What An Ops Manager Needs to Know About Printing Labels
Whilst labels might not be the most thrilling part of the Operations Manager’s role, labels can be a show-stopper, bringing your whole operation to a halt. A well executed labelling system can be complicated but comes with some very large opportunities – in cost efficiencies, resilience and performance.
This is what you need to know to get those benefits.
We’ll look at:
- Your printer fleet
- Service and maintenance
- Stock control
- Quality control
- Staff training
- Label design and management software
- Labels and inks
- Controls and reviews
Let’s get some answers.
Your Label Printer Fleet
In order to print labels, you need printers. These can be thermal printers, for example Zebra or Honeywell or they might be colour ink jet from Epson or Primera.
This is what you need to know:
- Printer Location. Obviously: if you can’t find a printer, you can’t print with it. A printer that’s been put into a cupboard and forgotten about can’t be used as a backup printer.
- Make and Model. Knowing the make and model of printer means you can establish what consumables it uses. You know it’s capabilities i.e. performance or maximum label dimensions. You’ll know which printers can be substituted if one breaks down.
- Age of printer. Generally speaking printer technologies don’t advance a great deal over two or three years – what does change rapidly are security flaws. Hackers can gain access to networks through printers, if firmware is out of date. Whilst this might not be of direct concern for operations managers, it needs to be addressed.
- Usage. Thermal printers keep track of how many labels and tags they print. By looking at these logs you can see which of your printers are over-worked and which are coasting. Depending on printer capabilities it makes sense to redeploy them to balance out wear and tear.
Direct thermal labels wear out printheads more rapidly than thermal transfer labels. Knowing if your printer is printing onto direct thermal labels is important.
Printer Maintenance & Service
You need to know what to do when your printer breaks down and you need to know your printers’ maintenance history.
- What is your breakdown plan? Many smaller businesses don’t have a plan for when their label printer stops working. Larger organisations need to have a plan in place – with more label printers in operation – it’s not a case of if, it’s when your printers break down.
What do you do? Fix it yourself, call a helpline, send your printer off for repair, call out a service engineer, substitute with a redundant printer from the store room? You need to have a plan.
- How are printer faults reported to you? How do you, as Ops Manager, get to hear about printer problems? Do you get told directly? Is there a phone number on your printers for help? Does the IT department look after problems?
Reporting lines need to include the operations manager, because label printing problems have a direct effect on operations.
- Do you have all the printer support information? When you have a broken printer you might need phone numbers for the repair service or a website address to log the problem. You need contract details and printer serial numbers etc. Having all this information in place can save time and prevent a lengthy stoppage.
- What preventative maintenance are you doing? Preventative maintence is more common with larger, industrial sized label printers, rather than desktop models.
Printers use bearings, belts and other components that are subject to wear and tear. If you have an on-site printer maintenance plan, this will often include an annual preventative maintenance visit by an engineer.
If you don’t have a maintenance contract, you can pay for an engineer to come to your site and service your printer fleet.
An alternative which is less convenient is to send back individual printers to our workshop for servicing. Servicing also includes updating the printers firmware – making the printer more secure from hacker threats and reducing the risk of software bugs.
- Service History. Knowing your printer fleets’ service history means you know which machines need work and which printers don’t. It helps you redeploy printers within your organisation. It increases resale value if you come to replace them.
- Spare Parts. Printheads and platen rolls are consumable items. They are designed to be replaced. They can be fitted by a technically minded person in a few minutes. If you are dependant on your labels, it makes sense to keep stocks of printheads and platen rollers.
- You need to know what you have, what printers they are for and where they are kept.
Being prepared gives you peace of mind you have things under control.
Label and Ribbon Inventory Control
Keeping track of labels and ink is clearly critical. Production days (or weeks) can be lost if you run out of labels.
- You need to know if you have a system for tracking label stock levels?
- Do you keep emergency stocks that are kept separately – just in case someone fails to reorder labels? If so, where? Have you arranged label and ink stocks sitting on the shelf with your suppliers – ready to be shipped next day? Ask us to keep stocks for next day delivery for you.
- Do you check stock when it arrives? In case it’s damaged or faulty? The last thing you want is to open the last box of labels to find they were damaged during shipping.
- Do you have a reliable way of reordering labels and ribbons? We use a special barcode for some of our clients – when they reach the last roll or box of labels they scan a special code and a replacement box is ordered automatically. Ask us about our automated label reorder system.
- Do you have a secondary supply of labels and ribbons? Critical in an emergency.
- How long do you wait for labels/ribbons. A shorter leadtime is preferable. Sometimes a long leadtime is inevitable and you need to plan accordingly.
- How often are your label deliveries delayed – unexpectedly? Perhaps you need a more reliable supplier.
Quality Control for Printed Labels
So far we have looked at printing labels – this is what you need to know about the quality of your printed labels. Recalling a batch of product or getting a fine from your customer because of substandard labels can be avoided if you know this:
- Can you trace incoming batches of labels? If there’s a problem with label adhesive or print finish on some labels – can you identify them on the shelf?
- Can you track who you’ve sent labels to – in case of a problem (i.e. unreadable barcodes).
- Do you assess label quality before they’re applied to your products or outer cases – do you scan barcodes?
