Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with key spokespeople within the Printing & Labelling systems space about many of the main current developments and talking points that permeate this fast-developing technology vertical.
Industrial printers have been a constant presence in manufacturing and logistics applications for many years. But where are the current cutting-edge trends to be found? To kick off the debate, Christian Bischoff, regional general manager EMEA at Datamax-O'Neil, considers that a compact and, in particular, modular design that allows a printer to be adapted to specific requirements is now as vital as energy efficiency or offering a wide range of interfaces to simplify data communication. In addition, Bischoff observes that the importance of small, light and robust mobile solutions is growing constantly. He adds that some analysts expect one in three company workers will be using mobile devices by 2013 – whether they work in field service, warehousing or transport.
Jörk Schüßler, European marketing manager for Citizen Systems Europe, makes the point that mobile printing is a current big talking point, while Cloud computing via mobile devices is leading customers to request facilities to print from mobile devices. This, explains Schüßler, is why Citizen expanded its capability to print from mobile devices earlier this year. “The challenge is that systems such as iOS (Apple's mobile operating system) are not naturally suited to this purpose and Wi-Fi printing can be complicated,” he said. “The trend is towards expanding the capabilities of printers and, driven by customer demand, manufacturers are providing more market-specific products than ever before. For example, the Citizen CL-S400DT, a new cost-effective development of the CL-S521, is ideal for ticketing and handling the fanfold media often used for that purpose.”
Matt Parker, head of market development EMEA at Zebra points out that over the past 12 months Zebra has seen significant uptake in two core areas: Linerless printing and RFID. “Linerless is an interesting development in terms of the notable uptake in demand over the past year as the concept of removing backing liner from a traditional label is not a new one,” he said. “Environmental and sustainability pressures are perhaps one of the reasons behind this trend, not least as the silicon backing material is now formally classed as ‘packaging waste’ in the UK, and as such carries a disposal cost burden.” Parker added that Zebra has engaged with many clients in recent months who express a real interest in eliminating backing liner from labels. This, he says, is not just because of the environmental and cost benefits, but also from a health & safety perspective – silicon liner is notoriously slippery, and long coils of it around print stations can present a genuine trip hazard.
From an RFID perspective, after years of false starts Parker points out that Zebra is finally witnessing the take up of this technology in volume within specific manufacturing sectors and the onward supply chain. “Anti-counterfeit efforts and demands from retail outlets seem be driving some of this demand,” he said, “in line with a number of technology improvements such as on-pitch encoding, which significantly reduce the size of passive RFID tags/labels while improving the accuracy and reliability of encoding – and, as such, cost benefits to the user.”
Tom Roth, senior director, printer products management at Intermec, points out that printer users have always needed products that integrate easily into manufacturing environments and adapt to changing applications. And with fast print speeds and particularly high print quality, he explains that Intermec’s own PX Series of printers are highly suitable for high-volume, on-demand and compliance labelling applications. With regard to developments within the world of smart printing – with the ‘brainpower’ of personal computers built in – Roth considers that these types of printer have started to enable businesses to change the way their printing operations are structured; simplifying processes and slashing costs.
However, he reflects that the technology is by no means widespread and Intermec is expecting a lot of new applications to appear, such as programmable smart printers able to host applications that are simple and intuitive for users; reducing training needs and improving worker productivity. Roth adds that Intermec customers have been asking for printers to be a lot more user-friendly, requiring less IT intervention. Therefore user interfaces are changing and becoming a lot more consumer-like. Nevertheless, Roth emphasis that this must not redirect attention from the two most important drivers: improving accuracy and productivity.
Phil Jones, sales and marketing director at Brother UK, has witnessed that workforces are going mobile, and the manufacturing and logistics industry are no different. “Logistics and field service companies in particular are beginning to place greater importance on the ability of mobile workers to print on site,” he said. In this regard, Brother’s RJ series of ‘rugged’ mobile printers allow users to print on site, so field-based workers can print important information instantly while on customer premises; improving the experience for the customer by instantly providing professional looking documents, such as sales orders and confirmations, invoices and receipts.
According to Jones, demand for mobile print technology is also high in the manufacturing sector. He explains that using wireless technology Brother’s RJ mobile printers can be used by warehouse workers to increase productivity by enabling them to print barcode labels almost anywhere in the building. This, he says, removes the need for the worker to use a centralised printer, and thus reduces the chance of mislabelling errors. “Employees in the manufacturing and logistics industry need technology which is incredibly durable to enable them to print in warehouses or on the move in bad weather conditions,” said Jones. “The RJ mobile printers have been designed to meet the IP54 standard, which means it’s suitable for out-door use. In addition, it has been built to withstand being dropped from 1.8 meters. This, along with the portability of the machines (which weigh only 850g), make them ideal for mobile printing in difficult conditions.”
