Wide innovation playing field

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Printing & Labelling Technology Report

LogisticsHandling.com spoke with leading analysts and vendors about current developments within the printing and labelling technology space and what future innovations might gain traction in the near future. 

Apart from all the left-field challenges being thrown at the manufacturing and logistics sector over the past few years, from politics and economics to pandemics and conflicts, and concerns around energy security and costs, there are two core topics on the minds of those working in this sphere today – The first is the need for an agile supply chain and the second is sustainability. This is the view of Richard Barfield, EMEA core portfolio marketing, printers & scanners, Zebra Technologies.

To his first point, Barfield believes we have seen a growth in reliance on a supply chain that can not only react to such forces, can respond and deliver on those rapidly changing demands, but also sustain that agility. “Core to this is the discussion around print and labelling and whether incumbent systems will remain capable of identifying and tracking assets through an organisation, providing the necessary data insights and visibilities and centralised management capabilities, regardless of changes in scaling and complexity of operations that you may need to implement,” he says.

On the theme of sustainability, Barfield explains that Zebra Technologies is seeing an increasing expectation from its customers and channel partners that the company is conducting its business and providing solutions in the most sustainable way possible. “For example, we have very active Zebra Circular Economy Program, which incorporates Device Buy-Back, Certified Refurbished Devices, Certified Refurbished Device Rental Program for short-term use to meet capacity surges, and a comprehensive recycling service,” he points out. “We have developed and launched numerous environmentally friendly printing supplies, and our linerless solutions have significant benefits, including reductions in waste and CO2, but also gains in productivity and a safer work environment. We have also committed to emissions reduction targets, which were validated by the Science Based Targets initiative in August this year.

In terms of drivers for change, Barfield cites the recent growth in e-commerce in an on-demand economy, particularly through the global pandemic, continues to layer more pressure on warehouse and distribution operations. “Organisations who are still relying on legacy technology know that to meet growing demand and market changes, they must invest in modern technology,” he says. Our Warehouse Maturity Model helps those operations and information technology leaders gradually increase the sophistication of their technologies to achieve greater and greater levels of operational visibility, utilise their data to a greater extent and orchestrate operations wall-to-wall to ensure every asset and worker is visible, connected, and optimally utilised.”

Barfield adds that central to that Maturity Model are Zebra’s comprehensive range of asset tracking solutions. “For many years, we have been saying that print and labelling is no longer just a hardware purchase – it’s really a software purchase in disguise. And that growing pressure warehouse and distribution operations are experiencing in the face of rapid change in external factors and complexities is fuelling the realisation that fleet visibility and management as well as real-time data and insights is essential to maintaining service and remaining competitive.”

In view of the ongoing post-pandemic issues, we are witnessing changes across many industries, and logistics and manufacturing are no exception. So reflects Jörk Schüßler, marketing director EMEA, Citizen Systems Europe GmbH. He also maintains there has been a massive increase in labelling demand caused by the substantial growth within the e-commerce industry. “Such a substantial increase in demand creates more online orders which in turn can lead to the need to reorganise order processes, restructure the reverse logistics procedure, and of course print more labels. All these factors put a lot of pressure on warehouses and its employees, requiring more action and more protection.”

Schüßler believes that by choosing the right printing solution e-commerce businesses can boost efficiencies, decrease costs and limit the negative impact of higher consumer demands. “This is where Citizen’s range of renowned, reliable printing solutions with disinfectant ready cases come into play,” he says. “Designed to have as little down time as possible, important printing processes won’t be interrupted by unexpected technical issues. The disinfectant ready printers have also been designed to withstand the harsh chemicals within cleaning products and allow the use of various readily available cleaning agents. So, the print performance is never compromised when essential cleaning in busy environments is undertaken.” 

In response to the increased demand from consumers on e-commerce businesses, Schüßler explains that there has also been an increase in demand for omni-channel experiences. “Customers want more than one option when it comes to receiving and returning goods. They want the options to buy online, return in store, order in store, buy in store, return online etc. They want the e-commerce experience to be convenient and fit in around their lifestyle. Therefore, as a further step to address the need for omnichannel within e-commerce spaces as well as the need to fulfil sanitation procedures, Citizen has launched the first ever POS printers that suppress the growth and spread bacteria and germs. The unique printers have an anti-microbial case which suppresses bacterial growth and protects the printers against bacteria build-up. The technology within the casing and both the printers themselves have a SIAA mark fulfilling ISO 22196 which further reinforces that both models are engineered to deliver effective results against bacteria growth and are designed to the highest industry standards.” 

The role of automation 

Richa Gupta and Michael Clarke from VDC Research’s AutoID & Data Capture practice, make the point that automation is critical to generate operational efficiencies in high-throughput environments (including manufacturing shopfloors and warehouses/distribution centres), in order to adequately address customer expectations. “VDC believes that the need for accurate on-package/product information is higher than ever before, accelerated by the need for better coordination, synchronisation, and consistency in data access/use across globally distributed locations,” say Gupta and Clarke. “Organisations are, therefore, making significant strategic investments in labelling solutions that help accomplish a broad set of business objectives including, but not limited to, enhanced production efficiencies, assured compliance with evolving global industry standards, and greater visibility into package movement throughout the supply chain.” 