Problems with barcodes can be difficult to see with the human eye. The first you will know is when you get a call from your customer to say they can’t read your barcodes. Read the Barcodes panel for more information.
Tesco charge £620 (2018 prices) an incident for barcode non-compliance. They raise the problem with their outsourced barcode support desk who determine if the codes are substandard.
Barcode printers can have wrinkled ribbons, worn out printheads and a host of other problems that stop barcodes from reading.
The only way to test if your barcodes are up to standard is to scan them.
Scanning with a smartphone is not recommended, as they can cope with substandard codes better than the laser scanners found in warehouses.
- What quality credentials do your suppliers have? This does a long way to giving you confidence you won’t experience problems.
Any system is only as good as the people running it. How well it’s run depends on how well they’re trained.
Training includes everything we’ve covered here: loading and setting up your printers, cleaning printers, checking incoming materials, checking printed labels, using label design software, reordering labels and ribbons…
- Are your labelling systems documented (so you can train people and improve systems)?
- Is there a training system in place? Is it documented? When was it last reviewed? Does it contain out-of-date equipment, processes or software?
- How are staff trained – a quick chat from their supervisor? A printed (and frankly boring) manual? A video? Specialist external or in-house instructors? Is the training interactive and assessed? Are there practical exercises?
Expert Labels have been training people on labelling for more than 25 years. Talk to us about putting together an on-line interactive training and assessment course for you. For advice and help, contact us here.
Label Management Software
As Operations Manager you want a label management system that fits your needs. Labelling Management Software is more than just designing labels – it’s the whole process of choosing what label to print and putting the correct data onto the labels.
This is what you need to know about label management systems to ensure it does what you want.
- Is your labelling management software documented – we’ve already talked about the importance of documentation for training – but it helps you streamline and improve your processes, identify faults and on a practical level – helps you get quality certification.
- Where are your label templates backed up to? As Operations Manager – you’re likely not responsible for backing up your label files – but you do want to know how you get it back if you need to.
- You need to know what your labelling software is capable of. If you know what it can do, you can make improvements. Call us and we can advise you. We work with Seagull Scientific’s BarTender and Nicelabel software.
- Are you taking advantage of the automation available from your software. Labelling software can be automatically triggered from your order or production systems and automatically print labels. You could set up a label printing system that works for months without attention. Ask us for help automating your labelling (we work internationally).
- Do you know if your label designs are protected from accidental changes?
- Are your label designs effectively organised and shared with users? This eliminates duplicate label designs and manages different design versions. BarTender and NiceLabel have the ability to set up a shared library with controlled access to different users.
Labels and Ribbons
This is where answers to a few questions can save thousands of £s.
Ideally, you should put together a spreadsheet detailing what label sizes you buy, where you buy them from, the quantity ordered each time, annual usage and a few details about the labels – i.e. colours and adhesive type.
- How much you spend on labels? As a starting point – an answer to this helps you understand the size of your money saving opportunity. Saving money isn’t just about getting a better price – it’s about buying more intelligently.
- Where do you get your labels from? Your label supplier may not be top of your ‘must see’ list, but they generally have a great deal of knowledge and should be able to make recommendations about how you’re using your labels.
- What volumes of labels you buy. The more labels you get in one order, the cheaper per label the cost will be. It might be that you’re buying lots of small orders and you could be buying a few larger, yet ultimately cheaper, label orders.
- How often am I buying labels? This is tied in with the volume of labels bought. You have to balance the cost of keeping stocks of labels against the reduction in price larger orders give you.
- What are my labels like? You could be buying labels that might be better suited made in a different way? Perhaps you need peelable labels but didn’t realise you could get them? Understanding if your labels are a good match for the task they’re being used for will help you decide if you can make any improvements.
- Can you print labels two or more across? Two labels across means you’ve halved the amount of time your staff are printing. Not always possible – but worth investigating.
- If you’re overprinting labels then you may be using thermal transfer ribbons. Here’s what it’s good to know about ribbons?
- Are your ribbons matched to your labels? It might be that a ribbon made from a different material might suit your labels better – that might mean they print faster, better or cost less. We are happy to test label/ribbon compatibility for you – with just a small roll of labels we can test different ribbons. Find our address here: contact us.
- What size ribbons do you have? A ribbon that closely matches the width of labels printed means you’re not wasting thermal ribbons. If your ribbons are much wider, we can help you get custom made ribbons that means you can save significant amounts of money on your ribbons.
Controls and Reviews for your labelling
- When was the last time you reviewed your labelling system? If not annually – then perhaps just key parts of the audit need to be done – security issues.
- Could labels be printed in a different way? For example, new technology you could be using (like QR codes or RFID tags).
- Do you have a set of benchmarks and standards your processes should be compared against? Perhaps just historical benchmarks.
- Do you have a report from your financial system that provides answers to supplier, frequency and cost questions? Can you get it built in order to do a quick annual review?
- Are you receiving updates on software improvements and newer versions?
- There is a lot to keep up to date with – do you have a trusted expert advisor to guide you through the complex world of labelling?
We’ve spent weeks creating this article – which I sincerely hope it’s useful. I would love to hear your feedback – what’s useful and what isn’t.
Please email me your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated 11 Feb 2021.