Four Coca Cola Classic cans displaying personalized labels that read “Dude, Bestie, and Mate.”

Understanding Variable Data Printing For Product Labels

With variable data printing (VDP), you can create high quality personalized product labels that attract attention to your products, as well as add container-specific information that aids logistics and informs consumers. How does it work, and how can you leverage it for your label applications?

What is Variable Data, and What Does It Have to Do With My Product Labels?

VDP sometimes goes under the names Variable Information Printing (VIP) or Variable Imaging (VI). No matter the name, the idea is the same: use customization to create labels with unique information for every container moving through your production system. This allows you to incorporate aspects such as consecutive numbering or differentiated barcode labels

If you checked your mail today, you’ve handled something that uses VDP. Mail merge systems print address labels and match them with envelopes and packages.

How Does VDP Work?

The process starts with your operating technology system. It generates unique information for the package, whether it’s a serial number, address, product weight, consecutive number or some other text string.

The OT system communicates with the programmable logic controller (PLC) on your labeling machine. (The PLC doesn’t just control the operation of the machine, it’s also capable of generating text and graphics.) It takes the text strings sent by the OT system and adds it to a pre-formatted label design. (It can be direct printing of text or converted into bar codes.)

The PLC sends the instructions for printing the label to the print engine. Digital label printing and application are timed, so that the label ends up on the correct container.

This on-site digital printing can make up all of the label graphics, or it can add to graphics and text on a pre-printed label, and there are numerous ways companies use VDP on their packaging.

Adding Container-Specific Information For Variable Data Labels

Container-specific information is the best-known use of variable data printing technology on product labeling. By connecting your label printer to your operation technology system, you can send lot numbers and serial numbers to the machine for printing. 

You can also set up your labeling machine to print a date for all containers passing through on that day’s production run. This is useful for best-by dates on perishable goods.

Creating Shipping and Inventory Labels 

VDP can go beyond simple addresses, creating formatted labels for multiple carriers. Printing barcodes or QR codes makes the label machine-readable. This can be used internally, or by everyone involved in logistics, from your plant to the retailer.

For example, a Global Trade Item Number is an extension of UPC. If you choose to use ITF-14, GS1-128, or GS1 data barcodes, you can include packaging level information. This appends a package size, like an item or a case, to the standard UPC. This makes it easy to identify items and amounts without needing to create an identifier separate from the product’s UPC.

Variable Label Printing to Identify the Contents of the Container

Even though you may be making the same product, the contents may shift due to availability. Let’s say your business sells produce. While the same vegetables may go in every package, their origin changes with the harvest seasons. With VDP, you can add the country of origin to each label, changing information as you get in new shipments.

Likewise, VDP is useful for custom products, like prescription medicine. The labeling machine adds the patient’s information, prescription information and warnings, creating a personalized label for the medicine bottle.

Adding Compliance Information for Specific Markets

The format of ingredient lists, hazard statements and other important information has different legal requirements for every country, and sometimes differs between states. VDP adds this information, as needed, for each shipment so you don’t need custom labels for every location.

By using VDP with over-labeling, you can apply a newly printed label over the product’s current label. This is handy for covering up claims, uses and other information that doesn’t conform to the market’s legal requirements.

Using Personalized Labels for Marketing

In 2003, The Coca-Cola company launched their “Share a Coca-Cola” ad campaign. Using VDP, the company was able to apply over 10,000 unique names to their bottles. Consumers would seek out bottles with their name or the name of a friend or family member, and would often post images of bottles on social media. The campaign was so successful that it was extended well past its planned 4-5 month campaign.

This success has inspired other companies to build campaigns around unique labels. This could be anything from adding a fun quote, to commemorating a local event. It’s also possible to make personalized labels for events, like weddings and playoff games, turning your packages into souvenirs.

Cover Multiple SKUs with One Basic Label Design

Some products, like candles, vape juice and fruit spreads, come in a wide range of flavors and scents. Keeping labels on hand for every variety can be overwhelming, especially if your company produces seasonal or short run products. With VDP, you can use one standard label that emphasizes your brand, and print details about the flavor and ingredients for each bottle as it comes off the production line.

Using Print and Apply Labeling Machines for VDP

Getting a labeling machine to communicate with your OT system and print labels is simpler than you may think. At CTM Labeling, we equip our labeling machines with PLCs that support several connection types, including serial, parallel, Ethernet, USB and wireless. These machines can incorporate direct thermal and thermal transfer print engines from Zebra, Sato and Datamax, making it easy to find the right fit for your containers. Print and apply labelers maintain the same speed as their non-printing counterparts, so you don’t need to worry about delays and interruptions to your production line.

Looking for a basic workhorse product labeler? The 360a Integrated Loose Loop applicator supports merge, air blow or tamp blow application, so it will work on almost any package shape. It also provides flexibility for the user to choose whether to apply pre-printed prime labels or variable data printed labels.

Want something that works with shipping boxes and inventory systems? The 3600a-PA corner wrap applicator applies a single label to the front of a container and folds it over onto one of the sides. This increased coverage is great for shipping boxes and containers stored in warehouses, because it allows information to be read from two orientations.

Need to label large packages? Our 3600a-PA swing tamp applicator has an arm that swings to apply a label on a leading or trailing panel of a product. This makes it a great choice for labeling cartons, pallets and cases. Despite its reach, this machine is designed to take no more space than our other 3600a models, making it easy to fit on your production floor.

Make Your Products Look Great with Our Labeling Equipment

When you need a labeling system that offers quality labels and added flexibility, contact CTM Labeling Systems. Our local distributors can help you set up a print-and-apply system that works with your containers, your OT system and your printing needs.