Regarding drivers for change, Gupta and Clarke believe the obligation to have the right barcode label on the right product with the right documentation, which is dispatched from the right factory/warehouse at the right time and delivered to the right location without triggering returns and being complete, is unprecedented. “The need to address customer requirements for increased fulfilment speed, improved accuracy, and managing greater capacity is higher than ever before with explosive growth in ecommerce sales volumes and is placing immense pressure on the industrial supply chain,” they add. “VDC’s research shows that end-user organisations are selecting label printing products and vendors based on the availability of high-quality support, high-performance hardware, industry expertise and focus, and breadth of portfolio to address a broad range of application requirements.

Werner Heid, CEO, Printronix reflects that the pandemic has meant significant growth in transportation and logistics, but also a need to be yet more efficient. “The introduction of colour into areas where it has been prohibitively expensive or unreliable can drive this efficiency,” he says. “Colour provides much quicker feedback to us than monochrome and we can all instinctively recognise this, be it for signage in a warehouse denoting stock age, on production lines or in any walk of life. Traditionally colour has been seen as too expensive and the devices providing it not suitable for industrial areas. Printronix is looking to bring colour into these industrial areas with robust devices that do not compromise on reliability, cost, quality or performance.” 

In terms of drivers for change, Heid believes there is certainly some blue sky thinking here. “When we first ask the question do you want a colour printer to manufacturing and logistics customers the answer is invariably ‘no’ based on historical trade-offs that had to be made with colour printers, such as size, or cost, or reliability,” he says. “Even though the benefits of colour are known, the idea that it could be feasible is dismissed at first. With devices that seem to the naked eye like compact office devices, once customers understand these are industrial capable devices suitable for mission critical applications then this brings a whole host of new possibilities to the fore.”

Frederic d’Orsay, European channel sales director, Bixolon Europe GmbH, considers that the way we buy things has changed. “E-commerce is now influencing logistics, retail and manufacturing, which in turn has effected the way that we are printing labels,” he says, “The main change is mobility printing (or printing on the go) with the growing need to print delivery or returns labelling, take a mobile payment or print a receipt in the field. However, labelling requirements are also changing as businesses are looking to become more environmentally friendly and reduce waste. This has led to a steady growth in popularity for linerless labelling, which allows a specialist label printer to print a label of variable lengths depending on the printed content by removing the requirement of traditional backing paper.” 

Ged Cairns, head of Auto ID Business Unit, Brother UK and Domino Printing Sciences (Domino), makes the point that warehouse managers have always sought solutions that can boost efficiency and accuracy, which in turn create the capacity to handle the dynamic demand in ecommerce. “Specialist labelling devices represent a simple solution to implement and slot in with existing systems right out of the box, snatching back seconds lost on the warehouse floor,” he says. 

“We're seeing demand grow as more businesses recognise the benefits, particularly for wireless labelling. Mobile devices provide warehouse staff with a print solution for location labels that enables them to pick, pack and label in the aisle without returning to the print room or a station at the aisle end. Big logistics firms with major fulfilment operations require a synergy of resilient and reliable mobile printers, allowing workers to create labels at pace and in real time, wherever they are on the floor, helping process thousands of parcels daily. But the packing bench or aisle-end station, equipped with an industrial grade label printer, can help users to complete heavy-volume labelling tasks easily and quickly. A mixture of mobile and stationary label printers on the floor can help to maximise productivity.” 

Cairns adds that one of the most interesting current developments in the printing and labelling market is the rise of digital printed late-stage customisation and variable data printing, which can provide real value to manufacturers and end consumers. “Digital printing systems can now be mounted in factories or on production lines to provide additional flexibility when creating products and packaging – and this is no longer a lab-scale test,” he says. “There are several applications where on-site or in-line digital printing is now routine and expected. On-site digital printing allows manufacturers to make short-run products or short-run packaging within their own plants or customise versions to suit specific orders without waiting for suppliers. 

“With digital printing, it is also possible to create short runs of secondary boxes that improve picking in the warehouse and allow variation in secondary packs in shops to provide additional information for consumers. From a consumer perspective, it is more appealing to have a box that tells you clearly what flavour a product is, for example, rather than having a generic manufacturer’s box with a small label in the corner telling you what is in there. 

“With in-line digital printing, it is also possible to add unique identification to products to give a better level of traceability than previously available and enable upstream and downstream control. Unique identification codes can be added not just to the primary product and its packaging but also to the consignments and shipping containers into which they are put. This additional level of traceability can allow manufacturers to run their whole supply chain more efficiently than before. 

“The same 2D codes can be used to add more personalised touchpoints with consumers – with brands encouraging consumers to scan codes to find out more information, leave reviews and feedback, register warranties, or participate in promotional activities. The COVID-19 pandemic normalised the scanning of 2D codes and created a QR code-friendly population. These consumers may also be open to trying innovative ideas, so this is a great environment to try out new concepts.