Drivers for change
What have been the key drivers for the above developments? With regard to smart phone technology, Schüßler considers that customers are always seeking out and embracing new ways to use these devices. “Cloud computing is fuelling that need and manufacturers are now looking to see how they can bring further services and benefits to these customers,” he said. Bischoff comments that Datamax-O'Neil sees the challenges as being driven primarily by end users. “Companies from a huge range of sectors have very high printer technology requirements,” he remarked. “They want individual solutions that increase their efficiency and productivity and allow them to compete effectively in the market. Mobile printers offer enormous potential in this area as they increase employee productivity by up to 20 per cent.” Acquisition and operating costs continue to be another important criteria, says Bischoff. “Requirements such as high printing speed and reliability are driving the development of ever more rugged devices with ever higher performance,” he said, adding: “Companies also plan for the future and demand flexible devices that can be adapted quickly and cheaply if application requirements change.”
Among Zebra’s core customer base, Parker believes changes are undoubtedly driven by a desire for continuous improvement and efficiency generation. “We have seen many customers adopt defined lean manufacturing principles,” he said. “And, of course, in a bid to become increasingly competitive and profitable they are looking at means to become even leaner. It is a never-ending goal, and while eliminating backing liner from a label may sound like an action that would yield little of meaningful value, when you consider the scalable reduction in waste inside the operating environment and the complete elimination of onward waste management, disposal costs and overhead, it very quickly stacks up.”
Parker adds that, from an RFID perspective, the connections the marketplace can now make between passive technologies (including barcode) through to active ‘Real Time Location Solutions’ (RTLS) technologies enable much greater visibility of assets; be they plant, machinery, finished goods or even people. “The data this increased visibility provides allows for much improved decision making and business improvement,” said Parker. “It is this constant drive for operational and process improvement by our customers that is pushing us as an organisation to develop new products and enhancements to help companies achieve more.”
For Roth, end user requirement has driven printer innovations in recent years. For example, he makes the point that they have demanded to be able to move the printer from one department to another and plug & play seamlessly. “From the technical perspective, this means solutions such as wifi connectivity are becoming essential,” he commented. “The recent simplification of programming languages is also the result of end users wishing to interact easier with the printers, and to use different applications without major operational changes.”
According to Roth, the other direction of innovation was that parts need to be changed in-field as simply and as easily as possible. “This reduces downtime,” he pointed out. “Engineers don’t need to be called so maintenance costs are also under better control. But let’s not forget that improving accuracy and productivity are the constant driving factors for every manufacturer. In a very similar way to Distribution Centre deployment environments, the primary target areas for manufacturing executive technology investments are: increased accuracy and productivity, reduced operating costs and revenue growth.” Roth added that Intermec’s portfolio of AIDC products (printers, computers, scanners and RFID) is ideally positioned to address these areas.
The back-office dynamic
In terms of the relationship between current cutting-edge printing and labelling systems and back-office solutions, what have been some of the key recent changes and subsequent benefit improvements for the user? Bischoff maintains that flexible integration into existing ERP, CRM or Supply Chain Management systems is increasingly gaining in importance. “No company today restricts itself to products from a single manufacturer; all that counts is finding the best performance,” he said. “Stationary and mobile printer solutions must therefore be easy to integrate and communicate perfectly with connected machines.” According to Bischoff, it must also be possible to evaluate and transmit data reliably and seamlessly beyond the borders of the system. “End users profit in this area from the ever growing number of emulations available with printer languages from the greatest possible number of manufacturers,” he commented, adding that users also benefit from a wide range of communication interfaces such as WLAN or Bluetooth. “WPA2 security protocols are now used virtually as standard to ensure secure wireless data exchange,” Bischoff pointed out.
Jones believes that greater flexibility is being demanded from IT systems in general. “The rise of ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) is increasing the variety of devices being used in the workplace,” he said. “The latest developments in printing and labelling revolve around this increase in diversity within IT provision in companies, and the demand for workers to be mobile. There is a range of apps that enable employees to print documents wirelessly from their mobile devices; such as Brother’s iPrint&Scan as well as Airprint, Google Cloud printing and Cortado. Documents can be printed directly from smartphone and tablets, allowing employees to print from their own devices on the go.” Parker reflects that the ease of platform/software development is perhaps the most vital change. “Certainly this has allowed for much greater penetration of mobile printing devices outside of the four walls,” he said, “whether that be with a rugged handheld or computer, or a more consumer style smartphone device.”
