The traditional approach to supply chain labeling involves a PC, labeling software, and a printer. However, most people do not realize that, in certain circumstances, you can take the labeling software and PC out of the equation, printing straight from the printer. Basically you make the printer act as a Smart Printer. This is done by following these steps:
- Store label design template into the printer memory
- Send a printer code snippet containting printing commands and/or data direct to the printer
That's it! To keep printing more labels, just keep repeating step 2.
This method, however, does require some technical expertise to setup and works best when the label and label generation process are very simple so that an automated process can generate and send the printing code snippet.
Why Setup a 'Smart Printer'?
Two reasons someone would want to setup a 'smart printer':
In traditional printing, the job of printing must go through several steps (once the system is setup and turned on):
- User prepares the print job
- Selects the correct label design to print
- Enters variable data required by the label design
- Presses "Print"
- Software then pulls data, if needed, from a database
- The printer drivers then translate the design into coding that the printer understands (printer code, Windows EMF, etc.), and send the print job to the printer
- Printer prints the label
Each of these steps consumes some time. Since steps 2 thru 4 are electronic, the time used is typically very little. However, when the label print and apply process is automated, every second counts. There are situations where even one extra second puts the labeling process at risk of printing too slow.
Each of the steps above represents a failure point. In many situations, one or more of these steps may be absolutely necessary. However, if the label system is simple and those steps are not necessary, we can just put the label design, pictures, etc. into printer memory and just trigger the label to print with a small piece of printer code.
Setting Up a Smart Printer System
What you need:
- Label design software (strongly suggested)
- Printer with 'smart print' capabilities
- Printing media (labels, ribbons, etc.)
Step #1 - Create Label Design Printer Code and Store in Printer Memory
The first step is to create the printer code. The printer code is essentially programming code and can be built by hand using the printer's programmers guide or similar documentation. However, even for the more experienced printing system users, this is likely to be a time consuming and painful experience. Label design software is the easiest to create your printer code and test it. Most of the major brands of industrial labeling software have this capability. Consult with your labeling systems integrator for which applications have the features that best fit you requirements.
Depending on the application you can have the software export the code or, sometimes, the software will help you transfer it to the printer. Again, this depends on which software application you choose and I recommend you talk to a company like Efficient Business Integrators to get a good recommendation. Here is a technical article in the EBI Online Support Knowledge Base about how this can be done with a TEKLYNX application called CODESOFT. If your software does not transfer the label design into the printer, you can do this yourself in most circumstances. If you are transferring by hand, there are typically two approaches:
- Send the commands directly to the printer port (a few approaches exist depending on how your printer is connected)
- Transferring the print code via USB
You should consult with your system integrator (e.g. EBI), about which method is available and the method that works best for your operation.
After the label design printer code is stored in printer memory, you should be ready for the printer code snippet!
Step #2 - Sending the printer code snippet
The printer code snippet usually comes from either:
- An automated printing system programmed to create the snippet
- Industrial label design software
Since the Smart Printer method of printing is often used with automated print and apply systems, we typically see print-and-apply labeling hardware (i.e. print applicators) used. The print applicators are usually tightly integrated into a conveyor. The print applicator uses photo-eye sensors and/or the conveyor system PLC to know exactly when to print and then apply the label to the product container (box, pallet, etc.). In more advanced systems, barcode scanners and vision cameras are used to either identify/confirm the product to be labeled and/or confirm the label was applied correctly. Designed into many of these systems is the ability to generate the code snippet. Thus an advanced and tightly integrated system is programmed to generate the code automatically and send the correct snippet to generate the correct label to the correct printer at the correct time.
Less tightly integrated systems can use the Smart Printer method as well. In those cases, label design software is used by a person to create the code snippets and feed them into print applicator. This is how it can be done with TEKLYNX CODESOFT. When set correctly, the print applicator can store these snippets in printer memory and apply them by itself, on a first come first serve basis, as the boxes or pallets travel through on the conveyor.
Here are some characteristics to look for when considering the Smart Printer method:
- Few label designs
- Simple label design layout
- Speed is critical
- Designs do not change
Using the Smart Printer method is not always the best approach but it can work nicely in the right situation. Contact us if you would like assistance on finding the best fit.