“Digital printing technology is now available and usable by manufacturers in volume; this means that creating short runs of products to tie into specific events, promotions, or marketing activities is no longer a problem. While in the past it may have been overly complex or expensive to create variants of products to tie into specific events, for example, we are now living in a world where not only is this possible, but it can be done at the last minute. An example is the case of a sporting event – specialist packaging could be created to not just to promote an event but also to celebrate a local win.

“This flexibility is incredibly valuable in a world where the consumer increasingly ignores paid-for media. The one thing which continues to resonate and with which brands can be sure to get in front of consumers is packaging. Packaging resonates well with a social media savvy generation, where short-run, special event-driven packs provide something to share and discuss online.”

In terms of drivers for change, Cairns reflects that warehousing and logistics firms have enjoyed a boom as digital channels became the default option for shoppers over the last few years. “But strains on capacity are leading these businesses to consider more immediate changes to boost productivity and efficiency, such as introducing accessible and affordable labelling hardware,” he says.

Cairns adds that big online retailers have also normalised the promise of next-day delivery in the minds of consumers. “Many manufacturers have moved to just-in-time supply chain models in the last few years too. This means speed to despatch is crucial across the sector, as is the ability to easily process returns. Auto-ID technology is pivotal for warehouses to achieve this.” 

Cairns considers that the pandemic was a real trigger for the rise in variable data printing and 2D codes. “At a time when populations were confined at home and isolated, technology provided an opportunity to communicate with the outside world, and consumers became more web literate. The vaccination and track and trace schemes helped to familiarise the scanning of QR codes and increased brand and consumer understanding of how these could be used more widely. GS1 invested significant efforts into providing accessibility for 2D to brands so that everyone can provide information on products and packaging, which everyone involved in the product lifecycle can easily access using a smartphone or other code scanner.

“No specific technology has enabled this momentous change – it is a combination of a whole variety of things happening at a unique time. Smartphones, 2D codes, and internet access, combined with the fact that people were forced to stay home and connect with technology differently, enabled a new way of looking at products and packaging. A new value for print was enabled, where the printed code linked the product in your hand with its internet data and provided a direct connection back to the manufacturer.” 

New markets 

Doraiswamy Bharath Sunderraj, industry analyst – TechVision, Frost & Sullivan, points out that a number of 3D printer manufacturers are poised to bring more high-precision, industrial-scale additive manufacturing 3D printers to market, to be used in sectors such as aerospace and automotive. However, he considers that this has become a rather saturated segment and observes that development and investment has slowed somewhat. “We are now seeing more money being spent on additive manufacturing in the construction industry,” he explains. “For example, it’s being used in house building and for other structures in countries such as UAE, North America and India and was used in the building of a bridge in Amsterdam.

Another industry where Doraiswamy Bharath is seeing considerable focus for the deployment of 3D printing is healthcare. “Innovations are being made, but some developers aren’t sure if their solutions will be granted MSD approval or whether they will be able to scale-up the whole concept. So, it's still in the very nascent stages.”

Regarding developments in sub-componentry, in laser 3D printing technology that is mainly used for metal additive manufacturing, Sunderraj considers that the quality of the lasers has been improved, as have the jetting fuels and nozzles. In terms of greater flexibility in the usage of 3D printers, Doraiswamy Bharath makes the point that people are now better able to monitor 3D printers using remote monitoring and control software. “So, you can, for example, connect several 3D printers in this software lake and monitor which printer is doing which print job. Moreover, by installing a camera at the production hub you can see each print job in action.”

In terms of the labelling and packaging industry, what Doraiswamy Bharath has seen in general in the food and beverage industry is the development of smart packaging. “People want to know from which region their food is coming from, whether the ingredients are organic and so on,” he says. “For example, if you pick up an Apple in packaging that has a QR code on the packaging you can scan the code and it shows you where it originated, how many days it has been since it was first plucked from the tree and other details related to its lifecycle. Similarly, if you pick up a packaged salad with a QR code it can tell you whether it's pre-cooked and other details. There are also packaging monitors that can show how fresh food is and whether it's been subject to some level of contamination etc. So, the whole concept of smart packaging and labelling is gaining traction in the grocery space.”

Regarding environmental responsibility, one very compelling recent example cited by Doraiswamy Bharath is Nestlé’s development of two new packaging innovations for its Vittel natural mineral water bottles. The novel water bottles are designed to function just like traditional plastic bottles but with much less plastic. The first innovation is the Vittel GO system, which consists of a reusable hard protective case designed to hold 50cl refills of Vittel natural mineral water that are made with 40% less plastic than a traditional 50cl Vittel bottle. Because the bottles are made with as little recycled plastic as possible, they are very flexible and light, which means they must be used with the reusable protective case to make it easy to drink the water.

The second packaging innovation by Nestlé is a 100% recyclable 1-litre Vittel Hybrid bottle that is made from two types of materials. It opens up new possibilities for the development of the next generation of water bottles. The first material is an ultra-thin plastic bottle made entirely from recycled content. It uses two times less plastic than a classic 1L bottle. The plastic layer is surrounded by a fibre-based material made from 100% recycled cardboard and old newspapers. Proprietary technologies enable the plastic and fibre-based layers to be locked together to create a functional, sturdy water bottle that can be easily used without any damage. Nestlé packaging experts are currently developing a tearing system which allows consumers to easily separate the paper and plastic components for recycling when the hybrid bottle is empty.

