Magazine Article | September 1, 2003

Tips For Choosing A Bar Code Printer

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

You know your enterprise will increase efficiency and improve accuracy by implementing bar code printers. But what printer will help you maximize those benefits?

Integrated Solutions, September 2003

If you're the least bit nervous about adopting bar code printer technology, you may want to skip this first paragraph. Bruce Philpot, the managing director for the Center for Automatic Identification at Ohio University (Athens, OH), may frighten you with his elaborate - yet accurate - perspective on choosing a bar code printer. "Anything you select should be capable of producing the following: specified symbologies in the specified range in the specified positions on the appropriately sized label at the application-specified ANSI [American National Standards Institute] symbol quality grade repeatably, consistently, and predictably, given the proper maintenance," proclaims Philpot.

Maybe you'll feel more at ease listening to Doug Hall, director of printer marketing at AIDC manufacturer Intermec Technologies Corp. (Everett, WA). "We could argue over subtleties, but bar code printers are all basically white boxes that spit out labels," he says.

Obviously, there's plenty of middle ground between the thoughts of Philpot and Hall. Bar code printers may not be the most complicated technology to hit your enterprise, but they're a long way from being purchased off the shelf and installed effortlessly.

First Considerations: Application, Environment, Platform, Media
Bar code printers are typically used in industrial applications such as manufacturing plants and distribution warehouses. But several other vertical markets, such as healthcare, utilize bar code printers, too. Obviously, all verticals do not use the same type of printer because of their starkly different environments and applications.

Talk with 1,000 people in the bar code industry, and all will agree that the application is the key to choosing a bar code printer. For example, the requirements and processes for producing labels for a pallet of auto parts are vastly different from printing one label for a bottle of prescription medication. The size of the label, volume of labels produced, and lifespan of the bar code all vary greatly.

"The first thing end users need to understand is their application and their environment," says Brad Jarvis, director of product marketing at printer manufacturer Printronix (Irvine, CA). Jarvis says you should ask yourself the following questions - and fully understand the answers - before choosing a printer:

  • What symbologies (bar code languages) do you need to support?
  • What levels of print quality and print resolution do you need?
  • What kind of volume do you anticipate? How many labels will be produced per shift?
  • How rugged does the printer need to be? Will it be subject to potential damage from dust or handling in your facility?
  • Is mobility necessary for this printer, or can it remain in one location?
  • What is the workflow of the bar code? Where will it be routed after the label is applied?
  • What WMS (warehouse management system) will the printer integrate with?
  • Who will manage the printers - your IT department or the actual users?

Philpot adds that those same questions should be answered with long-range goals in mind. "The purchasing entity needs to have an idea of current needs and anticipated needs in the mid- and long-term," he says. "Err on the high side of capability. Buy more than you need." Philpot also stresses that buyers should listen to the sales/technical representative's advice about printer capabilities, but you should "be your own judge" about your company's growth prospects.

"Look for a print platform that can grow and change as your back end system and symbologies change - because they will," says Printronix' Jarvis. "The architecture needs to be modular and have expansion ports and slots. You have to ask yourself if you can adjust functions such as resolution, connectivity, mobility, and bar code verification without needing to buy a new printer."

Intermec's Hall says selecting the media the bar code will be printed on should occur before you start comparing printers. "You can't separate the media selection from the printer selection," he says. "You have to know how large a label you need to print, the surface it will adhere to, and the approximate life cycle of the label."

Bar Code Verification Recommended
How confident would you feel going to an amusement park that didn't regularly test its triple-loop roller coaster? Strapping on the over-the-shoulder harness could be the last move you ever make. The same philosophy could apply to the performance of your bar code printer. You can choose to add on a verification system to ensure that the bar codes you print are up to standard.

"Implement a comprehensive symbol quality and label quality verification program," says Philpot. "Customers and everybody else who handles products with bar code labels have to be confident that the symbols will be consistently scannable. If you don't have an aggressive and conscientious verification program, the quality will decline." Philpot adds that many customers slap their suppliers with fees if bar codes are unreadable.

Printronix' Jarvis agrees that part of your purchase decision should include what options are available to guarantee the quality of the bar code. "Look for a printer that's autonomic - self-correcting or self-healing. It should assure you that the data is both scannable and accurate. If the label is incorrect, the printer should 'X' it out and print a new label."

How Much Should You Pay For A Bar Code Printer?
The price of a bar code printer ranges from just a few hundred dollars to nearly $6,000. Life would be easy if you could answer all the questions raised in this article, search online for the least expensive printer that matches your criteria, and then buy it. But the bar code printer world doesn't work that way.

Bob Karr, VP of marketing at bar code printer manufacturer SATO America (Charlotte, NC), says purchasing the least expensive printer can cost you in the long run. "The Internet has made it easier for people to buy cheap printers," Karr says. "But it's not that simple. I've seen printers shut down a shipping department and even an entire factory. You have to ask yourself, 'If we can't make labels, will we have to send people home?' Most people who buy bar code printers don't think about that. They usually only think of labels on boxes and what's the cheapest way to get that done."

If you are purchasing for a manufacturing environment, expect to spend a minimum of $1,500 for a rugged printer with an all-metal chassis.

"Buy Now!" Is Bad Advice
This article is designed to offer you tips on the important factors to consider when purchasing a bar code printer. But it certainly is not a comprehensive guide. You could read other magazines, search Web sites, and scour catalogs until your eyes cross, but that still wouldn't fully prepare you to purchase a bar code printer.

All three vendors we talked with recommended calling a local integrator who can visit your company and can answer your unique questions. You may understand your company's needs, but they may help you avoid problems you never anticipated. "You need to have a good relationship with a local technology provider," says Intermec's Hall. "That's especially true if you're implementing a new application."