Tag and label printers take production up a notch

Anne Marie Mohan

January 29, 2014

8 Min Read
Tag and label printers take production up a notch

Ever have to meet the different labeling demands of 1,000 customers? Each one has a different price tag and shipping-label configuration. Some require tags only, others need labels only, and still others require both, while small customers may not have any requirements at all. Initial orders may not have compliance labeling requirements, but when a new customer turns into a steady one, compliance labeling suddenly may be mandated. Existing compliance labeling specifications may change, and new compliance labeling demands occur every day.

For Newburgh, NY-based L'egent Intl., a distributor of handbags, backpacks, belts and wallets, providing accurate and legible price tags and shipping labels for its nearly 1,000 customers is critical to its business success. To speed and streamline the process, L'egent recently installed a number of new thermal-transfer printing systems from Sato America (www.satoamerica.com) that have increased the company's production speed by 25 percent.

Fulfillment challenges

Importing product from overseas, L'egent receives its large shipments of handbags, wallets and other small leather goods at its three distribution centers, located in New York, New Jersey and California. The company's job is to prepare the items for sale in stores like J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and Sears. It stuffs the pocketbooks with paper or balloons to help the products keep their shape, adds price tags to the items, packages and labels the products in six- or 12-unit cases, and then ships the orders to the specific stores.

Last year, L'egent printed 8 million tags, or roughly 100,000 tags a week. Its shipping volume is so high, in fact, that blank shipping labels arrive from the Cooley Group (www.cooleygroupusa.com), an office products supplier, by the truckload.

Information printed on the shipping labels can include a combination of the following: the customer's purchase order number, the item number, the bill of lading number, the ship to and from addresses, and more. Most important, though, nearly all labels include a UCC-128 bar code that, when scanned, links the box to the advance ship notice sent by L'egent via electronic data interchange. Tags are printed with product size, color, stockkeeping unit and price, and are attached with plastic string to the item.

Typically, L'egent has only 24 to 48 hours to prepare, tag, package and label products for shipment. If it misses a shipping date, the order can be cancelled. And, printing accuracy must be at least 99 percent, especially on bar-coded items, or L'egent is fined.

"When we print labels, we run 300 to 2,000 per customer in one shot, so the volumes are very high," says Audrey Guardino, MIS director at L'egent's headquarters. "It gets crazy after awhile, even with computers.

"Even though roughly only forty of our customers require us to print their tags, and only ninety need shipping labels, they are the largest-volume users, representing seventy percent or more of our business." And, the remaining customers, who now have L'egent apply preprinted price tags, are joining the compliance-labeling crowd every day, she adds.

In the past, when an order came in, L'egent had all shipping labels designed and printed at its New York headquarters using T.L. Ashford (www.tlashford.com) label design software and Sato's model 8400 thermal-transfer printers, respectively, to maintain quality control. After printing, labels were shipped to the distribution centers. When orders had to be out in less than two days, it was a tight squeeze. And if, upon receiving the labels, the center spotted a mistake in the printing or if a change was required, it was an even greater hurdle to get the new labels to the distribution center in time.

Middleman eliminated

To keep up with its customers' demands for fast turnaround, L'egent determined in 2002 that it needed faster printers and a swifter way to get labels to its distribution centers. Working with equipment distributor Bar Code Systems & Supplies (www.914barcode.com), L'egent purchased five newer, faster Sato America M-8400RVe thermal-transfer printers with Twinax cable connector capability for its headquarters, as well as six M-8400RVe printers for its distribution centers. So far, the company has installed all five printers at its headquarters, as well as two printers at its Long Island, NY, location; the balance are slated for use sometime this year in its New Jersey and California sites.

The M-8400RVe is a web-based wireless printer that operates at up to 10 in./sec—a production speed achieved through the use of a new-generation 32-bit RISC processor. The printer offers a 203-dpi print resolution with a maximum print area of 4.1349.2 in. Capable of printing 21 bar-code symbologies, including 2-D, the M-8400RVe also produces human-readable fonts, scalable from 8 to 72 points.

