High-speed label applicator on a production line.

How Fast Are High-Speed Label Applicators?

Exactly how fast is a high-speed label applicator? If you’ve worked around manufacturing, you know that there are always several factors affecting throughput, and your labeling system is no exception. While the applicator itself may be capable of incredible speeds, making sure every label goes on perfectly each time requires slower speeds for quality and stability. From container shape to printing quality, each change you make to your system affects its speed.

What Determines Labeling Speed?

A high-speed label applicator has to do five things:

  1. Load containers onto the machine
  2. Bring labels to the applicator while maintaining tension across the label web
  3. Keep the container or carton in a steady position while labeling
  4. Move applicators into position to peel labels and apply them to containers
  5. Off-load containers to the next stage in the production line

If the labeling station has a print engine, the system also has to retrieve or generate text and graphics, then come off the label printer in time for application. If you’re using multiple labels, the system also needs to changeover labels and possibly reorient the container.

A labeling system doesn’t have a maximum number of pieces it can label in a given time period. Instead, its speed is tied to the length of the labels it applies. If you use one machine for several container sizes, it can label small containers faster than large ones. Decreasing the size of your labels also increases the number of containers you can label, up to a point.

Application Rates: Maximum Speed vs. Real World Performance

Labeling speed is measured in inches per minute (ipm). For example, when properly equipped, our high-performance 360a Model Y Label Applicator can reach speeds of 3,000 ipm. How many containers can you theoretically label at that speed? Here are some common label sizes used in packaging.

  • 12 oz. Industry Standard Bottle (ISB) or aluminum can: 4 x 3.5 inches
  • Common wine bottle labeling: 6 x 4, 5 x 5, 4 x 6, 3.5 x 4 and 4 x 4 inches
  • Standard shipping label: 4 x 6 inches
  • Another common shipping label size: 6 x 3 inches

Theoretically, it’s possible to apply shipping labels to boxes at a rate of 500 containers per minute and apply labels to glass bottles at a rate of 750 containers per minute. However, there are other factors at play.

Shipping boxes are usually larger than shipping labels, so it takes more time for them to roll through the conveyor belt. Stability is important for accuracy, which makes odd-shaped containers harder to label. These factors have more influence on performance than the speed of the applicator.

High-Speed Labeling Machines vs. Manual Application

How does this translate to real-world performance? Let’s say you make craft beer or soda, and you want to apply wrap-around labels on ISBs. Wrap labeling each bottle manually takes around 20 seconds, or 300 bottles per hour.

Semi-automatic labeling machines, which handle labeling after being hand loaded, can label up to 1,800 bottles per hour. Step up to a fully-automated labeling machine, and you can get speeds over to 6,000 bottles per hour while maintaining high-quality application.

Tabletop Vial Wrap Labeling System

Our customizable Tabletop Vial Wrap System allows you to easily wrap product labels around vials, such as lip balm. These products are small and require precise label application, making manual labeling time-consuming and open to errors. Using an automatic labeling system allows you to increase throughput without sacrificing quality.

Even if you don’t need this capacity today, your business can still benefit from full automation with decreased labeling errors and reduced personnel requirements. Your new high-speed labeler can run slower to match your current production line while giving you plenty of headroom as your business grows.

How Do Application Methods Affect Speed?

In general, the more movement it takes to apply the label, the longer it takes to apply. Tamp application takes the longest since the label has to be fed on the tamp nose, and then the tamper has to stroke out to nearly contact the product. Tamp-blow uses a blast of air to get the label onto the container. Tamp stroke length affects overall speed and throughput.

While tamp may be the slowest label application method, the speed of your production line can still be improved compared to other labeling methods. Wipe-on (merge) application is the fastest since the label goes directly from the label roll to the container.

That said, your choice of application has more to do with the packaging than the application rate. Wipe-on application works best for wrap-around product labels, and tamp works great for the accurate placement of small labels on flat containers.

Tamp-blow is commonly used for odd-shaped and recessed surfaces; it can even be used in harder-to-reach spots like on shipping pallets. Our labeling equipment is designed for multiple configurations, letting you choose the application method that best fits your production system.

Do More Steps Mean Slower Labeling?

For the most part, no. A well-designed high-speed label applicator times each step so that there’s zero downtime in product flow — even changeover between products or labels is a breeze.

For example, our vertical trunnion roller labeling system can be set up to apply up to five labels on each container. Each applicator is positioned so that they’re always filled: while one bottle gets its body label, another bottle gets its neck label. While it takes longer for each bottle to go through the machine, the container labeling rate doesn’t decrease as labelers are added.

A print-and-apply system uses a print engine that adds text and graphics to labels as fast as they’re applied.

Most print engines also allow you to change the dots per inch (dpi). Decreasing dpi lowers print quality while allowing the printer to work faster. Depending on the setting, output for these engines ranges from 360 to 960 ipm. If there are fluctuations in product loading, an integrated loose loop high-speed applicator can compensate by keeping some pre-printed labels on hand for application.

Where could you see a slowdown in downtime? Think about it this way: every time you add another labeling step, you’re also adding another set of reels that need to be reloaded. Direct thermal printers require occasional print head replacements, and thermal transfer printers also use ink ribbons.

However, downtime can be minimized by using the same number or multiple labels on each reel. For example, if you’re using both body and neck labels on your bottles, having twice as many neck labels per reel lets you change the reel every second time you change the body label reel.

Get a Labeling System That Keeps Up With Your Business

Are you struggling to get your containers labeled? Do you think an upgrade can help you cut costs and fulfill orders? Then it’s time to contact CTM Labeling Systems. We make a range of flexible equipment that can label just about anything from shrink-wrapped vegetables to industrial pails. We also have distributors across the country. Your local distributor can help you find a high-speed label applicator that delivers the results you want at the speed you need.