High-Speed Printer Helps Print bar-code Labels Six Times Faster

There are three primary requirements to achieve success as a label service bureau for the retail industry — response time, response time and response time. It really isn't surprising that retailers demand fast turnaround from their suppliers of printed bar-code labels. After all, if the goods are sitting in the storeroom but can't be sold because the labels aren't ready, that's money down the drain.

One company that has developed a niche turning on a dime to meet the needs of their customers in the retail business is California Retailers Supply, San Diego, California. Switching to a faster printer makes it possible for the firm to print bar-code labels for retail stores 6 times faster than before. With a printer that ran at 4 inches per second, California Retailers Supply' operator had to continually switch to other tasks while waiting for the label run to be completed. A new thermal transfer printer operates at 10 inches per second, which means a batch of labels can be printed in the less than the time that it takes the operator to enter the fields and insert media for a new batch of labels. The time savings are more than the proportional speed improvement because delays caused by the operator getting sidetracked by another task have been eliminated.

California Retailers Supply was founded in 1982 by Gary and Madeline Carmichael in a spare room of their house. At that time, Gary had just left a firm selling price label printing equipment when a partnership went sour. The firm began selling equipment for bar-code label printing in the late 1980s and this line soon constituted the great majority of its business as retailers embraced the technology. Carmichael has always prided himself on providing rapid response to customers' needs. He points to the situation where a company sponsoring road rallies needed bar-code labels that would stick to tires through a three-day rally delivered in a week. Carmichael had never dealt in that type of label, but he quickly researched the subject, found the right material and delivered the labels in just five days.

By providing this type of service, the firm has grown to become one of the leading suppliers of pre-printed bar-code labels to retail outlets in Southern California. The company provides basic 1" and 1.25" bar-code labels with one field designed to be applied by hand for $25.00 per thousand. It also supplies 1" by 2" bar-code labels with three fields that can be applied by a hand-held tool for $35.00 per thousand. California Retailers Supply also has the capacity to do labels as large as 4" by 6" with as many as 25 fields at prices that vary depending upon the amount of information that is placed on them and the size and shape of the label. It can also provide labels in nonstandard materials such as Teflon-coated aluminum labels that will not come off even when soaked in sulfuric acid for 72 hours. It's success as a service bureau has also helped the company thrive in the business of selling label printers and supplies to retailers who have become large enough to bring that function inside.

Labor intensive
In the past, printing labels was a labor-intensive task because the amount of time required to print the labels was considerably longer than the time required to set them up. The old printer used by the company operated at a speed of 2 to 4 inches per second. Completing a 520 label batch, the most that can be placed on a core and inserted in several common hand-held tools, took about 5 minutes including the time required to insert new media, release the first few labels, scan the first few printed labels with a verifier to check printing quality, set up the rewinder that spooled the labels onto a core and release the rest of the of the printing job. The operator was able to set up the printing job, which might involve changing from 3 to 6 fields, in about two minutes. This meant that the operator had a choice of waiting for the labels to finish printing or go off and try to find another task that could be completed in several minutes.

Nearly always, the operator would go off and try to find another task to do while the printer was finishing. But this period of time was too short to engage in any meaningful activity. So, the operator frequently extended the time away from the printer which meant that the printer sat idle, greatly adding to the period required to complete the job. "It was difficult and distracting to continually have to switch jobs every few minutes," said Pat Carmichael, General Manager for California Retailers Supply Escondido office and Gary and Madeline's son. A typical longer job involved printing 150,000 3" by 2" labels in batches of 2,000 to 3,000. Because of the delays caused by the printer sitting idle, this job used to take about 20 hours or 2 ½ days to complete.

Time savings
California Retailers Supply has dramatically reduced the time required to print bar-code labels by installing a new label printer, the V-40 Thermal Printing System from Meto Inc., Morris Plains, New Jersey. This printer provides speeds of as high as 10 inches per second. This means that it can complete a batch of labels in about the time that it takes to set up the fields for the next batch. The new printer greatly improves operator productivity by eliminating the need to wait for the batch to finish. Instead, the operator can remain continually busy by setting up new labels while the previous batch is printing.

The job mentioned above of printing the 150,000 3" by 2" labels can be completed in just 3 hours, a reduction of 85% from the previous cycle. The time savings come partly from the higher printer speed and partly from the elimination of time lost because the operator would get involved in another project while waiting for the printer to complete a batch. These productivity gains have made it possible for California Retailers Supply to offer prices for printed labels that are far below local competitors. "Printing labels has become a much more productive and enjoyable task because the printer now works as fast as the operator can set up the labels," Carmichael said. "The person that runs the label printer has been able to take on an additional sales job."

"Scanability" Requirements
The printer is able to meet the most demanding scanability requirements. Some retail contracts specify that if 2% or more of a product shipment does not scan then the retailer does not have pay for the goods. This rule is intended to avoid delays in checkout lines that can occur when the clerk has to frequently ask for a price check. The V-40 uses a 203 dots-per-inch printhead to produce superior one and two dimensional bar codes and alphanumerics. California Retailers Supply checks labels with a verifier and has found in nearly every instance that the clarity of the bar codes is sufficient to provide 100% compliance.

Additional speed improvements are provided by the ability of the printer to accept macros that load required fonts and graphics. Conventional printers require somewhere between 10 and 90 seconds to load the fonts and graphics for each batch of labels at the start of the run. The V-40 makes it possible for these items to be loaded automatically prior to the run, providing significant time savings. When in thermal transfer mode, the V-40 printhead lasts for approximately 1,000,000 inches, providing additional time savings by reducing downtime for printhead changing.

Popular Symbologies
Meto printers handle all popular bar-code symbologies including Code 39, Interleaved 2 to 5, Code 128 (subsets A, B and C), Codabar, LOGMARS, UPC-A, UPC-E, UPC-2&5 digit addendums, EAN-8, EAN-13, EAN 2 & 5 digit addendums, UPC random weight, Code 93, Plessey, Universal Shipping Container symbology, UCC/EAN Code 128, Postnet, PDF417, Code 128 MOD 43, UPS MaxiCode, FIM, Telepen, Interleaved 2 of 5 MOD 10 and HIBC. The V-40 accepts label, ticket and tag stocks up to 4.65 inches wide and has a maximum print width of 4.1 inches.

A wide range of options are offered for the V-40 printer. The printer, which normally operates in direct-thermal mode, can be easily upgraded for thermal transfer operation. Thermal transfer printing uses special media that is able to withstand far higher temperatures than conventional labels. An optional 300 dpi printhead is also available. An internal label rewind, label cutter and several other options make it possible to select from 15 different configurations of this printer. An advanced architecture supports operation in virtually all environments.

The Meto line offers the most widely used control and interface standards including serial, parallel, coaxial and twinaxial communications that provide connectivity with PC, midrange and mainframe computing systems. The compact size of the printer - 12.6" high by 11" wide by 18.4" deep - allows it to fit into virtually any work environment.

In summary, California Retailers Supply has substantially improved its service bureau operations by upgrading to the V-40 printer. The 2.5X increase in speed provided by the new printer translates to an increase in productivity of nearly 10X on many jobs by avoiding interruptions caused by the operator attempting to stay busy while the printer is operating. The new printer is capable of meeting the toughest scanability requirements posed by large retail customers. Carmichael concludes that the new printer offers the perfect mix of features for service bureau or in-house operation.