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The Smart Way to Print Smart Labels

Kimberly-Clark's John Onderko explains the issues you need to consider before purchasing an RFID label printer-encoder or label applicator.
By Andrew Price
Aug 16, 2006—Whether you're tagging goods to meet retailer mandates or to improve your internal processes, you'll need an RFID printer-encoder to create smart labels to affix to your pallets, cases and, perhaps, items. Smart labels, which are typically sold in rolls, are adhesive labels embedded with RFID tags, or transponders. The encoder electronically writes information—typically a unique ID, or Electronic Product Code—to the RFID inlay, and the printer marks the label with a bar code and human-readable text.

If you're tagging a small number of cases and pallets just before you ship them to the retailer, you can use a stand-alone printer-encoder and manually affix the labels. If you're tagging high volumes of goods, you'll likely want a label applicator, which includes a printer-encoder and automatically applies the labels to goods as they move down a conveyor line.

The Printronix SLPA7000r MP2 is a printer-encoder and label applicator. It encodes smart labels and verifies the data, then it automatically applies up to 60 labels per minute.

To help you choose the printer-encoder that's right for your business, rfid journal spoke to John Onderko, senior packaging engineer for RFID at Kimberly-Clark (K-C). The company recently tested a variety of RFID label printer-encoders and applicators in its internal lab. To read more about K-C's RFID lab, see "Lab-Powered Innovation" (September/October 2005). Here are excerpts from that interview.

What are the key issues that companies should consider before they purchase RFID printer-encoders or applicators?

John Onderko: There are many factors that you need to consider when evaluating potential RFID hardware, especially concerning printer-encoders and applicators. Kimberly-Clark's evaluations are focused on assessing performance and operational capability. Performance capability is measured by how well the hardware executes against its advertised capacities. For example, if a printer is advertised to print 30 labels per minute, can it really perform at this rate? Operational capabilities are then measured based on an assessment of how well the device performs against defined K-C business processes. This structured approach helps us determine the ability of the hardware to execute its intended function in a consistent and repeatable fashion. In turn, we are able to make better business decisions without relying on a specification sheet to make them for us. The methodology has helped us identify the following characteristics in guiding our printer-encoder and applicator selections:

Adjustability. How flexible is the printer-encoder or applicator at running different-size labels (4x2 vs. 4x1)? This is akin to your desktop printer's ability to be fed envelopes, label stock, letter, legal or A4-size paper without major setup changes.
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