Completing generic preprinted labels with laser-printed variable information allows Kodak to ship orders within 24 hours while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for its small-batch printing needs.
By David Newcorn, Senior Editor
When Rochester NY-based Eastman Kodak Co. wanted to provide just-in-time 48-hour turnaround on orders for its photographic supplies there was just one hitch. "We couldn't even produce the package labels in 48 hours" says Darrell Brady a manufacturing engineer for the company's in-house printing group. Pressure-sensitive labels for primary paperboard packages and corrugated shippers had always been printed with generic graphics on Kodak's in-house flexo presses. Small batches of these preprinted labels were then letterpress-printed with product-specific information as needed. It was a slow messy and labor-intensive process with a turnaround time of up to two weeks according to Brady. Web-fed labels About a year ago Kodak switched from letterpress to six web-fed LaserMatrix laser printers from Output Technology (Spokane WA). Those printers now print all product-specific information including product name model number assorted batch or product codes and in some cases a bar code. The benefits to Kodak are several: * Faster turnaround. Not only can labels be completed within 48 hours same-day service is not uncommon says Brady. "We've had people come in here and say 'I've got 60 boxes on my loading dock ready to ship and I forgot to order the labels.' Thirty minutes later we can provide them." * A drastic reduction in labor. The previous method required two shifts of three operators each at the letterpress press. "We went from six people down to one. And that one can produce our daily volume in less than eight hours" says Brady. * Elimination of makeready steps associated with the letterpress press. "We eliminated photographic masters photographic plates mounting the plates et cetera" says Brady. * An annual cost savings in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" due primarily to lower labor costs and the elimination of makeready steps plus higher productivity. * Better print quality. The laser printers feature office-quality 300-dpi output and can print text or bar codes horizontally or vertically. (Some printers restrict bar codes to one direction.) * New capabilities. Now Kodak can print sequential bar codes or serial numbers that increment with each label. "We couldn't do that before because we'd need a plate for every bar code or serial number" says Brady. Easier prepress Brady says electronic printing of labels had to meet two requirements. First the printers had to be Postscript-compatible. Postscript is a page-description language that's the de facto standard for Apple Computer's Macintosh desktop publishing system. Kodak keeps all its label designs on Macintosh computer systems. The beauty of Postscript compatibility according to Brady is that the same computer artwork files can be used for two different print processes. "If someone wants a quarter of a million labels we can take this same file off our Macintosh and make a photographic master and a plate and send it to press [for flexo printing]. If they want only 3 then we print them by laser. We don't have to change our artwork at all." Brady says the laser printers are typically used for 5 or fewer labels. The other critical issue for laser printing says Brady is maintaining registration of the laser-printed copy to the flexo preprinted graphics over a print run. That was a problem with laser printers that Kodak first tried from another manufacturer. After printing about 1 labels the laser-printed copy would "creep" away from registration with each successive label. That's not a problem for the Output Technology printers. "They never lose register" says Brady no matter how many labels are printed. Once the printers begin operating they are left unattended without fear of creeping according to Brady. That's something that couldn't be done with the previous laser printers. Speed a factor The LaserMatrix units print continuous-form tractor-fed labels at a speed of about 4"/sec. While Brady admits the printers aren't breaking any speed records he says the speed is appropriate for low-volume off-line batch printing. Whenever it can Kodak compensates by running multiple printers at one time and multiple labels across the maximum 8" print width. "A lot of these labels are two inches wide so we can print these four across and just save ourselves a fortune" says Brady. One modification to the laser printers was a custom software driver that had to be written to accommodate Kodak's various label lengths. With the driver installed Kodak is able to run labels that range anywhere from 1/2" up to 14" in length. The laser printers handle roll-fed labels-for machine application-as well as fan-folded stock for manual application. Brady says the heavy-duty feed and take-up reels from Apax Corp. (Cerritos CA) were the only ones he could find that could hold heavy 20" OD press rolls of preprinted labelstock. "There are a lot of reels on the market but most are lightweight and meant for office use" he says. Not only are the printers used to complete labels for Kodak's 48-hour shipping program they're now used for any application within Kodak requiring a short-run batch of labels. "Today we produce about six million labels a year on these printers" says Brady. "We use them for everything now because it turned out to be so cost-advantageous to print labels electronically rather than using letterpress. "In the world of printing presses are very expensive but these desktop printers are extremely inexpensive. When we talk about capital to us a $6 printer is nothing."