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Labeling for successful logistics

The label is key to resolving the challenges of modern logistics and the recipe for successful delivery, full transparency and ethical provenance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for supply chain and logistics management in the last few months. Products such as canned food, toilet paper and cleaning supplies have seen a significant rise in demand; other end use sectors have slowed dramatically.

Simultaneously, e-commerce is booming. Some companies are struggling to meet demand fueled by the increasing number of customers adopting online buying habits. The shift to virtual shopping and a focus on consumer desire for safety has had a massive impact on the logistics market and the entire supply chain, including label manufacturers.

Pandemic magnifies challenges
According to Forbes, e-commerce has seen a 129 percent year-on-year growth in the US and Canada as of April 21, with an impressive 146 percent growth in all online retail orders. ‘The biggest challenge right now is keeping up with this unusually high demand,’ comments Stephanie D’Cruz, product manager, variable information at Avery Dennison.

Bruce Hanson, president of forms and labels at RRD Business Services, adds that one of the greatest challenges the logistics labeling segment is facing right now is forecasting demand. ‘As we’re going to press, forecasts are being completely surpassed,’ he says. ‘Managing those forecasts and ensuring we’re keeping our clients with a consistent supply chain for their labeling needs is extremely important to their business and ours.’

The main challenges the logistics labeling market is currently facing are not new, but due to the pandemic, they have been significantly heightened. Addressing them as a matter of urgency would help to ease the strains created by escalating demand.

‘Over the last decade, those in supply chain management have witnessed dramatic changes in the way customers order products,’ says Colin Le Gresley, managing director of Aztec Label, a UK-based label converter heavily active in the logistics sector. ‘The explosion of e-commerce and online shopping has resulted in huge complexity in managing traceability, health and safety processes, delivering just-in-time and stock control for added cost efficiency. 

A lack of reading accuracy can potentially result in the items being misplaced or, at worst, lost in the supply chain system altogether. With ever-increasing volumes, demand for improved accuracy coupled with shorter lead times continues to grow.’

The explosion of e-commerce and online shopping has resulted in the huge complexity in managing traceability, health and safety processes, delivering just-in-time and stock control for added cost efficiency

Armor is a manufacturer of thermal transfer ribbons widely used for printing logistics labels. Mark Day, global sales director states that logistics labeling buyers continue to look primarily for a competitive price. ‘This is putting an enormous amount of pressure on labels and printing materials manufacturers to deliver good quality products at the lowest possible price point. Logistic labels are the essential link between the entire supply chain, so the information they bear is crucial. The more data they deliver all along the journey, the more value they bring to each stakeholder.’

Labels are used to track consignments and pallets through the supply chain and are crucial for any logistics or distribution business – for both warehousing purposes as well as shipping products around the world.

‘The challenge, therefore, is not only producing the label itself, but also sharing the information it contains with each stakeholder, including the recipient,’ says Day. ‘The label should provide data about the product, the origin, the recyclability info, the entire logistics journey, accurate date and time of arrival. This is where the power of the logistics label lies, and this is where it can add value to the entire supply chain.’

According to Nick Recht, enterprise product manager at Teklynx, a company specializing in barcode software, the information itself often presents a big challenge for the entire supply chain. ‘Most logistics companies do not get the luxury of making up the rules of what, where, and how the product is identified, which means they need to respond to many different customer demands,’ he states. ‘This can be a major challenge for companies that need to manage multiple complex requirements and can cause bottlenecks due to time consuming, and error-prone manual labeling processes that are not standardized across the supply chain.’

Colin Le Gresley believes that this complexity has only been compounded by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. ‘Now, as we move into the new normal, the demand is intensifying, with ever-shifting consumer behavior and the need for accurate traceability and data-driven analytics,’ he comments. According to a recent study by global research firm EPiServer, 38 percent of UK consumers and 26 percent of US consumers are now buying online at least once a week. ‘With the demand growing as consumers increasingly rely on e-commerce under the cloud of the pandemic, our customers are turning to us to ease supply chain complexity and help reduce lead times through tracking efficiency.’ 

Simplifying complexities
The e-commerce boom is pushing supply chain stake holders to adopt more standardization and control in the labeling process. 

‘I think the biggest opportunity today is around standardization of processes, hardware and software,’ agrees Nick Recht. ‘Too often we see companies that have expanded their business to additional workstations, new locations, complete mergers or acquisitions and keep their existing labeling processes in place. This leads to a piecemeal labeling environment with many different procedures and disparate systems that are often held together by tribal knowledge. Having said that, major risks also a mean major opportunity for improvement.’

Companies need to manage multiple complex requirements and can cause bottlenecks due to time consuming, and error-prone manual labeling processes that are not standardized across the supply chain

The demand for logistics labels is expected to increase in the coming months. As the lockdown restrictions ease, more outlets begin to reopen or return their operations to pre-pandemic levels. This will lead to an increase in demand for stock deliveries nationwide and internationally, on top of the acceleration seen during the pandemic.

Says Colin Le Gresley, ‘Advanced technology will be key to being able to meet this demand. With everything from automating initial order processing and design approval through to prepress, print and finishing – enabling manufacturers like ourselves to deliver quality, accurate labels on schedule.’

Nick Recht points out that standardization is taking place both at the label converter – in the form of business system integration and label press automation, reducing manual intervention in the printing process – and by secure label approval processes including standardized templates. ‘Both will help to reduce waste across the logistics labeling environment and support organizations create additional operational efficiencies.’