The new packaging innovations were developed by experts at Nestlé's research and development centre for Waters in Vittel, France who received special funding from Nestlé's internal R&D Shark-Tank' initiative. To develop the hybrid bottle, the experts worked in collaboration with Ecologic Powered by Jabil, a Californian start-up that specialises in eco-design of packaging.

Both the Vittel GO and Vittel Hybrid water bottles were made available for consumer testing in France in July last year. These two innovations are part of the company's continuous efforts to introduce novel packaging materials to help Nestlé reduce its use of virgin plastics by one third by 2025.

New technology 

Sona Dadhania, technology analyst, IDTechEx, explains that in terms of technology trends, there is a good deal of interest for 3D printing within the volume manufacturing market rather than the more established rapid prototyping market. She explains that several 3D printing technologies are emerging to address that market. “For example, one such technology is called selective thermoplastic electrophotographic process (STEP), available from Evolve Additive Solutions,” says Dadhania. “The company’s main mission is to offer a system that fuses 2D laser printing and additive manufacturing. It uses components that are very similar to those used in 2D laser printing. Their goal is to capitalise on the speed of 2D laser printing to offer a higher throughput 3D printing technology that can compete with injection moulding for the volume manufacturing market. This technology has only been on the market for about two years.” 

According to Dadhania, other technologies that are targeting that volume market include HP's multi-jet fusion (MJF) technology. “This year, the company launched a metal version of that technology called Metal Jet Fusion. Some other companies offer similar technologies, including Voxeljet. These companies seem to be getting traction within certain types of consumer goods and medical device applications, in terms of hitting higher volumes than certain other 3D printing technologies.” 

Installed base 

When one looks at it from a pure numbers point of view, Dadhania considers that the installed base for 3D printers is very much dominated by low-cost models. “Think of classic thermoplastic filament extrusion, those owned by consumers or lower-level professionals who don't need high throughput or high performance,” she says. “That's just a fact of them being orders of magnitude cheaper than the other industrial types of printers on the market.” 

Dadhania adds that when one looks at industrial printers on the market, this is fairly evenly split between metal printers and polymer printers in terms of the popularity. “This isn’t true for desktop or prosumer printers, as it’s very difficult to have a low-cost 3D metal printer,” she explains. “These are typically printers that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For that segment, polymer 3D printers are the most popular because they are low cost.” 

Regarding the regional split of the 3D printer installed base, Dadhania points out that the US market has been the first to pick up additive manufacturing, followed by Europe. She adds that Germany is one of the biggest adopters in Europe, with many 3D printing companies being founded out of Germany. “Thus, when you look at installed base, most 3D printers are found in those two regions.” 

However, the fastest-growing market is China by far, according to Dadhania. “First, China is a manufacturing powerhouse with many potential end-users,” she points out. “Second, there are many homegrown Chinese companies who can not only produce these printers but also produce them at a lower cost. Additionally, these companies have closer relationships with China-based customers, enabling the adoption of 3D printing with China-based end-users.”  

Integration

In terms of the relationship between some current printing and labelling systems and back-office systems, what do our commentators feel have been some of the key recent changes and maybe extra benefits for the user? Gupta and Clarke consider that as data requirements increase in globally distributed locations, so is the need to shift to an enterprise-wide approach to labelling in order to ensure data consistency and synchronicity, which is a move away from traditional siloed applications that do not communicate with each other. “Organisations are increasingly leveraging automated label data population via seamless integration with systems including ERP, MES, and WMS,” they explain. “VDC’s research shows that over eight in ten organisations are experiencing at least one error per year with their labelling systems. Automating print jobs, and the label creation process, via integration with ‘authoritative’ data sources will play a significant role in eliminating/reducing the costs associated with illegible or incorrect data being printed.” 

Heid considers that connectivity is key for all manner of devices in 2022, and printing is no different. “Printronix is bringing to market products that can connect directly to the ERP such as SAP but also directly to mobile devices and the office Windows network,” he explains. “Capable of printing labels, signage and office materials reliably and quickly, one printer can provide efficiency and quality printing for organisations.” 

d’Orsay makes the point that to make a profit, automisation is needed but if you make a mistake, it can be very costly. “Cloud CRM and ERP software systems are being rolled out throughout all aspects of business but they can’t always work alone and sometimes need hardware such as printers to complete objectives,” he says. “That is why companies such as Bixolon have certified a number of our desktop and mobile label printers over the past few years to work with a range of packages such as SAP ERP software and SOTI remote management software. As businesses put printers in the field, thanks to our own software you can have remote access to the printers, amend diagnostics, become more mobile and where required in the field bring in more remote access where needed.” 

According to Cairns, one of the biggest positive changes relates to data flow between supporting software and hardware. “But now there’s much more convergence and integration to make data flow far simpler and more reliable,” he says. “The wide range of connectivity options on offer, from Bluetooth 5.0 to USB Type C, is boosting security, range and reliable information transfer, and there is also more consistency in label formats across print estates, meaning users don’t need to have specific models for certain jobs. 

