part of keeping that quality up is regular printer maintenance. Printheads, in particular, can deteriorate with use and need to be regularly monitored and maintained. "Over time, some of the heat positions within the printer don't fire or get hot enough, and the bar code ends up missing bars or there are spots that are too light to be read," says Shacket.
Temperature can also affect how the bar code prints, especially if the printer is exposed to the outdoors, such as at a dock door. "If [the printer is] set up in the winter, the bar codes will print out nice, but then in the summer, you may see overprinting," Shacket warns. The printer's heat sensitivity may need to be adjusted to accommodate temperature changes.
Experts agree that it's easier to maintain a printer if the company has chosen the right one for its needs in the first place. But companies don't always do that, according to Shacket. Common mistakes include using a low-end printer designed for office use to print a high volume of labels, and using an expensive high-end, heavy-duty printer to produce a small number of labels. "If you're printing 100 labels a day, you probably don't need a $5,000 printer," he says. To avoid these missteps, he urges companies to gather detailed data on their printing needs—how many labels they're printing per day/week/month, the size of those labels, and the amount of data that's going on label—before choosing a printer.
3. Don't overlook label design
It's also important to give some thought to what information must be included on the label and how that information will be presented. Obviously, you have to make sure that you're meeting your customers' requirements regarding the data they want and the format they want it in. If you don't have a full-time labeling specialist on staff, assign someone to stay in regular contact with customers to stay abreast of any changes.
Templates and label management software can simplify the task of keeping up with changing customer requirements. While it may be tempting to skip this step, creating templates will help you avoid extra work in the long run, says Shacket. For instance, if it becomes necessary to make a change to the labels, you only have to change one template instead of potentially thousands of labels. Similarly, compliance label management software can take a lot of the pain out of tracking multiple customers' requirements.
As for readability, there are several simple things you can do to boost the legibility of your labels. Using colored fonts or highlighting can help draw workers' attention to important information, like the ship date. In the case of bar codes, boosting readability may be as simple as leaving enough white space around the code (the so-called "quiet zone") to ensure that the scanning gun can read it.
When it comes to legibility, large labels with large type are better than small ones. Not only are they easier for humans to read, but they're also friendlier to scanners—it's easier to hit a half-inch bar code with a scanning gun than it is to hit a quarter-inch code, says Shacket. For these reasons, Shacket recommends using the biggest label that your product or packaging can reasonably accommodate. The cost difference between a 4- by 4-inch label and a 4- by 6-inch label is negligible, but it can make a big difference in readability, he says.
Finally, keep in mind that the label is only as good as the data that goes on it. Cozzone of Colorcon warns that data quality and accuracy may suffer if there are too many systems—like multiple enterprise resource planning systems or warehouse management systems—feeding information to the label program.
"A label looks so simple," says Cozzone. "But once you start looking at what content you need, where that content comes from, and how it gets there, it becomes clear that some work and effort are involved in the creation of the label on the back end."