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  • Derrick Morrison

Top 5 things to know before buying a label printer!


Labels are on almost everything that we buy, eat, wear, use. Many people do not really give them a second thought but in fact labels are at the heart of business efficiency and safety.

The fact that you are reading this says that you understand the importance of labels to your business. If you’re here because you’d like to know more about choosing the right label printer for your business, you’re in the right place!

Over the next few pages, we’ll take you through the detail and make sure that by the time you’ve finished reading, you understand all the key factors that you need to take into consideration when you’re buying a label printer, to make sure you get the perfect fit for your labelling needs.

The importance of labels

Whether they’re in retail, logistics, hospitality, shipping, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, manufacturing - just about every business need labels in order to track, count, price and ensure safe use of their products.They would not be able to list ingredients, materials, hazards, and safety information.

Labels therefore need to be legible - whether being read by the human eye or a scanner. They need to stay on the goods and remain legible through a whole range of conditions, from weather, to friction, to chemical processes.Once the label becomes illegible, it’s no exaggeration to say that the goods may well become unsafe, unsaleable or untraceable.

Given the importance of labels to a business, it’s becomes clear that finding the right printer to produce them is a big deal. The wrong decision could cost money, time and safety. But faced with so many options in the market, how do you know what to pick. How do you know exactly which label printer is right for you?

It’s easy to think of label printers as a commodity - all the same, with the decision made on price. But when you dig a bit deeper, there’s a lot more to choosing a label printer than many businesses realize. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. With label printers, it’s a question of horses for courses - with a range of technologies and options, and it’s essential to choose the right label printer for your business. Getting it right will lead to a rapid ROI. Getting it wrong can be a costly mistake.

Here at Toshiba, we’re experts in label printing and we want to share our knowledge with you and explain the five things you need to know before buying a label printer. Once you understand these five things, and apply them to your label printing requirements, you can be confident that you’ll be buying the right printer for your business. One that will help you create an efficient, cost effective, and business-appropriate labelling operation.

There are two types of print technology used for labels:

- Direct thermal

- Thermal Transfer

As their names imply, both use heat to create the printed information, but they do so in different ways.

Thermal transfer printing transfers ink from a ribbon to the paper, using heat. The printer uses a ribbon which contains a layer of ink and paper-based or synthetic labels that can absorb the ink. As the heated print head passes over the ribbon, ink is released, and the image created.

Direct thermal printing does not use ink, and therefore has no ribbon. Instead it uses thermal paper - paper that has a leuco dye coating that changes colour when heated. As the paper passes over the thermal print head, the paper changes colour to create the image.

The type of print technology you choose will very much depend on what you are labelling and why. You’ll need to consider how the labels will be used - their expected life and their treatment during their life, remembering that the primary goal of your label is to remain legible,

Thermal transfer is great for…

Thermal transfer technology produces a very clear printed image that is very stable and long lasting. Because the image is made with ink, which is absorbed, and effectively becomes part of, the label stock, it can’t be rubbed off and won’t fade or smudge. Thermal transfer is therefore ideal for labels that need to last a long time, or labels that will undergo harsh conditions or processes.

Examples include asset tagging, laboratory or medical specimens, long distance shipping, outdoor use, chemical or hazardous goods containers, labels that will be heated, frozen, or disinfected. No matter what the application, a thermal transfer print will always outlast a direct thermal print, and globally, 80% of all label printing uses thermal transfer technology.

Direct thermal is great for…

Direct thermal printers also produce a clear image and, because they use no ribbon or ink, are lighter, cheaper and easier to operate (although this should be offset against the cost of replacing print heads more frequently - see point 4). Portable printers, for when label printing is needed in the field, all use direct thermal technology.

But the printed image from direct thermal is less stable than a thermal transfer image. This is because the thermal paper remains sensitive to heat, so the image is prone to fading in bright light or darkening when exposed to heat. Even the friction from a scratch or knock can cause the label to blacken.

So direct thermal printing is a very cost-effective way to print labels that only need a shorter life, and which will have relatively stable conditions. It’s used for receipts, parking tickets, price labels on retail goods, and by field service technicians, Government service staff and utilities companies.

