Labeling for Longevity

Dec. 1, 2009
More than just simple identification tools, labels can make an operation safer, leaner and more profitable.

Can something as simple as a label enhance safety, material handling efficiency and cost control? You bet. Labels play vital roles in nearly all of areas of warehousing and distribution and are typically integral to the performance of a warehouse management system (WMS). Label printing can even make or break entire barcoding systems.

In warehouses and distribution centers (DCs), rack-mounted labels ensure correct identification and pulling of materials or product for handling. But, that's only one of many applications for labeling systems.

Labeling systems are rapidly evolving to become more useful, efficient and valuable to successful material handling applications. Today's label printers can help identify components inside and outside of equipment housings, storage units and electrical panels. A single printer can create wire and cable markers, serialized labels, specific compliance labels and more.

Portable label printers do more than print labels these days. They are versatile, multi-functional tools. One portable model has a built-in flashlight and backlighted display screen to allow label creation in low-light areas or in the dark.

In addition, software compatibility, industry-specific capabilities and label-printing automation have improved in recent years. Integration with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and WMS is more widespread, allowing labeling systems to play an integral role in reducing errors and improving productivity.

Interestingly, printer manufacturers are looking beyond traditional identification as the primary application of labeling systems. The latest innovations stress ergonomics and safety, facility and equipment maintenance, lean operations and product quality.

Ergonomics and Safety

Labels can add much-needed organization to a workplace, and an organized workplace is safer. Large, easy-to-read labels clearly identify aisles, racks, shelves, bins, automated guided vehicle (AGV) and conveyor zones and other functional areas, for instance.

New portable label printers are designed for one-handed operation. Label retention features keep labels from falling on the floor after they've been cut. Some printers also have accessories, such as wrist straps or magnet attachments, that let workers attach the printer to panels, I-beams and other magnetic-receptive surfaces during use or storage.

And, labels do more than just identify material and danger zones; they also communicate key information. In facilities where large, fast-moving equipment is constantly moving heavy pallets, cartons and containers, labels that clearly display emergency-stop instructions can help employees take appropriate action quickly in critical situations. The same principle applies to equipment lockout procedures, first-aid supplies and exit routes. Showing employees the exact steps to take at the point of need reduces errors, injuries and liability.

Whether used to identify flammable materials or signal the need for personal safety gear in designated areas, labels also enhance compliance and specification requirements.

Today's advanced label printers can produce high-quality, large labels, allowing workers to see signage from a distance. In addition, labels currently on the market last longer and stand up to industrial environments better than they have in the past. A print resolution of 203 dots per inch (dpi) or higher helps ensure durability and readability.

Manage and Maintain

Visual management of equipment at the point of use is a must for efficiency and accuracy in fast-paced material handling operations. Labels that clearly indicate fill levels on fluid gauges or tension thresholds on conveyor belts, chains, pulleys and other moving parts can serve as preventive maintenance indicators or visual cues for service. Labeling irregularly shaped equipment can sometimes be a problem, but today's label printers can overcome this dilemma with fixed-length labels.

Proper labeling also simplifies tracking of equipment performance, maintenance dates, fluid levels and other items, allowing management to anticipate potential issues before they cause a breakdown. Also, clearly labeled procedures and processes can reduce employee training time.

Wire marking is another aspect of automated material handling that uses large volumes of labeling, both for maintenance, regulatory compliance and facility construction. Properly labeled wires, cables and control equipment reduce repair time and ensure fast and accurate part replacement. Labels containing tamper-resistant materials can be used as another way to prevent job-site damage and unauthorized tampering.

Labeling for Lean

Employing a consistent, enterprise-wide identification plan is central to running a lean supply chain operation. Benefits include reducing downtime and increasing efficiency. A workplace with a consistent labeling plan is almost instantly organized. Employees know where everything is at all times. If this seems like 5S to you, you're right. By clearly labeling procedures at the point of use, employees save time by not having to search for instructions.

Another benefit of a consistent labeling system is improvement in overall product quality. Barcode labels ensure material is tracked accurately so that the right materials flow to the correct production line or dock door. Visuals and color coding help identify when a material or item is missing or in the wrong place.

The ID Solution

So, what's a labeling system, anyway? A complete identification solution typically includes labeling materials, printer(s) and software, depending on application. Material handling managers usually choose label printing systems based on their particular needs. For example, refrigeration units or equipment regularly exposed to extreme heat may require different labeling systems than machinery in continuous use with rapid acceleration and deceleration. Yet another labeling system may be required for operations that include industrial chemicals, grease, oil, dust or other particulate matter.

To withstand a variety of tough environments, labels are available in a myriad of materials, from nylon to indoor/outdoor and self-laminating vinyl, polyester and even heat-shrink sleeves. Industrial labels will adhere to irregular, curved and textured surfaces and remain clear, bright and readable for years.

Portability and durability go hand in hand, and fortunately, label manufacturers are finding new ways to build these qualities into label printers. A number of newer portable label printers are specifically designed to withstand the wear and tear of rigorous material handling environments. For example, built-in impact guards and a rugged design help protect the printer if it's dropped or bumped against other tools and equipment.

When choosing a printer, it's wise to consider all potential applications. For specific applications such as barcoding or rack and frame ID labels, consider a portable printer that prints continuous tapes and die-cut labels for fast, on-the-spot labeling.

To generate instructions for large equipment, invest in a high-end benchtop printer that can handle a variety of label and font sizes and produce large quantities of labels at high speeds. One benchtop printer can often handle all applications.

A combination of both portable and benchtop systems usually provides the most versatility and efficiency. For instance, portable printers can be used for on-demand labeling, while benchtop printers are used for high-volume, large-label printing.

Labeling is fundamental to creating a safe, accurate and productive material handling operation. Without clear and consistent labeling practices, a facility is susceptible to wasted time and materials, compromised product quality, safety issues and delays from defects, machine failures or accidents. All of these problems gradually wear down the competitive edge every company works so hard to create.

Stewart Landy is the North American product manager for portable printers at Brady Corp., a manufacturer and marketer of labeling systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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