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Label printer suits short runs, prototype

North American BioIndustries Corp. (NAB), New Berlin, WI, is cleaning up the industrial chemicals market with environmentally friendly formulations marketed under its own name, as well as for private-label customers. Established in 1992 by Richard Snodgrass, NAB has built its business around bringing new industrial cleaning products to the market that replace hazardous chemicals with safer technology.

Over the last decade, NAB has exhibited phenomenal growth, evolving from a one-product enterprise operating in 5,000 sq ft, to a 43-person contract-packing and product-manufacturing firm handling more than 500 products in 35,000 sq ft. In recent years, it has turned its attention to developing products that can be sold under private label by larger companies with an established presence in the retail market. "They have already cracked the distribution channel," says E.C. Goggio, COO of NAB, "so we just supply them with the product."

One of the tools that NAB has found invaluable in selling new chemical formulations to its private-label customers is its use of product prototypes bearing custom-designed labels. "Being able to create prototypes has had a huge impact," says Goggio. "It really dazzles the customer."

NAB credits its ability to create these prototypes quickly, professionally and affordably to its use of a QLS-8100 Xe digital, color label printer, acquired last year from QuickLabel Systems, An Astro-Med, Inc. Product Group (www.quicklabel.com). The printing system also enables the company to turn new products around quickly and to print labels for its own brands on-demand and in any quantity, eliminating inventory and providing flexibility for short runs.

As Goggio explains, NAB's growth occurred in three stages. In the company's earliest phase, Snodgrass developed NAB's first and now flagship product, NAB 9000 degreaser, with cooperation from a Michigan-based Fortune 500 company that had been looking for a way to replace aggressive chemistry in its workplace, specifically for floor cleaning and parts washing. Put into production in 1994, NAB 9000 was then joined by other products geared to similar markets. "The development of NAB 9000 provided us with an excellent launching pad to go into other areas in the industry that were doing similar cleaning and washing applications," says Goggio.

NAB-branded chemicals include a range of degreasers, RV and marine cleaning products, battery acid cleaners and neutralizers, and metal cleaners, among others, that are sold through industrial and institutional channels.

NAB's second, and most dramatic, growth spurt occurred four years ago, when the company began utilizing its custom blending and filling capabilities to contract-pack products for Johnson Diversey, a major marketer of industrial cleaning and hygiene products. Today, NAB handles approximately 350 different products for Johnson, as well as brands from a number of other industrial cleaning product companies, such as Hydrite Chemical and Natural Choices, among others.

In its third growth stage, NAB hired a chemist to develop new products for private-label customers and a sales force to introduce them. "That's when we decided that we really needed to be able to produce labels for prototypes and for short runs," says Goggio, "and that's how we ended up with the digital label printer."

Installed in April 2004, the QLS-8100 Xe full-color, desktop label-printing system is now being used by NAB to produce labels for all of its own-branded products, as well as for most of the products it has developed for private-label customers, and for prototypes. During a recent visit by PD, Goggio estimated that this includes approximately 200 stockkeeping units (excluding prototypes). "But we are formulating new products every day," he notes.

Before adding in-house label-printing capabilities, NAB used to get its labels from a number of different printing companies, some of which were specified by its contract-packaging customers. Working with preprinted label stock not only required significant warehouse space and inventory maintenance, but it also ran the risk of obsolescent labels. "Depending on where you were in the inventory cycle, if the customer made a change to a preprinted label, you could have a bunch of junk sitting on the shelf," relates Goggio.

Now, since NAB prints its labels on-demand, very little label inventory is needed, and changes in label copy or graphics can be made instantly. The printer uses an embedded microcontroller to process data quickly and prints at up to 5 in./sec when running a one-color label. Printing directly from a PC, the system requires no plates or other makeready materials, which means that NAB can cost-effectively run print jobs as few as four or five labels.

"With traditional printing, to get any economy of scale, you have to run 1,000 labels at least," explains Goggio. "So, if you want to print a label for a product that may never launch, or if you just want to impress a customer on the front end of a marketing deal, you don't have the capability to create prototypes."

Another drawback of traditional label-printing processes was the high cost of color, which meant that most labels used by NAB were produced in just one or two colors. The QLS-8100 Xe prints full-color labels using thermal-transfer technology. QuickLabel supplies the system's ribbons, which are available in wax, resin or wax/resin materials and in metallic and metallic holographic versions. NAB uses resin ribbons, because, as the company's graphic designer, Andrew McConville, explains, they are the most compatible with the label stock being used. April Ondis, marketing manager for QuickLabel Systems, adds that resin ribbons also offer the greatest tolerance to chemical solvents, abrasion and ultraviolet light.

Ribbon color options include about 70 different spot colors that are an exact match to Pantone Matching System(R) (PMS) colors, according to Ondis. In addition, the company offers three families of CMYK process-color thermal-transfer ribbons that enable users to achieve "many thousands of unique colors," she says. Released in May, new Custom QuickLabel software incorporates the Optimum with AutoColor feature, a newly developed color-management and halftone-printing tool that allows QuickLabel printer users to achieve more colors, with greater accuracy, than before.

NAB prints its labels on a polypropylene label stock, also supplied by QuickLabel Systems, that provides the durability required when working with chemicals. "It's very resistant to scratching, water and chemicals," says McConville. "It looks nice too because it's glossy."

The process of creating a label at NAB begins with label design. Using a standard graphics software program such as Adobe's (www.adobe.com) Photoshop(R) or Illustrator(R), McConville designs all of the labels for the NAB line of products and for many of the private-label items, as well. Label graphics usually comprise blocks of copy, including product directions, safety precautions and address information, and artwork of the company's logo, usually printed in three colors. McConville says that designs using more than four colors are possible by running the labels through the printer twice.

Once the label design is complete, it is imported into QuickLabel Systems' Color QuickLabel 99 Pro(tm) software for printing. This program can also be used to design the labels.

As for label size, the QLS-8100 Xe is capable of printing labels up to 8 3/10 in. wide and 60 in. long. NAB, which offers its products in 20 different container sizes, depending upon the customer's preference, primarily uses 5 x 10- and 4 x 6-in. and 6 1/2-in. square, pressure-sensitive labels. However, QuickLabel Systems can also provide nonadhesive labels and has a library of more than 2,500 different dies to choose from that produce labels of various shapes and sizes. This is in addition to its custom labelmaking services.

Ribbon widths are custom-made by QuickLabel Systems to coordinate with the users' label sizes, so that none of the ribbon goes to waste. The most common ribbon widths, says Ondis, are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in. Another strategy designed by QuickLabel Systems to save on ribbon use is its RibbonRation® system. Internal to the printer, RibbonRation is a combination of hardware and firmware that lifts and lowers the printhead (whenever label designs do not require deposition of the given ribbon) without affecting print registration.

According to McConville, many times before a job is run, ribbons may have to be changed over from one size to another, or from one spot color to another. "It's just cheaper to buy one color than run CMYK," he explains, adding that spot-color changeover can be completed in just a couple of minutes. Changing over the entire machine, he says, is a 10- to 15-min job.

In terms of the image quality of the final printed label, Goggio says that the near-photo quality produced by the 300-dpi-resolution printer more than adequately met NAB's needs.

While Goggio and McConville admit that the QLS-8100 provides some fairly competitive advantages when it comes to the total cost per label, the real benefit, they emphasize is the flexibility and quick turnaround the system affords. "It's the fast turnaround that has really been a benefit to us," says Goggio, "especially with prototype products, where we can have the labels the same day. It's the same thing with typos: We can fix them immediately, and we don't waste any time or materials."

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