PRINT HEADS - FLATHEAD AND NEAR EDGE: WHAT ARE THEY AND WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS?

If you've decided that you need thermal transfer technology, then the next thing you need to know is that there are two types of print head used in thermal transfer printing:

- Flat head

- Near Edge

It’s certainly worth understanding the difference and assessing which one will suit your business best. (Especially if you might need the useful additional feature only available with Near Edge -see point 5).

The names ‘Flathead’ and ‘Near Edge’ refer to angle of the print head and the positioning of the heating element. This determines the way that the print head makes contact with the ribbon and the label surface, which impacts:

- speed

- intensity of the image

- clarity

- the ability to control wasted ribbon material and labels.

Flathead

In Flathead technology, the print head lies flat against the ribbon and the label stock, with the heating element in the center.

The heating element is further from point where the label exits the printer, so the label takes longer to travel from heating element to exit. This gives it time to cool down, so the labels leave the printer already cool. That’s why this technology is often referred to as the ‘cold peeling method’.

The type of print technology you choose will very much depend on what you are labelling and why. You’ll need to consider how the labels will be used - their expected life and their treatment during their life, remembering that the primary goal of your label is to remain legible,

Near Edge

In Near Edge technology, or the ‘hot peel method’, the print head sits at an angle to the ribbon and paper, only making contact for a much shorter time. The heating element is at the lower end, close to the exit point. The heating element therefore must heat and transfer the ink much faster, because of its limited contact time. With the heating element close to the edge, the labels are warm and the ink still setting as they exit the printer.

So much for the explanation, but what does this all mean for your business? What are the pros and cons of each type of print head and which one is right for you?

Flathead - Pros

Darker print - because the head is in contact with the ribbon and label for longer, the print density (measured in dots per inch, or DPI) is greater. Typically, a flathead printer can print at up to 600 DPI.

Flathead - Cons

Slower - because of the distance and time between the heating element and the exit, flathead printers are slower than Near Edge. For example, a high-speed flathead might print at 6-10 inches per second. (It’s worth noting here, that when we talk of print speeds, we mean the speed at which the device can print well. You will see claims of faster speeds for flathead devices but this is often at the expense of patchy, faint, illegible print).​

Near Edge - Pros

Faster printing - because the print head is in contact with the ribbon and label stock for less time, the labels can move through the printer faster. A near edge print head can achieve speeds of 14 " per second with good quality.

Print heads last longer - Heating is one of the factors that cause printheads to wear out so because Near Edge printheads have a shorter heating time, they last longer.

Longer warranty - less heating time also means you will enjoy a longer warranty. Typically 100 km vs 50 km. (Yes, printhead warranty id measured in kilometers).

Extra features - Ribbon Save option

Near Edge - Cons

Lower density - Near Edge printing doesn’t have the same density as Flathead, again, because the print head has less contact time with the ribbon and paper. Typically, a Near Edge print head will have half the DPI of Flathead.

Matching the print head and the ribbon

One other point on print heads - whichever one you choose, be aware that the ribbon needs to match the print head. There are different ribbons for Flathead and Near Edge. This is because a ribbon is made up of layers (five), one of which determines the way the ink is released. The ink release mechanism is different for each print head type, so it’s essential to match the ribbon type and the print head type.

MOST COMMON MISTAKES WHEN CHOOSING A LABEL PRINTER

We’ve seen a lot of businesses pick a lot of label printers. Many get it right, but some get it wrong. The impact of getting it wrong is the increased cost and time of having to replace a printer more frequently.

Here’s the three mistakes we come across most frequently:

1. Not picking the right printer for the volume of labels/ print speed.

2. Purchasing the wrong printer for the operating environment.

The environment in which a printer operates has an impact on its performance and life expectancy. Desktop printers are built to operate in an office environment - clean, air-conditioned, and with low noise and vibration.

Industrial printers, on the other hand, can cope with the dust, dirt and vibrations of machinery or vehicles. They have a tougher casing and will operate as happily as anything in a factory, warehouse, temporary site office or on a ship or truck.

