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Barcode Labeling Guide
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Selecting the Right Label for Your Application

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Even after determining what to print, companies often buy barcode printers before figuring out their label requirements. Later they discover that their equipment won’t print the tag they need.

What happens?

  • They end up with hardware they can’t use.
  • They waste a lot of time and money.
  • They make do with what they have, never fully realizing the benefits of automating data collection.
  • They usually blame whoever sold them the system (rightfully so).

To ensure you end up with the right printer for your barcode system, consider your labeling requirements, which include:

  • Item

    What are you going to label?

  • Surface

    To what surface will you adhere the label? What is the condition of that surface?

  • Location

    Where will you print and apply the labels, and where will you store the labeled items?

  • Quality and compliance

    Do you need a high- or a low-resolution barcode? Are you required to comply with internal or external labeling standards?

  • Size and quantity

    What is the exact size of the area where you will attach the label? And will you print labels around the clock or only as needed?

  • Encoding

    Are you using an RFID system that requires encoded tags? Or are you producing cards with magnetic stripes?

  • Other factors

    How long should the label last? Do you require a durable label that can resist abrasion and damage?

Buying Tip

When you identify your labeling requirements before you buy a printer, you won’t waste time and money on items that don’t work.

Item

If you are printing barcode labels and tags, you need to consider everything you intend to label. For example, you may want to track assets such as computers, desks, and equipment. Or, perhaps you want to keep up with parts used to manufacture products.

And maybe in addition to assets and inventory, you need to label items of all sizes, shapes, and materials, including:

  • Furniture
  • Jewelry
  • Clothing
  • Engines
  • Test tubes
  • Packaging
  • Steel beams
  • Food
  • Plants
  • Chemical drums

By considering all of the items you may label now and in the future, you can pick a printer that will grow with your needs.

Surface

Now that you know the items you will label, let’s consider their surfaces so you can print a label in the right material and adhesive. Common surfaces include:

  • Plastic
  • Metal
  • Wood
  • Glass
  • Paper
  • Boxes
  • Fabric
  • Canvas
  • Stone

Next, consider the condition of these surfaces. Are they:

  • Smooth
  • Rough
  • Curved
  • Porous
  • Flat
  • Angled
  • Wet
  • Frozen
  • Hot
  • Waxed
  • Coated
  • Corrugated

Location

When starting a business, location is everything. So it is with barcode labels. To ensure you select a printer that will work in your environment, you must determine:

  • Where you will print the label
  • Where you will apply the label
  • Where you will store labeled items

For example, certain labels will adhere perfectly when printed and attached to a plastic bin that is at room temperature, then frozen for storage. But if you tried to apply the label to the plastic when the surface was frozen, it wouldn’t stick at all. So, whether indoors or out, you must consider environmental conditions such as:

  • Temperatures, including extreme heat and cold
  • Humidity levels
  • Exposure to sun, rain, and wind
  • Potential for damage, such as labels that must endure multiple transfers and environments
  • Dust, dirt, or other particles
  • Requirements for particle-free environments such as clean rooms
  • Hazardous environments at risk for explosions
  • Potential for spills, especially chemicals, solvents, or cleaning products
  • Risk for spreading infections, especially in healthcare environments

In addition, determine whether you will use the printer in a fixed or a mobile location.

  • Fixed
    • Office
    • Industrial setting (light, medium, heavy)
    • In a cramped area with little desk space
    • In a warehouse with poor lighting
  • Mobile
    • Out in the field
    • On a showroom, retail, or distribution retail floor
    • Inside a vehicle
    • At a customer’s site
    • Making deliveries

Quality and Compliance

Do you require a low or high-resolution label? Is that label bound by compliance regulations? Knowing these requirements ensures you produce a quality label that adheres to your requirements.

Resolution

Barcode label printers can produce labels that are 203, 300, 400, and 600 DPI (dots per inch). The most common is 203 DPI, a low print resolution label that is used in 90 percent of all printer applications, including labels for asset tracking, inventory control, and shipping.

However, some applications require higher resolutions—especially when printing extremely small or very detailed barcodes, including those with logos. These labels need a higher DPI.

Compliance

Many companies have automated systems for sorting incoming materials and managing inventory. Therefore, suppliers are often required to include a barcode or RFID label on their shipments. This facilitates strict compliance with defined requirements for layout, content, barcode symbology, and print quality.

Compliance isn’t limited to external distribution. For internal quality control and conformance to ISO 9000 or industry/distribution standards, you may need to use compliance labels that follow your internal requirements.

To check the accuracy of compliance labels, companies rely on verifiers, which check a printed barcode against an industry application standard and grade the barcode's quality. Some printers have verifiers built in, while others require you to purchase them separately. While purchasing extra equipment or printers with verifiers can add additional expense, verification can actually save your company money by ensuring compliance and avoiding costly re-printing and labeling.

Size and Quantity

Size does matter. For example, you can’t use the same label to ship and sell jewelry—a shipping label looks nothing like the tiny label placed around a diamond ring. And while this example is obvious, others are not.

Did you know that if the width is just slightly off that you may end up with labels that are too large for the only available space on an item’s surface? That’s why it’s important to know the exact size of the area you need to label. While most printers offer a range of print sizes, some cannot print small—or oversized— barcodes.

It’s also good to have a good idea of how many barcode labels you will print each day and week. Some printers are workhorses that can run 24/7, while others can’t endure that sort of marathon. Forecasting your label quantities also benefits your pocketbook—you can preorder labels and enjoy a quantity discount while also preventing downtime.

Encoding

The most common type of label encoding is RFID. If you are using an RFID system and printing RFID tags, you will need a printer and labels that enable you to add this critical functionality. With a card printer, you can also create plastic cards with magnetic stripes, smart card contacts, and UHF GEN2 RFID. You can also encode smart cards without contacts. Learn more about RFID.

Other factors

Other considerations when selecting the right barcode label and printer include:

  • Service life

    How long do you need labels to last? Some are designed for one-time use and others can last for years.

  • Durability and damage probability

    Do you require a rugged label that is immune to the elements? Or, do you only need the label to last for one shipment? What is the likelihood that your label will be damaged due to environmental hazards?

  • Abrasion

    Should the label resist abrasion that comes from being in a certain location such as on shelves in a warehouse where it will likely be hit by equipment and people?



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