There is a clear focus today on utilizing cloud-based technologies which can connect the entire supply chain to increase speed and accuracy, says Ken Moir, VP of NiceLabel. ‘A cloud-based label management system is the fastest way to deploy labelling across the extended supply chain with suppliers, contract manufacturers and third-party logistics providers. It removes the requirement for investment in IT infrastructure and its ease of use increases agility, enabling rapid speed to market.’ 

Is RFID the answer?
The use of RFID technology appears to be the perfect solution to provide speed and accuracy in the logistics supply chain; however, it also brings a challenge, as suppliers are required to design and encode RFID labels – a more complex process than designing a barcode label. 

‘Centralized cloud-based RFID technologies solve this challenge by providing pre-designed, approved RFID labels and allowing suppliers to print the labels on-demand as and when they need them,’ answers Ken Moir. ‘The cloud is simplifying and making real-time RFID printing and encoding possible for suppliers across the supply chain.’

Cloud-based labeling can also help in streamlining supply chain processes, reducing inventory and moving products through the warehouse faster. 

Companies that are dependent on several suppliers typically need to deal with multiple labeling standards. Ken Moir believes that transitioning to cloud-based technology is the key to consistent, standardized labeling between supply chain partners, allowing storage of data centrally and sharing it with suppliers over secure internet links. ‘Hosting all information in the cloud reduces any concerns in terms of securing the business infrastructure and mitigates the risk of relabeling at the point of receipt of goods.’

‘There is a swell of opportunity for RFID in improving operational efficiency,’ echoes Bruce Hanson. ‘RFID technology continues to advance, and as costs come down, it’s making it a more viable option for companies to consider. While it’s expensive to transition from barcode labels to RFID or NFC, it does lead to greater efficiencies by improving scan rates, which streamlines package logistics with less labor costs. Overall, the use of RFID leads to better management of workforce as well as increased track and traceability of packages.’

Intelligent sustainability
The introduction of intelligent labels into the logistics labeling supply chain will transform it into an ‘Internet of Things’ ecosystem. An IOT-based infrastructure will make the whole supply chain more transparent to all accredited users, with real-time information available at multiple access points. 

‘Intelligent label technologies enable global supply chains to be sustainable,’ argues Avery Dennison’s Stephanie D’Cruz. ‘Intelligent labels make it possible for the “who, what and where” of every physical product to become data-points of irrefutable fact and absolute visibility, with proof of provenance assured.’ This will enable suppliers to demonstrate a trail for ethically sourced materials, for example.

The requirement for increased sustainability has led to innovation at other points of the labeling chain. To help paper companies recycle paper and boxes that have adhesive labels on them, and to meet the US Postal Service’s standards of recyclability, some new thinking has been employed. ‘To help improve the recyclability of paper packaging, Avery Dennison developed a new adhesive that is compatible with the existing recycling stream,’ says Stephanie D’Cruz. ‘Our new TrueCut adhesive technology is purpose-built for paper facestocks and specially designed for shipping, weigh scale, warehouse and logistics applications. It is fully repulpable; this means the adhesive is fully recyclable and products labeled with this platform can go back into the paper recycled waste stream.’

Intelligent label technologies enable global supply chains to be sustainable. They make it possible for the ‘who, what and where’ of every physical product to also become data-points of irrefutable fact and absolute visibility

There have also been interesting developments in the sustainability of thermal transfer ribbons, says Mark Day. ‘Armor is producing the AWR8 ribbon for logistics labels without a single drop of solvent. This is a patented process that enables us to save 360g of CO² compared to an equivalent ribbon made with a standard production process. An easy solution to lower the environmental footprint of a global logistics label printing operation.’

Linerless labels will play a key part in the future of logistics labeling, and one interesting innovation has been the InNo-Liner technology developed by Herma. Dr Thomas Baumgärtner, managing director and head of the self-adhesive materials division at Herma, explains: ‘From our perspective, for ecological reasons alone, linerless labeling systems will play an essential role in the future. Of course, they will have to satisfy the labeling speeds required by logistics and distribution centers. We demonstrated how such a system operates at Labelexpo Europe last fall, and we have been inundated with enquiries since then. We supply an end-to-end system capable of operating consistently at higher speeds and with the process reliability demanded by logistics centers.’

‘While linerless labels aren’t applicable in every scenario, they are a great option that contributes to waste reduction when the opportunity is available,’ states RRD Business Services’ Bruce Hanson. ‘When using traditional laminates, however, one should consider processes that allow for recycling of liners to minimize the amount of waste sent to landfill. Finding paths that capture waste through a sustainable recycling process is an environmentally friendly alternative.’

What’s next?
The impact of the pandemic will shape the future of every aspect of the supply chain and the logistics market for years to come. A key trend accelerated by the pandemic is automation. Says Nick Recht, ‘Fewer people will take on manual tasks in logistics labeling environments, and as a result we’ll see an increase in label printing automation and cloud-hosted label printing to counteract logistics labeling challenges.’ 

‘We believe that sustainability will be an even greater priority than before the Covid-19 pandemic,’ says Stephanie D-Cruz. ‘Intelligent label technologies make it possible for global supply chains to be sustainable and trusted by design.’

Bruce Hanson also believes the adoption of intelligent supply chain technologies will be boosted: ‘Looking ahead, we’re expecting a further adoption of RFID and potentially the use of drones or other shipping methods.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Piotr is a part of the global team of editors and comes to the magazine with extensive experience in journalism. He has background in print and digital media spanning different countries and industry sectors. He is based in the London office, reporting on European label market.

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