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Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Jan. 5, 2016 -


Supply Chain News: Label Print and Apply Systems in Distribution Center Operations Can Drive Real Value, but It Takes Sophisticated Technology

Labels for Inbound Receiving, Parcel Deliveries and Retail GSI-128 Labels are Common Applications, But Just How Does the Applicator Know What Retail Label to Print?


SCDigest Editorial Staff


Label printer-applicators are of course very prevalent in manufacturing operations, but certainly have many distribution center applications as well, notably for printing of shipping labels, and especially for printing and applying GS1-128 labels (formerly the UCC-128) to meet retail compliance requirements.

The big difference in distribution center applications as opposed to manufacturing is the dynamic nature of the requirements. In general, manufacturing applications involve batches of product that for a time are uniform in size/shape (e.g., cartons of the same SKU), and perhaps more importantly may have the same static product information and bar code identifiers for every label in the batch.

SCDigest Says:

As cartons approach the print and apply system, the GS1-14 SKU bar code is scanned. That triggers the print and apply control software to find the next order for that SKU in the wave.
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Even serialized individual products, such as in the high tech industry, may not have a unique serialized bar code identifier on the master case itself built in assembly operations (though some certainly do).

Contrast that with compliance shipping label applications, where the size of every box coming down a conveyor line might be different, and more challengingly, not only will some of the data on the label likely change with every label printed, the format (design) of the label itself will vary from retailer to retailer even under the broad GS1-128 standard.

That requirement not only adds to the processing time needed to print and apply a label, it means the printer-applicator needs to be controlled by an integrated software application, often a module of a warehouse control system (WCS), though it might also be a standalone application, or even involve direct control by the WMS, though this is not common.

Many manufacturing applications, by contrast, could be managed with just a standard bar code labeling program such as Loftware, Teklynk, Seagull Scientific and others that operate more in a standalone mode, though those programs can also be connected to enterprise systems as well.

Benefits of Automated Print and Apply in the DC

As the name implies, automated print and apply systems (and they are certainly systems, not just labeling machines) are primarily designed to reduce the labor costs required to label cartons. In receiving operations, for example, floor loaded cartons might be placed on to a conveyor to have a simple bar code serial number label applied to each box. That identifier would later be used in picking and/or pallet build, and the auto labeling process would generally be a lot more efficient than having receiving workers manually applying those labels.

Another common application is to print labels required by UPS, FedEx and others for parcel shipping, either on a standalone basis or integrated into a retail compliant label. Here again, the goal is to let a machine do the labor of applying the labels rather than a DC worker.

In some cases, the print and apply system could be on a conveyor that serves one or more parcel processing lines, where operators use software that communicates with the carrier systems, obtains the correct rate and service information, etc., before pushing the case on to the conveyor for automated labeling. However, many companies use traditional desk top printers for this job and let workers apply the labels themselves as part of the parcel process.

Other systems are fully automated and do the carrier communication and rating right in line as the package moves on the conveyor, often not long before the parcels are loaded into the appropriate carrier truck or staging area.

Typical Shipping Label Application Flow

Similar in many regards from a system perspective to automated labeling for parcel shipments is shipping label application, with again the GS1-128 label figuring prominently for most consumer goods manufacturers, as these labels are required by their retail customers.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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Automated shipping label system often makes the most sense in a mechanized picking environment. This would involve, for example, a batch "pick-to-belt" scenario, where operators pick all cases for a given SKU in a "wave" and place those cases on a belt, which connects with other conveyors and a sortation system that distributes those batch-picked cartons back to specific retail orders or pallets at the end of divert lanes.

This eliminates the need for pickers to manually place printed shipping labels ("pick by label") on each carton before placing it on the conveyor, which enhances productivity substantially.

Somewhere between the pick modules and the sortation system will be one or more print and apply stations. But how does the print and apply system know what label to print for each carton?

There are different options, but a common approach is to use the case bar code (GS1-14) that operates similar to a GTIN-12 (UPC) bar code on individual items, though it uses instead the "I 2 of 5" bar code symbology. The GS1-14 identifies what SKU is in the case and the quantity, based on a pack size digit at the front of the bar code data. The item number for each SKU in the GS1-14 is in fact the same as the item number in the GTIN-12 (UPC). And as with the GTIN-12, every SKU has an identical bar code identifier - there is no serialization. Often of course, especially in the consumer packaged goods sector, the GS1-14 bar code is printed right on the carton itself, usually with an inkjet printer as part of the carton manufacturing process.

To make this work, the software controlling the print and apply system needs to receive a full distribution of what SKUs (cases) of product are expected for some time period, such as a wave, as well as all the other information needed to print a shipping level (shipment address, "mark for" information if appropriate, SKU number, sometimes purchasing information such as PO number and buying department, etc. (See GS1-128 label example below.)


Example GS1-128 Serial Shipping Label


As cartons approach the print and apply system, the GS1-14 SKU bar code is scanned. That triggers the print and apply control software to find the next order for that SKU in the wave. The control systems selects the appropriate retail label format (Target, Macy's, Sears, etc.) and sends that as well as other information needed on that retailer's label to the printer-applicator. That would include the serial number for the GS1-128 bar code that uniquely identifies each carton (the control system generally keeps track of those numbers, though conceivably that number could come from the WMS or other enterprise system).

After the label is printed and verified by a post-application scan, the label information is passed back to the overall WCS, which now knows the carton with a given serial number belongs with some specific customer order. From that point, the system scan the GS1-128 number to identify and track the carton through the merge and sorting processes, and then diversion down the appropriate lane for palletization or direct truck loading.

That same information would generally be also passed back to the WMS, which might use it to confirm the right cartons are placed on the correct pallets at the end of the divert, etc., as it takes control back over from the WCS when the sortation is complete.

That described the process flow for automatically printing and applying shipping labels in a pick-to-belt with downstream sortation scenario. Next week, we'll look more specifically at the components of the print and apply system itself.

What's your take on printer-applicators in the DC?
What would you add to our process descri[ption? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section (web form) below.

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