CTM Semi-Automatic vs. Automatic Label Applicator

Semi-Automatic vs. Automatic Label Applicator: Which Is Right For Your Needs?

While the names imply that an automatic label applicator will be faster than a semi-automatic label applicator, the differences go far beyond speed. Choosing the right machine is a matter of matching up the machine design to the types of labels you use, the types of packages you want to label, and the speed of your production line.

What’s the Difference Between Semi-Automatic and Automatic Labeling Machines?

Both types of machines automate label application. The difference between them is in how they are loaded and activated.

Semi-automatic applicators apply labels on containers that are already lined up. The machine can be hand-loaded for small product batches or integrated into your existing production line for fast labeling. The label is applied when triggered by a switch operated by a worker or a connected machine.

Automatic applicators have a system to position the container before applying the label. Once in place, the label is applied. Some automatic label applicators can also reposition the container multiple times to apply several labels.

So ultimately, choosing the right machine is a matter of balancing up-front costs with operating costs and considering flexibility, as necessary.

Price and Operating Costs

The simplest semi-automatic machines aren’t much more than manual labelers with an added motor. While CTM does not offer entry-level, manual machines, you can likely find options online at a cost as little as $500. If your operation requires more than a simple manual labeler can provide, stand-alone semi-automatic machines start at about the $20,000 mark, and can go up from there based on options and requirements.

With semi-automatic labelers, a worker needs to be on hand to operate the machine. However, added labor costs may be minimal if you already have someone doing a final inspection before product labeling.

Fully automated machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars. However, they need little human intervention aside from calibration and spool changes. Other considerations aside, the added up-front cost can lead to savings over time from reduced labor costs.

Package Flexibility

Semi-automatic label applicators are almost always constrained to one type of container, whether it’s round, oval or rectangular. There are even models available for specific containers, like wine bottles, e-liquid bottles, cosmetic containers and standard shipping boxes.

The more specialized the machine is, the less time it will take to set up. However, this can limit the flexibility of your production line.

Automatic labeling systems are available to accommodate a range of products, letting you change container sizes (and even shapes) on the production line. However, it will take some time to configure the machine for each type of container and label.

High-end equipment uses electronically controlled adjustments. Once the machine is calibrated for one type of label and container, the settings can be saved and retrieved, as needed.

Options for Multiple Labels

A semi-automatic labeling machine is designed to apply just one label. However, it’s possible to apply multiple labels with some clever spool design. By alternating front and back labels on the spool, the worker can run each container through the machine twice, once on each side.

Unfortunately, the added positioning increases the rate of labeling errors. Any type of label can be used as long as it fits the machine and uses the adhesive it’s designed for.

These machines depend on sensors that detect the label position for even application. Light sensors work for most foil, paper and plastic labels. However, they can’t get a reading on clear labels. (Capacitive sensors can detect these labels, but they’re more expensive.)

Speed Comparison

Speed is less important than you would expect when choosing between these two designs. Semi-automatic labeling machines are available that can work at speeds as little as 15 containers per minute, as are automatic labeling applicators (though automatic systems are typically used for high-speed production needs).

Some semi-automatic labelers can reach speeds of 1800 labels per hour. However, actual application rates will vary depending on container and label sizes. Instead, speeds are quoted based on the length of labels that can be spooled out each minute. All things being equal, a machine placing small labels will have a higher output than one placing large labels.

A high-performance, industrial automatic labeler, like the 360aFFS Form, Fill and Seal Labeler, can reach speeds in excess of 6000 labels per hour, depending upon size.

Space and Power Requirements

Tabletop models sit on top of a table that either needs to be in a comfortable position for the operator or in the path of the production line. Other models are stand-alone, and have to be lined up with the production line. (At CTM, we use mounting stands for our equipment that can roll into place and raise or lower the entire machine, making it easy to position.)
Even large machines can run on 120 volt electricity. While 15 amps can be supplied by almost any standard outlet, you may need an upgraded outlet and circuit for 20 amp machines. Machines with air-blow applicators and pneumatic functions also need a source of compressed air.

Hidden Taper: The Most Common Issue with Labeling

“Drafting” makes the container easier to release from the mold and helps get the desired surface finish. As a result, even apparently flat-sided round and oval containers have slightly angled surfaces, requiring taper adjustment. Without this adjustment, the label will start to go on straight, but by the time it wraps around the bottle, the end can curve over the lid. When choosing your next machine, make sure it can handle the containers you use, no matter how straight they appear.

Use Cases for Labeling Machines

Labeling for a Range of Container Sizes

Containers are loaded into our Tabletop Vial Wrap System’s magazine by hand or by lining it up with a conveyor belt. From there, a star wheel picks up vials and carries them to the labeler. Each bottle spins in place as the label is applied. Different bottle sizes can be used by switching out the star wheel. This makes it ideal for packaging a range of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Easy Product Switching

The 360a WR Wrap System is a basic, low-cost machine designed for wrap labeling round containers. After the initial label calibration, the on-board computer can recall the settings. This eliminates the need to recalibrate when switching products.

Flexible Bottle Labeling

Even if you only make one product, you may need to handle several container variations. For example, wine bottle shapes vary depending on their contents, so bottle labelers need to be able to work with a range of shapes and diameters. These machines can be used in several configurations, applying a single wrap label, front and back labels and cover labels.

Applying Multiple Labels on Food Products

Our 360a Top Bottom Split Conveyor loads containers horizontally, and has the ability to apply labels to both the top and bottom of a product. Stainless steel construction, paint-free surfaces and a gap-free conveyor belt prevent rust, paint and food debris from contaminating food products. It also meets NEMA 4 enclosure standards for operator and product safety.

Get a Consultation to Find a Labeler that Fits Your Needs

If you need a semi-automatic label applicator or a fully automatic label applicator for your business, CTM Labeling Systems is here for you! We can direct you to a local distributor who will set you up with a machine that will fit your custom needs.