Dramatic advances in technology are changing the way in which companies do logistics but perhaps the least appreciated is printer technology. Improvements in mobility, connectivity and user friendliness are opening up new opportunities in the supply chain.
Robin Edwardes, TallyGenicom’s executive vice president EMEA, says: “Key developments have been the utilisation of different types of connectivity such as USB, Bluetooth and Ethernet. Nearly all printers now come network ready and provide connectivity to a variety of different applications. Other key developments have been the user friendliness as well as the lowered cost of ownership.”
Environmental concerns are also having an impact on developments. Paul Reynolds, senior manager at Toshiba TEC’s Auto ID Division, highlights the recent development of liner-less labels and the emergence of re-writable/re-useable media. And he points out that: “double sided printing technology reduces paper usage”.
Terran Churcher, managing director of Codegate, says: “Printers are increasingly being used to print and ‘write’ to RFID tag labels. The multi-layer label incorporates a flat circuit board embedding an RFID device. The printer can print a barcode on the outer label and write data to the embedded RFID chip to provide both line of sight barcode reading and proximity RFID scanning capability. Print heads are becoming smaller, faster and less power hungry, enabling larger labels to be printed by smaller, often portable, printers.”
Edwardes says: “For the warehouse environment, rugged durability is and will be the key for years to come. The way in which printers can be connected to legacy systems is an innovative way to keep businesses operating, without the need for expensive software overheads.”
Edwardes also highlights the fact that it is important to choose an appropriate printer for particular applications.
“For example you would not want to run a laser printer in the floor of the warehouse, where dust and dirt might affect its operation. Laser printers can deliver significant benefits in the back office, where the production of barcodes and other business-critical documentation is key.
“When choosing a printer for the right job in a warehouse environment you need to focus on the specific application and the types of documents you need to print. Whether it is dispatch notes, barcodes or reports, there is a printer for every application. When choosing a printer it is necessary to consider whether an application is business critical, if you need equipment with minimal failures and user intervention, while providing low cost of ownership.”
Codegate’s Terran Churcher adds: “The main decision revolves around where the printer will be used: obviously battery-powered if it will be used as a portable device, but ‘in-cab’ printers can be powered from the 12v vehicle supply. Another consideration is how long will the resulting print need to last? Thermal paper will fade over a few months depending on ambient light levels, but thermal transfer can survive for years.”
Edwardes says: “Things like legacy systems are key. With the current economic climate businesses are less likely to spend huge amounts of capital on new and expensive system software. And why should they, when printers can work together with the existing legacy systems like PC-DOS, UNIX and DEC to mention but a few.”
TallyGenicom has just launched a Fastrack Engineering initiative to provide UK businesses with a tailored solution that can provide 21st century printing on current and legacy systems. Under the initiative, TallyGenicom will send in an application engineer to undertake a full inventory of a company’s existing infrastructure and find the optimal solution to meet its specific needs. By eliminating the need for companies to update existing network infrastructure and operating solutions, TallyGenicom aims to keep capital expenditure to an absolute minimum.
Toshiba TEC’s Paul Reynold’s recommends “purchasing from a reputable manufacturer to give total peace of mind when it comes to servicing and back up”.
Warehouses can be punishing environments for high-tech equipment and printers need to be robust enough to survive there. TallyGenicom’s Robin Edwardes points out that printers like dot matrix, line matrix printers and thermal printers are most suited to the warehouse. Matrix printers are ideal for producing dispatch notes, proof of delivery notes and reports, where thermal printers are designed to produce clear and crisp barcodes at the lowest possible cost.
“Matrix printers are durable and robust often with a metal casing so can easily withstand the harsh warehouse environment; we have seen some printers being hit by forklift trucks and still keep operating as normal. Dot Matrix printers are ideal for desktop applications. Like line matrix printers, they provide rugged durability for business critical applications in a demanding environment.
“Thermal printers are best used for producing barcodes. Some barcode printers use plastic user interfaces, though it is always best to use die-cast metal interfaces in an environment that places high demands on the printer. Print quality of barcodes is key and users should choose their printers based on the accuracy of the barcode.”
Reynolds points out that technologies like RFID and Bluetooth can speed up warehouse processes, making the environment more mobile, reducing man power, increasing security and enabling real-time data processing. “Portable printing also allows re-labelling on the move, significantly reducing time and expense.”
Churcher points out that different applications can require different technologies. “Goods arriving may be labelled with location information for ‘put away’, which can be short shelf life labelling. For these applications labels can be printed using direct thermal technology, but shelf-edges may require labels with considerably longer life – perhaps even plastic coating.
“Battery-powered printers can be worn on the belt or fork lift truck mounted and connect via Bluetooth or WiFi to the hand-held device or warehouse server. This enables the operator to label goods on-the-fly and avoids walking back to a central warehouse print station to get a label.”
In-cab and hand-held operations demand a different approach to warehouse printers. “Things like GPS and other in-cab technologies are beginning to emerge in the market and we are seeing that more and more businesses are adopting value-added technologies in their delivery cabs,” says Edwardes. “In-cab printers are key for delivering perishable goods whereby proof of delivery notes are necessary and can be printed off at the delivery location.
“It is imperative that all wireless devices are able to connect to the in-cab printer, by widely used technologies such as Bluetooth. This ensures that the printer receives signatures to the electronic proof of delivery note.”
Churcher points out that: “Each application would be assessed to determine the needs but an in-cab printer is more likely to have power available, enabling impact, thermal transfer, or direct thermal technology to be used. Hand-held devices will be limited to the power available from batteries, usually limiting the print technology that can be used to direct thermal.”
The growth of RFID is having a significant impact on the printer market. Reynolds says: “Sales of RFID ready printers are on the increase as people are being made aware that this is a technology that is currently available and will be needed in the future, as more and more companies in the supply chain demand it. Also for the future people are turning to RFID-enabled printers as they expect to have to supply the RFID tags in the short to medium term.”
Edwardes says: “RFID has been coming for a long time, but at the moment we are seeing it used truly for a variety of specialised applications. At the moment RFID tags are quite expensive and with the organisations feeling the pinch, it is something that many are not going to consider for quite a few years. Our thermal printers have been future-proofed for RFID and we will be working with our customers to advise them as and when the market demands it.”