Roth makes the point that remote device management and health monitoring are not new in concept. Nevertheless the recent technological advances in remote battery management, remote firmware updates and the improved two-way communication with the printers have made it a lot more widespread and enabled the management of large printer estates. “Some of the key changes have happened in the ability to expand our printing applications into mobile environment and still satisfy essential manufacturing need for reliability and ruggedness,” he said, adding that Intermec mobile label printers that operate on the same firmware platform as the company’s rugged industrial printer products provide a number of pronounced benefits, including:
- Super-fast printing solution for WMS and manufacturing.
- Increase productivity: Exceptional ‘time to first label’ speed and ample battery life.
- Versatile: Single device that addresses multiple applications in fixed and mobile printing.
- Part of a complete mobile AIDC solution: printer, scanner, mobile computer, software, media, and service.
- Stand-alone ‘smart printing’ – the only ‘smart’ mobile printers on the market.
Schüßler has heard from distributors and resellers that there is a growing need for a high level of reliability in barcode printing throughout the supply chain. This, he says, is because significant costs can be incurred when receivers of goods decline to accept deliveries because the barcode reproduction is poor. “When you consider the transport and administration costs this is clearly a problem,” said Schüßler, “and when you add the costs of, for example, a fresh food delivery being rejected and potentially destroyed then it’s easy to see why there is such a pressing need for high-quality barcode reproduction.” This, says Schüßler, is why Citizen has provided barcode printers with active ribbon control to ensure that ribbon wrinkle and media slippage are eliminated.
And are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of Printing & Labelling systems? According to Parker, security protocols with wireless devices are tried and tested so he sees very little concerns regards data security in the field in relation to printing and labelling. However, he adds that security gaps in the supply chain from a counterfeit perspective are the biggest security issue. “It is interesting to observe the methods being put in place using 2D barcode and RFID to limit this,” said Parker. “Auto-ID technology can do an awful lot more in terms of verification.”
Continuing the security theme, Roth considers that data security, data integrity and future-proof connectivity remain concerns in large global manufacturing companies. “As global corporations’ IT departments are becoming more powerful the topic of data security and integrity becomes more important especially in mission critical applications in manufacturing and logistics deployment environments,” he said, pointing out that Intermec’s industrial barcode printers meet the need of those mission-critical applications. The company’s multiple interfaces, secure wireless connectivity (WPA2), CCX and WiFi certifications, and standard support for upcoming IPv6 connectivity facilitate easy integration and long-term scalability.
What might be the next most impactful developments to look out for over the next year or two within the Printing & Labelling solutions space? Parker has witnessed that data volumes are increasing massively. “We see auto-ID technologies being vital to the management of this data,” he said, “be that passive in the form of a barcode or HF/UHF RFID tag or active with Ultra Wide Band RFID technology. Ultimately barcode labels and intelligent tags are the gateway to the increased information and data that business is striving for so as to become more efficient, productive and flexible. So we foresee increased reliance on 2D barcode and RFID in a passive and active sense depending on the environment or application.”
Schüßler foresees more and more contributions to ‘green IT’. “This is certainly a priority for Citizen,” he said. “Our last six printers were all fuelled by Energy Star power supplies.” Bischoff has observed that over recent years, the significance of RFID labels has grown in many sectors. He reminds us that Datamax-O'Neil already offers its customers a wide selection of RFID solutions such as RFID-compatible printers. “Installing these devices ensures that companies are already equipped to meet the challenges of the future today,” he said. “By using faster processors and more rugged materials, the development of even more efficient and robust devices is sure to continue over the coming years.”
Roth’s view is that convergence of commercial and industrial products are increasingly driving changes in terms of the user interface and ease of use. He explains that Intermec printer products – manageable from multi lingual web pages loaded on every printer – ensure ability to configure, manage and monitor the device from rugged handhelds, or even commercial products like smart phones and tablet computers. “In more complex and larger installations, device management capabilities through Intermec solutions like Smart Systems or partners solutions like Wavelink Avelanche (both supported on Intermec industrial printer products) guarantee the visibility and manageability of number of installed products and significantly lower total cost of ownership for our customers.”
Jones makes the point that during a recession businesses will always look to cut overheads. “And I think we will continue to see companies demanding Printing & Labelling solutions which are as efficient and cost-effective as possible,” he said. Jones added that a recent Quocirca report highlighted the benefits for medium-sized businesses in using Managed Print Services (MPS) to improve workplace efficiency. MPS means that a business is buying ‘printing’ rather than ‘printers’, and Jones comments that this can be a lower cost option for medium and large organisations. “Brother’s MPS are tailored so that organisations can have the best printing solutions for their specific requirements,” he said.