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Improve Label Quality by Choosing the Right Print Method

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 18, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Smudges. Smears. White spots. Strike-throughs. Creases. These are the enemies of label legibility. More specifically, they make barcodes unreadable. They cause frustration, waste time and cost money when high-speed, automated scanning is replaced by manual reconciliation.

An unreadable barcode can be caused by a number of reasons. If a container isn't packed properly, the label can rub against the side of the container, a carton or another label, causing a smudge in the barcode. If a label is covered in clear tape, it creates a reflection that makes it difficult or even impossible for a scanner to read the barcode. Improperly applied labels, whether the label is too close to the edge of the carton, the label is wrinkled, or the barcode is wrapped around the edge of the carton, can render the label useless.

However, many suppliers continue to have problems with labels because they're not using the right print method. Ink jet and laser printing methods utilized in most homes and offices are not suited for printing barcodes. They're definitely cheaper, but the cost of chargebacks due to illegible barcodes far outweighs the upfront savings.

Thermal printing, which uses thermal print heads to produce accurate images with well-defined edges, is recommended for barcode printing. There are two types of thermal printing – thermal transfer and direct thermal.

Thermal Transfer Printing
With thermal transfer, a ribbon is heated by the thermal print head and ink is melted and absorbed into the label. The ink actually becomes part of the label, creating a high quality barcode. A wider range of label materials can be used in thermal transfer compared to direct thermal.

Barcodes produced via thermal transfer printing tend to last longer because environmental factors such as excessive heat and light won't alter the print quality. This is an important consideration if you expect your barcodes to spend a significant amount of time in transit or in a warehouse. For example, if you're having barcodes printed from a manufacturing facility in China, cartons could be exposed to extreme heat for weeks or months.

In order for thermal printing to work properly, the right ribbon must be matched with the right ink and the right label. There are three general types of ribbon. Wax-based ribbon is generally the least expensive but more prone to smudging. Resin-based ribbon is more expensive but less prone to smudging. Ribbon that combines wax and resin is more durable than wax and less expensive than resin.

These variables increase the chance of problematic barcodes. If the ribbon isn't installed perfectly, you can get a crease that leaves a line in the barcode, making it unreadable. If you're not using the right combination of ribbon, ink and label, the image quality won't be as crisp and the risk of smudging increases.

Direct Thermal Printing
With direct thermal, a heat-sensitive, chemically-treated label is passed under the thermal print head. The barcode is produced when the label darkens due to the heat. Ribbon, ink and toner aren't used in direct thermal printing, which reduces costs and eliminates the risk of smudging. It also means you don't have to worry about compatibility between the ribbon, ink and label as you do with thermal transfer.

The premium-coated facestock (the material used to make the labels) required for direct thermal printing tends to be more expensive than thermal transfer, which can accept more types of label materials. Because the label materials used for direct thermal remain chemically active after printing, overexposure to certain environmental conditions – particularly heat, fluorescent and UV lighting, and sunlight – can cause the label to darken, making the barcode unreadable. For these reasons, direct thermal is not recommended for "lifetime" printing applications.

However, the smudge-resistance factor is significant. If you have control over the environments where the cartons are stored and transported as well as the time spent in these environments, direct thermal is more likely to reduce chargebacks than thermal transfer. Although thermal transfer-printed labels last longer, a direct thermal-printed label will typically remain scannable after six months. It's helpful to use facestock that can withstand exposure to certain types of light, chemicals and abrasion.

Next Steps
Many deductions resulting from unreadable barcodes can be corrected and even eliminated. Start by evaluating your processes, equipment and the causes of any problems you're experiencing.

  • What percentage of deductions are the result of label quality compared to your processes for printing, labeling and shipping?
  • How long must your barcodes remain readable and in what kinds of environments?
  • What is the more likely cause of chargebacks due to unreadable barcodes – smudging or heat exposure?
  • If smudging is an issue, can it be corrected by properly loading containers, applying labels, and ensuring compatibility of printing components?
  • If heat or light exposure is an issue, can it be corrected by better controlling the environment and adjusting the printer settings such as print head pressure and heat?
  • Are you using barcode verifiers to ensure high print quality?
  • Are you using the right printing equipment? Is it being properly maintained and cleaned?
  • How much would chargebacks have to be reduced in order to justify investing in a new print method?
  • If you're considering a new service provider, what is their industry-related experience? Do they have references? Are they willing to conduct demos to prove the quality of their equipment?

Merchandise suppliers, we invite you to visit the forum boards on the RVCF website and tell us what you think. What print method do you use and why? How is it working? What problems are you facing, and what steps are you taking to overcome them? Please share your stories, join the discussion and learn from other members.

Supplier members can find instructions for utilizing the forum boards on the "Site Aids" page of the site. Not a member? Click here to learn how you can benefit from membership.

CLICK HERE to return to the SEPTEMBER 2014 RVCF LINK

Tags:  Direct Thermal  GS1-128  Label Quality  Print Methods  Thermal Transfer 

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