Print-and-apply label system applying labels to products.

A Guide to the Different Types of Print and Apply Label Systems

Pre-printed custom labels are great for high-quality color graphics and text, but a single label design often can’t have all the information you need for your products. Many products or cartons need information specific to each container, including lot numbers for traceability, best buy dates, and shipping addresses. It might be easier to use a label that covers one product line, adding text and graphics for variations, like different flavors.

A print and apply labeling system combines label printing and application into a single machine, saving floor space while making it easier to control the variable data on each container. This makes it possible to meet labeling requirements. Here’s how these machines can tailor to your production system.

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What Is a Print and Apply Labeling System?

This type of labeling system combines a label printer with a label applicator. The label printer usually doesn’t print the entire label. Due to cost concerns and the speed required to keep up with the applicator, these systems only print in black and white. Instead, the printer adds information to pre-printed labels, completing the design. There are three main components used in these systems:

 Print Engine

The print engine is a high-speed printing module built to withstand industrial use.

Label Applicator

The label applicator places labels on the containers.


The Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) controls both the printer and applicator. It also communicates with your operating technology system. The PLC stores the printing format for the labels and generates text and barcodes based on information sent to it by the OT system.

Since no two production environments are alike, there are several options for print engines, applicators, and PLC interfaces. Here’s how these pieces work together and how design choices allow these machines to fulfill different requirements.

Print Engines: Brands and Printing Methods

A print engine isn’t just a beefed-up office printer. Even the busiest office printer isn’t constantly running — and it’s kept in a clean, temperature-controlled environment. A print engine has to work in harsh production environments while printing at high speeds for days or weeks without interruption. Since downtime is costly, these printers are built to easily service and replace.

We offer our labeling machines with a choice of print engines from the market’s leading brands: Zebra and Sato. Each engine has slightly different specifications for print quality and label sizes. When people have problems with these engines, it is usually because they’re using the wrong materials with the machine. Some surfaces won’t accept ink or the paper wants to stick to the machine. When setting up a print and apply system, it’s important to consider both the label materials and the print method.

There are two printing technologies used by these engines. A direct thermal print engine uses a strip of print elements that heat thermal paper. This is the same technology used in receipt printers. The thermal head needs occasional replacement, and the engine needs to be cleaned from time to time. Thermal paper turns black with age, especially in hot environments. These printers are a good choice for applications used for short periods, like shipping labels.

Like direct thermal printers, thermal transfer printers have a heated print head. However, this head doesn’t touch the label. Instead, it melts ink from a ribbon onto the label. This printing works on any label that has a surface that accepts ink. Replacement ribbons add to running costs, but the movement of the ribbon helps push out dirt, keeping the print engine clean. There are several types of ribbon available, each with advantages in cost, durability, and print quality. This printing technology is a great choice for applications requiring long-term legibility, like lot numbers and warning information.

Label Application Methods

After printing over the label, it needs to be applied to the container. For this step, the label applicator typically uses a method of label application called tamp/blow.


The label is placed on a tamp, using a vacuum. The tamp moves into position, and the vacuum switches off, using a small blast of air to push the label onto the container. This method is good for variations in product loading speed.

Tamp-blow is by far the most common method used with print and apply systems. Other methods of application, such as merge (where the label is “merged” onto the product as it travels by) or air blow (where a jet of air pushes the label onto the container) can be used depending on the situation.

These methods can be used by themselves or in combination to get labels exactly where you need them. For example, let’s say you need labeling on two sides of a box. Our

3600a-PA Series Dual Action Tamp (DAT) Printer Applicator moves in two ways. If only the tamp moves, it applies a label to the side of the container. If the swing arm moves, it positions the tamp so it presses the label onto the leading or trailing side of the container. This system is great for small labels on large containers. Alternatively, the 3600a PA corner wrap printer applicator applies one label to two sides of the container. The swing arm applies the label on the leading side of the container, then pivots to wrap the end of the label around a side wall. This is a great configuration if you need maximum label coverage.

These applications should be familiar to you if you’ve dealt with automatic labeling machines before. However, adding a printing system can cause two problems that need to be addressed in the labeler’s design. First, how do you balance printing speed with variations in product loading? A loose loop system uses a hopper to store labels after printing. This creates a buffer, holding back a few labels for application as products pass through the machine. Second, what if you don’t always need to print on your labels? A web bypass lets you run the labels through the machine without passing them through the print engine. That way, you can use one machine for both pre-printed and print and apply labels and maintain high throughput.


There are several communication systems used for operating technology with standards dating back as far as the 1960s. While some devices only offer one type of connection to cut costs, our PLCs support the most common connection standards, including serial (RS-232), parallel (IEEE 1284), Ethernet, USB, and wireless communication. Since the PLC controls both the print engine and labeler, you only need a connection with the PLC to send information to the entire print and apply system.


Get the Right Print and Apply Labeling System for Your Business

How do you choose the right labeling equipment when there are so many different types of print and apply label systems? Contact CTM Labeling Systems, and we’ll get you in touch with your local distributor. They’ll evaluate your production system and label printing requirements to create a cost-effective labeling solution that fits your product labeling needs. Custom solutions for label automation are easily within reach.


Download our free guide to start comparing labeling systems!