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A new era for labelling: transitioning into a digital age

Digitisation continues to transform industries, but, within packaging, labelling may be one of the areas most set to benefit. Ken Moir, vice president of marketing at NiceLabel, explains how labelling is changing and the challenges it faces going forward.

Image courtesy of Tetra Pak

Labelling has an interesting history. The first labels that we know about appeared in the 1700s and were used to label medicine bottles. As merchants cottoned on to the idea that labels could be used to market their wares, they appeared on other products such as wine. Lithography sped up the process slightly, but hand-painted labels were used to sell exclusive goods. 

Then three inventions took labelling into a new era: the self-adhesive label in the 1930s, laser printing in the 1960s, and thermal printing (widely used today for barcode label printing) in the 1970s. However, it took the inkjet printers of the 1980s to make label printing widely available to all, in a cost-effective, quick and easy manner. Jump forward 30 years and we are in a new era – the second wave if you like, where the labelling industry faces new challenges that would not have even been considered 30 years ago.

Challenges for a new era: making production simpler and easier to use

As recently as 10 years ago, many companies outsourced their label production to label bureaus — an expensive and complex process that could only be afforded by larger organisations. Now the focus is on simplification and ease of use. And labels are needed for all types of industries: pharmaceuticals, food, clothes and supply chain, to name just a few of them. 

Each industry has its own challenges, but common to all are making sure that each label is traceable, compliant and transparent — not just within country, but across borders as well. This leads to huge challenges with the sheer amounts of data generated, all of which needs to be clear and understood by everyone, from the company themselves to suppliers, IT, logistics and end users.  And how can quality, accuracy and productivity be assured when there are so many stakeholders and so many label variations?

Digital solutions for a cloud-based world

The challenges have been discussed but they can largely be overcome with the correct solution. Digital transformation is one area which can benefit all industries, but in barcode labelling, this means the quality assurance process in producing labels can be digitalised — removing people and human error from the process. One example where this is especially important is in food and allergens labelling. Removing human intervention from the process ensures compliance, traceability and accuracy when the consequences of getting it wrong are too high to consider. Additionally, compliance can be maintained more easily as access rights can be limited to those authorised to design and approve labels, reducing mistakes and unintended errors.

One further step is to move your labelling system to the cloud. As cloud capabilities become available to all businesses, not just large enterprises, using label management SaaS solutions mean that all your data is stored in a central location. Any changes are automatically stored, making it easier to send information and label designs to all areas of the supply chain (other branches, factories, distribution centres, retail stores, or even to your suppliers), safe in the knowledge that they will be correct and current.

Removing human intervention from food and allergens labelling ensures compliance, traceability and accuracy

Another example of where correct labelling is of paramount importance is in the apparel and garment industry. Getting merchandise to store quickly is vital to remain competitive, especially when the online competition doesn’t have this problem. Having a centralised database where tickets and tags can be printed in the distribution centre and in-store when re-ticketing or re-tagging is required, means that the correct information can be found easily and printed quickly and accurately. In this way, retailers don’t have to wait weeks for bureaus to provide tickets and tags; they simply re-ticket and re-tag what they need when they need it. This enables them to ship products to store or other markets much faster.  

Logistics companies also rely on labels for everything from pallet, to barcode, picking, and packing labels. Being able to track goods accurately from receiving them in the warehouse, to tracking them on their shipping journey until they are signed for by the recipient, is vital. A very complex process, but one that can be managed more easily and accurately — for maximum productivity gains — when employing a cloud-based label management system.

The third era: digitisation and centralisation remove cost as a barrier

A label management system that is both digital and centralised offers businesses, both large and small, a way to keep centralised control of their labelling while reducing errors, eliminating time delays and offering improved compliance, accuracy and traceability. 

Cost is also no longer a barrier to entry for smaller firms, and excuses such as “our ten-year-old system works just fine”, cannot be used by larger firms. We are potentially on the cusp of a third era when it comes to labelling. Consumers and business won’t tolerate lost packages and for certain industries, it is critical that products are labelled accurately. Having an efficient and streamlined labelling system puts you in a strong position where you can help define this third era — not be defined by it.

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