“The degree of support available is another key benefit, which is reducing the risk of down-time in the sector. We provide a three-year warranty on our devices, while users can upgrade to our ONSITE support, where an engineer will come to site the next day to resolve issues on our industrial thermal label printer-range.” 

Cairns adds that the high-resolution printing technologies have made it possible and affordable to put more information, including variable 2D codes, onto individual items and packs as part of the manufacturing process. “In doing so, these technologies have opened the gates to increased data sharing – throughout the manufacturing site, as well as with back-office personnel, the warehouse, and throughout the supply chain to the end consumer,” he says. “Once again, a convergence of technology – mobile data, mobile devices, and scannable packs and labels – has created an environment where brands can collect, share, and analyse data, and develop creative use cases for problems that need solving.” 

Barfield explains that Zebra refers to that relationship as The Edge. “It’s where front-line workers, empowered with enterprise grade technology and business solutions can sense, analyse and act with all people, assets, and data within an organisation, all connected to drive better, faster, and smarter business decisions,” he says. “For sensing, we’ve seen the growth in adoption of 2D barcode technology and labelling with multiple barcodes, as well as variable formats of barcode on the same label. This has implications for print and labelling technology to create that type of label, but also for scan technology. Fortunately, with Multi-Code Data Formatting, you can simultaneously capture up to 20 barcodes with one trigger pull from a Zebra scanner, whilst isolating the one to act upon for that specific process and workstation.

“Radio frequency identification (RFID) takes the gain in the amount of information that can be relayed even further. As we work with a broader set of customers and applications for RFID, we are seeing the demands grow for variable tag types and performance in a diverse range of environments, and increased tag memory. With increased memory, you have increased data, which puts the emphasis on the integration with those back-office systems to analyse and act on this data. We are also expanding our sensing capability with environmental sensors, such as our ZeOn-Demand Printable Indicators, which you will be able to read more about elsewhere in this publication from Elaine Wilkinson, Senior Manager, Supplies Product Management at Zebra. 

“For analysis, our Link-OS operating system and Print DNA suite of applications provide a built-in advantage, whether that’s from straightforward apps such as our Security Assessment Wizard, or Printer Setup Utilities, or our powerful VisibilityIQ Foresight solution, which provides a convenient, dashboard-view solution driven by comprehensive data collection and analytics.

“Durable printers are essential—as well as being what Zebra are renowned for producing of course—but it's the software inside that keeps your printers in action and working hassle-free. So, when it comes to acting on data, with Zebra Print DNA tools and applications, organisations can stay a step ahead utilising remote management tools, such as Printer Profile Manager Enterprise, heightened security and ongoing updates. If you need to deploy a full managed print solution, and run your print fleet remotely from anywhere, that’s now entirely possible.”

Remaining concerns?

Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of printing and labelling systems? With higher cloud adoption and digital integration within printing and labelling solutions, Gupta and Clarke believe this requires stronger data security protocols to protect sensitive client information. “The data leveraged within barcode labels has increasingly sensitive customer data stored for package delivery and private information on healthcare labels and patient wristbands,” they say. “In order to strengthen client confidentiality, these database systems require stronger data encryption tools and safety protocols to prevent data hacks and information leaks. This requirement is particularly evident with EHR platforms and HIPPA law mandates, as hospital and healthcare organisations have begun to shift towards direct thermal labels in some cases for patient wristbands, so the printed data can fade over a shorter period of time.” 

Barfield considers that there are still too many organisations who are making do with legacy technology. “In doing so they’re not gaining the benefits to be had from deploying the latest solutions, which in turn puts those organisations at risk in the face of external and competitive factors,” he says. “We still see too many examples of older printers, which are not connected to the organisation, without any intelligence built in. Such organisations are in the dark when it comes to knowing where inefficiencies and issues are in their business.” 

Barfield adds that others might cite security and confidentiality as a concern and a barrier to a connected print fleet, but with Link-OS enabled printers, protection comes built. “PrintSecure guards your printer endpoints and defends against cyberattacks with layers of protection. It can help uncover security vulnerabilities, configure printers to use secure connections, block unwanted access, and protect your data and infrastructure against security breaches.”

Others may also be put off by complexity, according to Barfield. “Maybe they have a mixed fleet with printers from different vendors running variable languages, providing IT with a constant challenge. But with Link-OS enabled printers you can deploy Printer Emulations with ease.  These are on-printer apps that allow Print DNA capable printers to use a variety of printer command languages, while adding the benefits of manageability and security. Multiple emulations can be downloaded to a single printer, allowing users to choose between command languages as needed. It makes adding new printers a seamless drop in.” 

