Printing technology is developing in leaps and bounds, notably with the development of mobile printing systems. But what are the options now available?
Printers are vital to any logistics operation, but changes in the market are having an impact on what customers are looking for and how they intend to use them.
The point is highlighted by Richard Gilliard, managing director of Renovotec: “The biggest change in demand for printing is actually in retail given the move towards email or electronic (rather than printed) receipts; some printer manufacturers perceive this as a potential threat. Meanwhile in logistics the need to match the product against an advance shipping notice (ASN) – the standard procedure – has not changed.”
Gilliard also points to a major move towards mobile printing, where the warehouse operative has a mobile printer hung round his neck, or carried on a forklift that allows changes to be made on the move (on the fly) or labels to be generated.
Printer rental is another development that is attracting attention. “Increasingly users no longer want to pay for something they are not using,” says Gilliard. “So the argument might be ‘never pay for a printer you’re not using’ – at any time of year simply hold the right number of printers you need for your operation using a rental or pay-per-label subscription service. This fully managed service model also allows the user to (for example) later upgrade to RFID from standard labelling, within their contract.”
Ioana Nitu, product manager at Brother UK, points out that as businesses across all sectors broaden the devices they’re using, connectivity has become more important. “Manufacturing businesses are investing resource into innovative new technology to help employees work more efficiently while reducing costs, and any print systems need to be compatible with these.
“Running almost parallel to this is the growth of different technology used across businesses and the impact this has on how easily these different devices integrate. As technology develops, businesses are continuously trailing new software and hardware, making it more and more challenging to ensure these different systems are compatible with each other. We’re finding that customers now, more than ever, want mobile printers that integrate easily with existing systems and cause minimum disruption.
“Additionally, the evolution of technology over the last decade has raised the bar in terms of customer expectations. In everyday life people want solutions which have an instant impact with minimal inconvenience, and this is certainly the case in this sector. Customers are looking for high-speed, compact devices that increase business efficiency and empower employees from any location,” says Nitu.
The growth of big data and the internet of things is also having an impact on printer technology.
Peter Laplanche, director at Datatrade says: “Seven out of ten transport & logistics professionals are embracing IoT, recognising how it improves operational effectiveness through efficient depot and traffic management, warehouse use and picking and shipping process optimisation.
“Increased visibility of information throughout the supply chain can really help the T&L industry make huge gains in service and productivity, and in many cases, substantially reduce its costs. Using location devices, RFID-tagging and other multiple capture technologies improve product tracking but many logistics operators are starting to realise that technology in isolation is not the answer, it’s how it meshes together to address fundamental operational and communication issues too.
And Laplanche points out that having greater visibility of the health and performance of mobile devices like printers can make real gains in productivity in distribution centres.
“Being able to predict when batteries in a mobile scanner are about to fail, for example, may seem relatively unimportant but in the ecosystem of fulfilment it could represent the difference between meeting delivery slots or not. Zebra’s enterprise asset intelligence solutions combined with our own asset tracking and printer management enable operators to see not just the location, condition and usage rate of mobile computing devices like printers and wearables but also the mobile environment and infrastructure in which they sit. Hardware talks to software and the cloud, and it’s this total connectivity that enables logistics operators to see the big picture,” says Laplanche.
And Renovotec’s Gilliard points out that Zebra, for example, now has a cloud solution where the printer is constantly monitored online.
“This allows, for example, Renovotec, which has a pay per label subscription service to see how many labels have been printed, which in turn allows it to automatically replenish the label stock and also to spot a printer problem early; for example print head wear. Say the user does not have a spare printer and Renovotec sees that wear has got to a certain point, a replacement print head can be automatically shipped out as part of the contract.
“The fact that some printers are already Internet-enabled and feeding information to the cloud is essentially the IoT. More widely in logistics, using MDM (mobile device management) to monitor the health of devices is becoming commonplace. And a plethora of new technology is embedded in forklifts that allow the logistics company to spot problems before they occur, with the help of warehouse access points, as well as monitoring driver behaviour to measure safety and productivity levels.”
Gilliard also sees growing interest in labels with an embedded RFID tag, for example to identify a package that includes a lithium ion battery or other potentially flammable object.
Amine Soubai, director of sales & marketing at EMEA for Printronix Auto ID points out that when RFID was first introduced, the initial response from the industry was that it didn’t offer a true payback or path forward.
“But there has been a resurgence in RFID based on a couple of factors; a reduction in the cost of manufacturing the tags, and tighter regulatory requirements, particularly in the automotive and medical sectors, necessitating more information on labels. The availability of short-pitch labels also open up a lot more applications in retail, on wristbands (in hospitals) and more accurate warehouse inventory management down to individual box level.
Printronix launched a new thermal printer this autumn. The T6000 is a mid-range device with an integrated RFID option that offers on-pitch, short-pitch and standard pitch capability. “On-Pitch technology improves productivity and delivers a faster return on investment,” says Soubai.
Brother’s Ioana Nitu points out that the speed that technology has developed in recent years “has led to a continuous need for investment in our own printer and label printing products”.
“Our latest mobile print solutions seamlessly integrate with industry-leading software, meaning the set-up and incorporation of the technology into existing systems is straight-forward. We’ve also invested in the range of connectivity options available on our products, helping to ensure they’re compatible with a both iOS and Android devices. Print speed has always been a key feature for us, coupled with the continued need for reliable, hardwearing and compact solutions,” says Nitu.
Given the critical nature of logistics operations, it is essential to have a strategy for servicing and repair in place.
Renovotec’s Gilliard points out that four-hour response is increasingly common.
“But users who have chosen a rental [business] model do not concern themselves with repairs: quite simply, if their printer is rented and if there’s a technical issue that can’t be resolved on the spot, under their agreement the machine is typically just replaced with another unit. ”
And Datatrade’s Laplanche says: “Managed print services (MPS) in front offices is commonplace as organisations shift from capital expenditure to the more predictable operational expenses. It’s strange, then, that the concept of MPS for industrial printers, and the lower costs and reduced waste it would bring, seems to have bypassed logistics operators to any great extent thus far.
“They seem happy to embrace smart technology but reluctant to replace some of their old legacy printers. We are one of the few companies still maintaining such devices when even the OEMs have stopped supporting them! MPS can not only minimise business interruption but also reduce costs — typically by 30 per cent.
“Legacy printers do not have infinite lifespans and the current field service model is becoming out-dated and expensive. New technology is simplified so the need for real engineering skills is fast diminishing. Businesses don’t want high-end expertise to repair printers, they just want the affected unit replaced at the lowest cost and fastest time so they can return to full productivity, which is where MPS can help.
”We’ve supported manufacturers, retailers and logistics providers for over 30 years, supplying, repairing and maintaining their mission critical printers and reducing warehouse and storage hub downtime.”