Thinking about automating barcoding? Here are the options

If you’re hand labelling or manually applying stickers, but reaching volumes to consider automating the process, there are a few things to think about. Often the challenge is not actually knowing whether or not you need to automate, but choosing which technology solutions will bring the best results for your business.

In choosing which processes to automate, manufacturers often overlook the obvious one: barcoding. To help guide you, here are some points to consider in automating barcoding in your business.

Australian manufacturers’ appetite for automation is growing. Just one look at the key trends coming out of Auspack 2017 shows that. But interestingly, automating application or printing of barcodes on the production line is sometimes overlooked as a process to improve efficiency and productivity..

As machine-readable images, barcodes can be used to identify trade items, products, cartons, pallets, and so on in a wide range of industry sectors. (Find out some barcode basics here.)

Automating the barcoding process can bring substantial value to your business. At its most basic level, automation can be used to ensure the right barcode is applied onto the right product with the exacting precision demanded by retailers.

It can also enable faster product changeovers: the latest coding technologies feature an easy-to-use WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) editor with a centralised database. This means message design is extremely efficient for coding and labelling, and product changeovers can be executed quickly and easily.

The advantages don’t stop there: automating barcoding also enables manufacturers to collect data from products, which can then be used to communicate right through the supply chain. You can also integrate your product identification (barcoding) and inspection processes, such as vision systems and scanners, to completely optimise line efficiency and drive continuous improvement. For example, if certain products are detected as being consistently overweight (as found via checkweighing), you can quickly diagnose and correct problem.

So, how can you automate barcoding?

There are several types of product identification technologies to choose from, each suited for different needs. The factors you need to consider include:

  • What substrate will you be coding onto? Some technologies aren’t suitable for certain packaging materials.
  • How fast is your line speed? Barcodes must be printed at high resolution, so ensure you choose a solution that is capable of printing high-quality barcodes, at high speeds.
  • What level of precision will you need? Today’s barcoding technology can deliver very precise results, in the right environment. If precision is non-negotiable, consider using barcoding technology in conjunction with a visual inspection system (below).
  • Do you want to integrate your product identification with inspection or other line technology? State-of-the-art solutions are available to integrate processes in your packaging line seamlessly. Talk to your supplier to find out which processes can be integrated and how.
  • How much are you willing to invest? Consider the return on investment (ROI) over the long term and whether it will justify the initial outlay. Remember, automating packaging processes is not just about saving on labour costs, it can also reduce downtime, eliminate costly errors and more.
  • Will your process change and/or grow in the future? Consider the scalability and adaptability of automation solutions so you can easily adjust the system for new products/processes without having to spend lots of money replacing major parts.

You may find this quick guide to proper barcode quality and grading interesting. While these barcode FAQs are also informative; they’re a compilation of the questions we’re often asked.

Below are the five most popular automation options for barcoding:

  1. Thermal Transfer Overprinter (TTO)

Best for: applying barcodes onto film

A thermal transfer overprinter (TTO) is a highly cost-effective printing solution that allows you to print easily onto generic film packaging. So if you’re looking to automate barcoding for snack foods, confectionary and fresh produce, TTOs are an ideal option.

  1. Label Applicator (LA)

Best for: pre-printed barcode labels

If your barcode labels are printed and ready to go, Label Applicators (LAs) are a smart way to apply them to your products. These automated labelling systems apply pre-printed pressure-sensitive labels onto products with flat surfaces, such as cartons and trays. With the ability to apply multiple labels at higher speeds, they allow manufacturers to automate the manual “slap-and-ship” process for a more precise and professional result.

  1. Label Printer Applicator (LPA)

Best for: cartons

Also called “print and apply” solutions, Label Printer Applicators (LPAs) print information onto pressure-sensitive labels and then apply those labels onto a product. LPAs are ideal for applying variable human-readable and barcode information onto cartons, pallets and also some primary products. They can also be used to label a variety of substrates, such as plastics, metal (including steel) and timber.

The real advantages of LPAs are gained when you need to apply high volumes of labels with variable barcodes and product information.

  1. Thermal Inkjet (TIJ) Coders

Best for: cartons

Thermal inkjet (TIJ) coders are renowned for their print quality, even at high line speeds. It comes down to how they work: TIJ coders use a cartridge containing an ink reservoir and a series of resistive elements. An electrical current activates each element, which then heats the ink to create an ink droplet. The droplet is ejected out of the faceplate nozzle to land precisely on the substrate. Because the time between each firing is only 100 millionths of a second and the technology has a throw distance of 1-6mm (depending on the print-head technology employed), TIJ technology is extremely fast and will print exceptional quality.

  1. Inline Labelling Systems

Best for: primary products/ consumer units

As the name suggests, an inline labelling system is integrated into the production line to help the Label Applicator address the label onto the product accurately. They are ideal for applying labels with human-readable and barcode information on primary products, and can apply labels onto a variety of product shapes and sizes, such as wine bottle labelling, aerosol cans, plastic bottles, and more.

Another advantage of inline labelling systems is that you can opt for an automatic or semi-automatic solution. Semi-automatic inline labellers, which are portable, are suited to slower production lines, low volumes or short runs.

Are you ready to automate barcoding?

Automating any process in your business can be a daunting task. Working with Matthews Australasia means you can take a step-by-step approach to selecting the right equipment, implementing automation technologies, and ultimately unlocking your growth potential. Get in touch today.

And if you’re wondering whether we’ll ever see 100% automated manufacturing, you’re not alone — we discuss the hot topic here.

And check out this ultimate guide to coding and labelling. It looks at how to choose the right coding and labelling technology, gives tips to optimise your equipment and much more.

Check out Matthews’ great resource library. It has a host of detailed information that’s all free to download! There are whitepapers, presentations we’ve done to industry bodies, infographics for manufacturing, case studies, articles from our thought leaders, vids showing solutions in action and more!