Cairns believes thermal remains the de facto technology used by most manufacturers for low-cost monochrome label printing. “At Brother, we are constantly researching alternatives that keep label costs to a minimum, that produce less waste and that offer more sustainable solutions,” he says. “This has been a big dilemma for the industry for years, but the solution requires a joined-up effort from the paper mills and the hardware vendors. We are yet to see an answer to the whole backing paper recycling/compostable challenge with linerless offering limited relief and synthetic liners proving more costly. This is possibly where direct marking on automated lines has the advantage. But with the amount of detail required and the density of the barcode being demanded from goods receiving, practical solutions are some way off.” 

d’Orsay explains that thermal transfer printers require ribbons to print onto the label. “When you print using a thermal transfer printer to print a label a lot of the information is kept on the ribbon itself which can be easily read, such as addresses, shipping details, product information and more. There needs to be more careful handling of the used ribbons. The simple installation and use of a ribbon shredder would rectify this issue.” 

Convergence 

d’Orsay also believes technology convergence is a good thing. “The convergence of a printer is to be networked, as it is no longer a stand-alone solution but needs the option to be accessed remotely,” he says. “Traditional, clunky computer systems are becoming redundant as cloud-based systems are entering the warehouse. Linked handheld or wearable hardware technologies such as scanners or VOIP are being brought in to wirelessly collect and send information to a main system or print directly to a networked printer or paired mobile. Paired with new labelling technologies such as RFID labelling, which uses UHF label encoding technology to provide an additional dimension to label tracking, whether it be in a warehouse, passing through a pick point or arriving with the end-user. This advanced printing technology will add efficiency and traceability at every stage of a package’s journey.” 

Gupta and Clarke maintain that the benefits of technology convergence within printing and labelling solutions are largely workflow dependent, as it has strengthened operational efficiency in some areas, but also has disrupted the value proposition for others. “For example, mobile cart integration with stationary printers and scanning peripherals has strengthened on-demand labelling and scanning in the warehouse and manufacturing shop floor,” they say, “while electronic shelf labelling (ESL) systems in retail stores have diminished price marking and shelf edge mobile printing use cases as stores have begun to take a centralised POS approach especially in Europe.” In this sense, Gupta and Clarke explain that mobile printer applications are shifting towards omnichannel support in retail for BOPIS, curb side pick-up, and inventory management workflows. “Therefore, technology convergence will continue to strengthen workflow efficiency and will evolve labelling solution uses cases to emerging areas,” they add. 

Cairns considers that convergence is a good thing. “Part of the technology convergence is the rise in 2D codes, which provides new relevance for printing and labelling in a world of internet connectivity. A printed 2D code joins a physical product to its internet presence.” 

Barfield believes convergence provides benefits and efficiencies that a standalone offering cannot. “Let me give you a simple example. You may have a workstation that has a dedicated label printer, connected directly to a PC. Neither device is connected to the network – the PC is used to store label designs and formats. To change label format for different tasks, the operator must drive this from the PC before the label can be printed. If label formats must be changed, the operator must wait until the supervisor has loaded them manually onto the PC. It’s an inefficient process.”

Barfield thinks a far more efficient process is to directly connect that label printer with the organisation’s network, where label formats can be stored directly within the printer’s memory and updated centrally whenever changes are required. Also, by pairing that printer with a handheld barcode scanner he explains that users can reduce costs at the workstation as there is no longer any need for a dedicated PC. “Instead, provide printed barcodes or QR codes, which are aligned to the label formats stored on the printer, and the operator can easily change label formats from a simple trigger press on a Zebra scanner. Voilà – cost, efficiency, and productivity gains, all enabled through a very standard technology convergence.” 

Barfield explains that the orchestration of hardware and software for a solution approach is core to Zebra’s collaboration with customers. “And tailoring solutions enables new workflows, automation and empowers frontline workers,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why we have such a broad church of hardware offerings, which includes printers, scanners, RFID, mobile computing, and tablets, and why we continue to expand and acquire into new technologies such as machine vision and robotics. All this technology already under one brand roof aligned with an equally comprehensive toolbox of software offerings and service platforms, is why Zebra is so successful in partnering with customers to help solve their challenges.” 

Heid makes the point that convergence comes about due to efficiencies and this can only ever be a positive for customers. “Being able to print labels, signage, inserts, shipping documents and office documents on one compact and cost-effective device is an example of this convergence benefitting the end user through lower running costs, greater uptime and maximum flexibility to handle whatever the business needs that day,” says. 

Education 

Meeka Walwyn, head of membership operations, BPIF, believes engaging with generation Z is key to understanding the future of business. “The print industry includes an older demographic – the average age for an employee in the industry is 43 and only 9.5% of employees are 16-24 and 19.2% are 25-34 [Source: BPIF Research estimates based on analysis of ONS data (2020)],” she says. “Working with the younger generation allows the BPIF to educate them on the vast scope of the industry, its focuses and opportunities.

Walwyn explains that the BPIF is currently working with Leeds Beckett University to provide students with print related consultancy projects. These projects are part of their final assessments. “We have third-year and MBA students engaging in research projects that give them the opportunity to learn about the industry, communicate with company leaders through conducting primary research,” she says. “This is achieved by the students working closely with the BPIF and members.” The following project titles are being researched:

  • Employee talent – is there any evidence to suggest companies with a proactive approach to sustainability benefit from attracting the best talent and retain more talent as a result of this approach?
  • What are the emerging technology trends which will impact retail in the UK?
  • How can retailers capitalise on social media to engage with their target customers?
  • How can brands avoid Greenwashing?
  • How will the consumer of the future shop?
  • Why do businesses choose to offset their carbon footprint rather than investing in carbon reduction and mitigation?