At L'egent's headquarters, the printer connects directly to an IBM AS/400 mid-sized print server from Strategic Computer Solutions (www.scsinet.com). The server eliminates the middleman, a dumb terminal previously used by L'egent that was so old that replacement parts were hard to find. "This makes it so much easier to control spool files, and if the printer runs out of labels, they're easier to replace," says Guardino. "We don't have to worry about a workstation dying either. This is much simpler."

L'egent's existing 10-year-old Sato printers have been recycled to print temporary labels for shipping packages, such as ones that announce "Red Hot Specials" or "Sale Date is May 30," for example. The decade-old printers are proof of the workhorse reliability of the Sato printers and one of the reasons L'egent chose Sato printers again, notes Guardino.

"We tried other printers that are supposed to be high-speed and print bar-code symbologies over IP," says Guardino. "Maybe they were faster, but when we tested those labels, they were not clear enough to scan accurately. If you don't have a label that scans accurately ninety-nine percent of the time or better, you get charged back. Sometimes that charge is five dollars a box.

"The only printers that print legibly are thermal-transfer, because they move the ribbon ahead every time they print. You never get a used ribbon section. The heat is what is printing the letters or numbers, so it is nice and clean and crisp." Another bonus: L'egent can print colored text just by changing the ribbon spool.

"The RVe model printer really increased our speed a lot," says Guardino. "Once it came out, we were in better shape. Sometimes we run five at one time." Overall, she estimates that print speed was increased by up to 25 percent with the installation of the new printers.

Printing closer to distribution

Consultant Brian Demeter of Alpha-Tech, Inc. (www.1alphatech.com), Marlboro, NY, solved L'egent's second concern: getting labels to the distribution centers in a timely manner. To allow printing at the point of distribution, Demeter set up the system with a Boss e-Twinax controller from BOSaNOVA (www.bosweb.com).

Now, Sato printers at remote sites plug into the controller, which plugs into an Internet connection. Flip a switch, and the Sato printers in the distribution centers—whether in New Jersey, New York or California—receive printing orders from the AS/400 in Newburgh.

"Once you enable the e-Twinax Internet connection, it finds its way back to the L'egent network and lets any device that is connected to it become part of the AS/400," says Demeter.

Says Guardino, "When you have instant print capability, it's like the labels are sitting right in the distribution center."

For price-tag printing, a different operation is employed. Although Sato printers are still used, they are now running off a PC using Label Matrix® software from Teklynx Intl. (www.teklynx.com). The printer/software combination works particularly well with small labels, explains Guardino.

In addition to using the M-8400RVe printers for printing the tags, L'egent also uses some of its existing 8400 models.

Reliability is key

Whether printing tags or labels, however, L'egent needs reliable and sturdy equipment. "Rarely do we need anything fixed on the Sato printers," says Guardino. "Workers clean them with cleaning tape after each roll of ribbon runs out, but that's all. We haven't had any major problems with any of the units."

From its previous experience with Sato, L'egent was so used to the reliability of the company's equipment, that it was almost a nonissue in the decision-making process. What did sell them on the new printers was their speed and the Twinax connection, which enables the printer to go straight to the AS/400.

Being able to meet the compliance labeling demands of its customers improved L'egent's own operations. With the new Twinax printers and off-site Twinax controller connected to the Internet, printing labels and tags is accurate, fast and simple, the company says. Today, a much more efficient L'egent is able to keep its own pocketbook happy.

More information is available:

Printers:Sato America, Inc., 704/644-1650. www.satoamerica.com.

Label stock:Cooley Group, Inc., 518/453-6137. www.cooleygroupusa.com.

Label design software:T.L. Ashford, 800/541-4893. www.tlashford.com.

Printer distributor:Bar Code Systems & Supplies, 845/227-2633. www.914barcode.com.

Server:IBM Corp., 800/426-4968. www.as400.ibm.com.

Server distributor:Strategic Computer Solutions, 888/667-4727. www.scsinet.com.

Network consulting:Alpha-Tech, Inc., 845/236-3324. www.1alphatech.com.

E-twinax controller:BOSaNOVA, Inc., 866/865-5250. www.bosweb.com.

Label printing software:Teklynx, Inc., 414/535-6200. www.teklynx.com.

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