Industrial label printer applicator in use at facility.

How to Choose the Right Industrial Label Printer Applicator for Your Business

There are endless reasons for printing labels before applying to products: adding expiration dates, changing label information for foreign markets, or adding information for a new promotion or advertising campaign. 

Whatever the reason, an industrial label printer applicator can do more than simply help you make compliant labels. If implemented correctly, this type of labeling machine speeds up production, reduces errors, and cuts operating costs. Here’s what to take into consideration when contemplating an upgrade to this type of machine.

Free Download: Cut through the noise with our Product Comparison Guide and learn which labeling machine is right for your business!

How Does a Printer Applicator Work?

For the most part, label application for a print and apply system is the same as a standard labeler. In fact, on some models (like the 360a Integrated loose loop labeler), the printing system can be bypassed entirely, which lets you use your print and apply labeler as a standard labeler for all product lines, even those that don’t need label printing.

The print engine then prints the information on the label. While it can print high-resolution, high-quality images and text, it only prints in black. There are two printing technologies used by these printers: direct thermal and thermal transfer

The Basics of Direct Thermal vs. Thermal Transfer Printing

Direct thermal printing uses heating elements to change the color of the label, the same process used to print receipts. This process requires labels made with thermal paper. Thermal transfer printing, by comparison, uses heat to melt an ink ribbon, transferring the ink onto the label. This type of printing works on most label stock.

At CTM Labeling Systems, we offer a choice of print engines from Zebra and Sato. These print engines are standard across the industry, so parts and services are readily available. Each machine has different limits on print quality and label size, so the choice between brands comes down to your label requirements. (Our knowledgeable representatives are able to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of printing styles for your business.)

To compensate for fluctuations in product feed, some print and apply industrial label applicators use a loose loop system. Between the print engine and the applicator, there’s either a storage hopper or a length of printed labels. Once the loop is filled, the printer and label feed pauses while it waits for the next container to come down the conveyor. If the feed speeds up, slack is taken from the loop and gives the printer a chance to catch up.

Where are Printer Applicator Systems Used?

Pre-printing labels takes time; design changes add cost to each label. By moving some of this printing to the labeling machine, you get added cost-effective flexibility that would be impossible with pre-printed labels

Most of this printing is built around Variable Data Printing (VDP), also called Variable Imaging (VI) or Variable Information Printing (VIP). By communicating to your OT system, the printer can collect and add unique information to each container. Examples include the following scenarios:

  • Add specific information to a generic product line label, like its flavor
  • Add expiration dates, lot numbers, serial numbers, product weights, and barcodes
  • Apply product information to fit the requirements of different markets
  • Create address labels for shipping containers
  • Add information for promotions, including coupon offers and contest entries
  • Create unique labels for retail customers

These machines don’t just expand your company’s capabilities; they can improve your workflow. 

In the wake of labor shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are striving to improve sanitation and reduce human resource needs. Today, labeling equipment is among the top 6 categories of new equipment purchases in the pharmaceutical industry. By implementing these systems, pharmaceutical companies can be more flexible with production while also adding value through better tracking and increased information for patients.

Should I Use Direct Thermal or Thermal Transfer Printing?

Your choice of printing method depends on what you’re printing and the circumstances of your operating conditions. (Most print engines support both printing methods.)

The ink from transfer printing lasts as long as the label, while thermal paper darkens over time (especially if exposed to heat and sunlight). However, there are paper formulations that reduce these problems. In most cases, companies choose direct thermal printing for short-term information, like shipping addresses. Thermal transfer is typically used for life of product information, including lot numbers and hazard information.

When it comes to cost, there isn’t a clear advantage when it comes to cost per print. While eliminating the need for ribbons lowers the cost of direct thermal printing, thermal labels usually cost more. However, swapping out ribbons adds downtime. Both types of printing will eventually burn out the print head. Print heads used with thermal transfer printing last longer in dusty environments, because the movement of the ribbon wipes the print head clean.

What Do I Need to Consider When Choosing an Automatic Label Applicator?  

Now that you have some idea of how you want to label your products, you need to narrow down your options based on your application.

Questions To Consider for Label Printer Applicators  

  • What shape are your containers? Do they have round or flat sides? Do you need an applicator that works on uneven or recessed surfaces?
  • How big are your labels? Can the applicator and printer handle these sizes? Can one machine cover several product lines?
  • What label materials are you using? Are you using standard or thermal paper? Do you need upgraded sensors to handle clear labels?
  • How fast do you need your containers to be labeled? Does it need to keep up with a high-speed product line? Application rates are determined by label size, not by piece.
  • Where do you need to apply labels? Are you using wrap labels or front and back labels? Do you need to add neck or tamper-proof labels to bottles?
  • How do pressure-sensitive labels compare to other label technologies? For example, many small craft brewers choose pressure-sensitive labels over traditional glue-applied systems because of their cost and flexibility. Upfront costs for equipment are lower, and pressure sensitive labels are available in shapes that can’t be applied with glue-applied systems.

 Choosing a Label Application Method

There are three ways printed pressure sensitive labels can be applied to containers. Each method works best on a specific shape of container.

Wipe-On Product Labeling 

A roller or brush aids in wiping the label onto the container as it comes off of the dispenser. This works well on flat, uniform surfaces. For example, our 360a Label Applicator with merge capabilities can apply a label to any side of a rectangular container using this method.

Air-Blow Product Labeling 

The label is held in place on a vacuum grid. When the container is in position, the vacuum is switched to a blast of air and blows the label onto the container. This works well for odd-shaped packaging, like plastic-wrapped consumables.

Tamp-Blow Product Labeling 

This is like an air-blow applicator, except it uses a tamp cylinder to move the label grid closer to the container. This applicator works great for recessed surfaces. Our 3600a-PA dual-action tamp label applicator uses this method to apply one or two-panel labels to each container.

If you want to learn more, download our free guide on these application methods.

We Can Help You Find the Right Labeling Solution for Your Products

Feeling overwhelmed by your choices when it comes to industrial label printer applicators? Simply contact CTM Labeling Systems. 

Our local distributors work with each and every client to set up a labeling system that fits your production system and adds the information your customers need. Don’t wait and start benefiting from your industrial label printer applicator – we’re here for you!


Download our free guide to start comparing labeling systems!