The students are submitting their research to the University to provide the industry with important insight that will help it sustain and grow. Insight is being provided on topics such as:

  • Is carbon offsetting greenwashing?
  • The future of the QR code
  • How print will influence the retail digital space?
  • Is print relevant in the social space?
  • What generations see a company’s sustainable credentials as important?

The retail-focused project research provided is very relevant to companies in the following special/sector interest groups Labels, Cartons, Display & POS and Creative Digital Industries (CDI). The environment-focused project research will provide all companies with insight and direction. Walwyn explains that the BPIF is also looking to engage with other universities on student projects.

One common issue in the industry is designers not knowing print processes and how to get artwork print ready. “This is due to a large percentage of college and university design course not including ‘designing for print’ in their curriculum,” says Walwyn. “The BPIF is working to develop a module that colleges and universities can add on as an extracurricular activity which will educate them on how to design artwork for printed products. The module will include the following:

  • Printing processes
  • Pre-press
  • Print ready files
  • Colour
  • Resolution
  • Trim & bleed
  • Sizing 

This initiative will be led by the BPIF Technical Forum, which will work closely with universities, print companies and other industry bodies to develop a module that will not only educate future designers but also provide them with an insight into the print industry as a career path and provide the opportunity for on-the-job training. 

“The BPIF aims to create a Student Engagement group as a membership benefit which will help support companies with engaging with colleges, universities and potentially secondary schools to help educate on the print industry,” says Walwyn. “To help the print, packaging and digital industry address the much-publicised skills and age gap, in the industry, the group will work to develop resources that will ensure future generations are informed of the print, media, digital and graphics industry as an interesting and valued career path.” 

Objectives and aims 

Objectives include:

  • Promoting the industry to students, educators, careers hubs and associations.
  • Increasing the number and quality of industry apprentices.
  • Improving relationships between the printing sector and the educational sector.
  • Providing companies with easy access to resources and a framework with which to engage with schools, colleges and universities.

Aims include:

  • Create a number of platforms and frameworks for members to engage with young people to make them aware of the roles and career opportunities in the industry.
  • Create opportunities for involvement in initiatives and events that can drive increased uptake of print apprenticeships in order to attract young people into print.
  • Provide stakeholders with guidance and access to tools and resources to help with events and projects.
  • Provide stakeholders with guidance and tools to enable easy support of your local school and community by providing careers advice and information.
  • Develop an avenue for your company to engage in corporate social activities through enhanced school and community engagement.
  • Develop and improve the pipeline of young learners seeking a role in your business and the industry.

Future developments

What might be the next key innovations or developments to look out for over the next year or two within the printing and labelling space? Gupta and Clarke make the point that, from a software perspective, organisations are no longer exclusively relying on the built-in labelling capabilities of their enterprise applications. “Instead, they are choosing to focus their investments on purpose-built labelling solutions that can handle data complexities, varied integration requirements (changing by location), and distributed set-ups with a centralised and standardised system,” they say. Gupta and Clarke add that end users are working on ways to maximise production and distribution-related efficiencies by – bringing down downtimes through constant, proactive monitoring (via automation sensors and having their applications on the cloud); focusing on rising to Industry 4.0 standards; enabling seamless communication and interoperability across disparate systems, including labelling; investing in serialisation/UDI processes to uniquely identify and trace products throughout supply chain; and eliminating labelling errors caused by manual/operator errors.

Gupta and Clarke also consider that cloud-hosting is becoming increasingly relevant, and explain that a growing percentage of end users are considering shifting away from on-premise deployment of their business applications. “There is a growing trend for enterprise application migration to the cloud that VDC believes will be the precursor to more substantial cloud-based deployments for labelling solutions as well. All leading labelling solution providers now offer a cloud-based deployment option to their customers, depending on their appetite for migration and experiences with enterprise application deployment on the cloud.”

Dadhania points out that IDTechEx is forecasting continuous growth in the field of 3D printing. “When it comes to 3D printers and 3D printing material sales, we are expecting the market to exceed US$41 billion by 2033. One of the major drivers for this is people understanding how to effectively incorporate 3D printing into their supply chains.” 

Dadhania adds that one prior issue in this industry is that there was a lot of hype. “This can serve its purpose if people know how to use the technology well, but when marketing made people's expectation unrealistic, then some people became reluctant to adopt. Now, there is more critical analysis of 3D printing’s advantages as end-users ask themselves ‘what can this technology do that is actually beneficial for our business chain?’. That awareness of how to effectively find the value-add that 3D printing can bring is increasing and is helping to drive increased uptake of 3D printers.” 

On the technical side, Dadhania reflects that not only are there many new technologies coming out, what these technologies are doing is finding new applications where 3D printing could be quite beneficial. “They’re expanding the 3D printing landscape as a whole by making these inroads individually,” she says. “That is expected to continue in parallel with established technologies finding more places to improve and become more effective for the applications they are targeting.” 