Put a desktop printer in those conditions and, again it’s a false economy leading to a shorter life because it simply isn’t built to withstand them.

3. Not selecting the correct printhead for the task.

The only hardware part that needs regular replacement in a label printer is the print head.

Print head usage is directly related to the volume of labels printed, measured in kilometers. The warranty offered is a good indication of the quality and expected life of your print head. A good desktop printer will offer a 30 km warranty and a good industrial printer 50-100 km.

MAINTAINING A LABEL PRINTER

Given that you'll replace a print head a number of times during the life of your printer, it's worth understanding the maintenance process and what you can do to keep your printer working in tip top condition for as long as possible and to contain the cost of doing so. Some things to consider:

1. Do you need to call out a technician for print head replacement or is it something that you can do yourself? Some manufacturers charge for what is a very quick job in many cases. Toshiba makes replacement printheads that you can simply snap in yourself saving money and printer downtime.

2. Does the printer give you any warning when the printhead is about to fail? Toshiba offers built in alert technology.

3. Th print technology that you choose will impact the life of your printhead and therefore your maintenance schedule. Print heads in thermal transfer last much longer than direct thermal printers. That is because the paper used for labels is very abrasive and with direct thermal the printhead is in direct contact with the label media stock. With thermal transfer printers the printer ribbon acts as a buffer between the printhead and the label media significantly extending the life of the printhead.

What additional features are available?

Having looked at the basics of all label printers, the final item on our list of ‘things you need to know’ is the additional features offered by some label printers. For certain applications, these features can make a big difference to the efficiency and cost of your label printing operation, and you’ll need to understand whether they are something your business should consider.

Ribbon Save

Some businesses only need to print on a small part of a label. For example, a food label which comes pre-printed with the brand and logo, and where the business is only printing the variable data (type of product, weight) onto a small white space. The issue here is that most printers pull the ribbon through at the same rate as the label - meaning that as the pre-printed part of the label moves through the printer, the ribbon that is aligned with it is left unused, and therefore wasted. For example, we saw a pork producer who was wasting 120mm of ribbon for every label. Multiply that by thousands of labels a day and that’s a lot of ribbon going to waste.

The Ribbon Save option, available on Toshiba Near Edge printers, can save up to 70% of that wastage. It works by stopping the motor from advancing the ribbon when it’s not being used and at the same time, lifting the print head to avoid friction. So, the sections of the label that are not being printed pass through the printer without taking unused ribbon with them.

Label creation software

There are several options for creating the layout for your labels - you can use Word or Notepad for example. But the option preferred by most businesses (and the one that we recommend) is Bartender, which is designed specifically for labels, is easier to use and can be integrated with a pricing database, a pre-set template or an ERP. There are licensing options for Bartender - automation, enterprise and professional. Many printers come with the free, basic version of Bartender, but it is worth checking out what does and doesn’t come with the printer you’re considering.

Ribbon capacity

Ribbon capacity becomes a factor if you have a high print volume. Every minute spent changing the ribbon (which can be fiddly to manage) is time you’re not printing. The bigger your ribbon capacity,the fewer times you must change the ribbon. Shorter ribbons also mean that you must hold more stock.

Ribbon capacity is measured in meters, and lengths vary considerably between suppliers, so it’s worth checking out your options. For example, Toshiba has an 800m ribbon for Toshiba industrial printers, compared with other suppliers who offer 600m. That extra 33% makes a lot of difference in a high print volume business. For desktop printers, Toshiba offers a 300m ribbon, more than four times longer than the 74m from some suppliers.

(Another factor to be aware of, especially if you’re holding ribbon stock and you change your printer, is that ribbons come in two winding configurations - Coated Side In (CSI) and Coated Side Out (CSO). A printer will use one or the other, so ribbons are not necessarily transferable between printers).

Resolution

Printers come in different print resolutions or Dots Per Inch (DPI). The most commonly used resolution is 200 DPI or 300 DPI, but if you are doing fine printing like nutritional panels you may require a 600 DPI printer. In some cases, though, you can achieve excellent fine printing results on a 200 DPI printer with a better-quality ribbon that is designed for fine printing.

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