Heid comments that colour has meaning and brings greater value to the output and more can be achieved with industrial laser printers being suitably reliable to bring about changes in processes benefitting from colour adoption.

With the strong increase in label printing as a consequence of e-commerce, d’Orsay considers that this is leading to an increase in linered waste. “There must be more technology improvements to limit the negative impact of printing on the environment,” he stresses. “We can already see the linerless technology making progress, but we are still far from experiencing the growth that is expected. Linerless labelling not only provides environmental benefits but improves efficiency, with the option to print a variable length labels. With no backing paper, there are more labels per roll, which equates in less roll changes. There will also be a reduction in the number of printers required as printers won’t need to be fixed on one label size.”

d’Orsay adds that Bixolon knows good printing hardware is only one step within the process for an effective printing system. “The quality of the network behind the printer is just as important as the printer itself, with investment in the network from the maintenance to the software assists to create and maintain an efficient labelling network.” 

Cairns believes we may see the eventual rise of RFID in the labelling world. “Brother invested in a number of RFID models recently, placing them on trial at a number of exciting projects that justify the on-cost,” he explains. “This was always the dilemma: making an affordable business case to use RFID labels instead of just traditional barcodes. 

“We’re taking it on a case-by-case basis, but we’re confident that we will see significant uptake over the next two years. We know that businesses are continually looking at both streamlining their processes and reduce waste, and the use of a QR code can consolidate multiple barcodes for different businesses across the supply chain, resulting in more material that can be recycled.”

Cairns considers that an increase in mobile printing and distributed desktop printing is to be expected as the use of Voice systems grows in the Supply Chain sector. “This means many more desktop printers in multiple areas of the site including mounting onto the various material handling trucks out there. In the age of high efficiency and rapid throughput, printing at the picking point will increase,” he says. 

Cairns adds that he believes the next significant innovation will be in the adoption of a multi-purpose 2D barcode by GS1. “This organisation regulates retail barcodes and has introduced the GS1 Digital Link, a standardised way of providing webpages linked to individual products. A 2D code embedded with a GS1 Digital Link is linked to a manufacturer’s website, with identifiers embedded within the code directing the scanner towards specific data – this could be high-level at the overall product range or batch, or the individual item level. When implemented at the individual item level, the GS1 Digital link will allow the manufacturer to stay connected with the end consumer if they agree to be contacted.” 

Cairns adds that today’s digital and variable data printing technologies are just the beginning of a technology framework that will create significant added value at every stage of the supply chain. “These technologies will allow manufacturers to run their factories more efficiently and respond to demand much quicker and more efficiently while also providing additional services and information to consumers. We are only just scratching the surface of what is possible – in the future these technologies will give way to more opportunities for creativity and new ways to optimise operations and engage and inform consumers using packaging and 2D codes.” 

The ability to respond and react quickly 

Barfield reflects that if the past few years have taught us anything, other than to expect the unexpected and to thrive during uncertainty, we must be prepared and able to respond and react quickly. “I do hope that cloud and labelling convergence gains widespread acceptance and fast,” he says. “I feel this will be the catalyst that will drive more organisations to evolve their print fleets to connected ones and achieve those gains through convergence with other technology.

Barfield believes RFID will continue to grow. “In our recent experience, we’ve seen innovation driven by the customer’s challenges and imagination. That’s why we now have such as diverse portfolio of RFID, including RFID labels for tyres, patient wristbands embedded with RFID tags, and even eco-friendly RFID inlays. So, as technology convergence matures so too will the reliance on the data and the insights which can be acquired from an effective RFID solution.”

Alongside the continued growth in RFID, Barfield believes the next big development will be with environmental sensors. “These are labels and tags that have the capability to respond to environmental changes such as temperature and provide process indication. Such sensors are becoming business critical in industries such as pharmaceuticals, and Elaine Wilkinson covers these produces in her article, elsewhere in this publication.”

With reference to his earlier point that sustainability is a key talking point, Barfield expects (and hopes) that it’s going to significantly shape the print and labelling space going forward. “I think technology demands will favour those providers of enterprise grade and rugged technology, where technology is designed to last, and backed up by service and repair provision. We have an active base of Zebra printer repair specialists around the globe, and we know that there are many Zebra devices from previous decades that are still working reliably. Customers are increasingly putting environmental considerations at the heart of their buying decisions – that drives a need to illustrate, measure and prove credentials. So, I’m in no doubt that we will see increasing innovation that answers this need.” 

Barfield adds that, from a personal point, participating in this report has jogged a memory. “It must be from the early 1980s—you know those days where one of your parents takes you into their work for the day. I remember my father showing me this plotter in his office. It was a huge device for printing up circuit board schematics, using pens in holders. It was quite the thing to behold way back then as a small boy. I remember my father saying to me ‘It won’t be long son before no one prints anything anymore. In a few years, we will have a digital office’. In some respects, he wasn’t wrong. From a document solutions perspective, there is a great deal that has been digitised. But when it comes to the needs of asset identification and tracking, print and labelling is bigger than ever and it’s here to stay.”

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