Over the past 10 years manufacturers worldwide have scrambled to respond to the demands of retailers for more sophisticated product traceability. Pallet labeling plays a key role in meeting these requirements. Errors in pallet labeling can lead to entire pallets of goods being damaged or mislabeled. 

Thankfully, the last 10 years have also seen significant technical advancements in Label Printer Applicator (LPA) technology to help manufacturers. Below are seven common pallet labeling challenges and insights on how to select technology to avoid costly mistakes.

Problem #1: Label printer applicator tips over

A well-designed LPA should never tip over. Such a design flaw puts the safety of workers at risk and can damage pallets of goods. This happens when the labeling system exerts a force on the pallet from the extended actuator (arm) that is at a distance from the systems´ center of mass. Often due to the reflective nature of shrink wrap, the labeler does not sense the pallet and continues to extend the actuator until the system tips over. 

Solution: The latest generation of electric printer applicators does not tip for two reasons. First, they can sense nearly all shrink and are programmed to be able to safely return the actuator to “home.” Second, some electric systems use as much as 80% less force than traditional pneumatic technologies. When comparing technologies, look for systems where both the impact and continuous force measurements are between 2 and 3 kilograms, or ~6 lbs.

Problem #2: Product and technology damage due to large mass actuators

Many traditional pneumatic label applicators feature large diameter steel guided rods. These heavy actuators require significantly more force to operate, which can result in greater damage to the system and pallet when errors occur. The heavy actuators are very slow to retract, making them more likely to get tangled in shrink wrap, more prone to wear and tear and more likely to have slower cycle rates.

Solution: Some all-electric LPAs feature more nimble and light-weight actuators. These technologies can provide up to a 200% increase in retraction speeds, which in turn reduces opportunity for product damage and shrink wrap entanglement. Look for systems that can ensure 30 millisecond contact time (as compared to 100 to 200 millisecond contact time on traditional technologies).

Problem #3: No label is applied

While there are several reasons why a pallet may not receive a label, the most common are 1) at a timed value of extension, the pallet is just out of reach or 2) the labeler only makes partial contact with the pallet and the label returns back with the actuator. 

Solution: Electric LPAs feature a sensor on the applicator pad that allows the system to “see” the exact impact point on the product and ensure contact is always made. Secondly, the way electric printer applicators work ensures much greater label transferability. Pneumatic systems transfer labels using high pressure vacuums in a few pinpoint locations on the applicator pad, resulting in ineffective label transferability, particularly on partial surface contacts. In contrast, electric LPAs feature uniform, low pressure across the entire applicator pad, ensuring up to 30% improved transferability.

Problem #4: Label is applied in the wrong location

Labels applied in the wrong location can create significant issues for manufacturers. Often a floor worker will have to get down off of his forklift truck to scan a barcode which was erroneously placed out of his reach. Significantly greater issues occur when labels are mistakenly placed entirely out of the reading window for various logistical checkpoints. This can cause entire shipments worth of pallets to be returned to the manufacturer with added costs and delays. 

Solution: To ensure consistent precision label placement, be sure to identify a printer applicator that utilizes a servo motor instead of a more dated stepper motor. Servo motors are more “intelligent” and the feedback they communicate to the drive electronics allow for constantly adjusting speeds and rotational movement to ensure reliable precision placement.

Problem #5: Labels applied out of sequence

Some applications require two identical labels on adjacent panels to allow for scan and readability in multiple orientations. If one of the labels is not applied, a mismatched sequence can occur. That means that if pallet A is to receive two pallet A labels, and only one is applied, pallet B would receive an A label and a B label. That can cause expensive rework.

Solution: Electric LPAs are able to ensure 1:1 label-to-product synchronicity. By incorporating a label presence sensor, the system “knows” if a label was not applied to a pallet and can immediately stop the process in case of an error.

Problem #6: Excessive downtime

Traditional pneumatic systems often require frequent maintenance. On busy factory floors with one or more air compressors powering various technologies, it is common for debris to clog critical technologies. When this happens, technology operators often turn up the force being used to apply labels to achieve better results. Unfortunately, this leads to spiraling performance issues where increased pressure heightens the risk of product and system damage. 

Solution: The latest generation of all-electric LPAs requires as much as 20% less downtime and is available at prices comparable to traditional pneumatic technologies. 

Problem #7: A solution for today and tomorrow

Customer research has revealed that customers expect their LPAs to last seven to ten years with proper maintenance. A common mistake occurs when manufactures plan to use their LPAs for many years but select technology that is not equipped to meet their evolving needs, such as print speeds, label sizes and energy efficiency. 

Solution: — Speeds — When selecting LPA technology, it is essential to remember that the speed capabilities quoted on spec sheets are most often best possible outcomes for printing very simple and small labels (often just 1 inch by 1 inch). If your labels are larger or more complex these top speeds will likely not be achieved in your application. Quality pneumatic and electric systems should be able to achieve product rates of 120 per minute. 

Solution: — Label size — Look for systems that can accommodate label sizes ranging from one inch square to six inches by 14 inches as evolving logistical requirements may require you to upgrade to larger labels in the years ahead.

Solution: — Energy efficiency — Pneumatic systems utilize plant air, which is an added cost to the process. Typical air compressors require routine and annual maintenance for operation. While it may not be possible to totally eliminate shop air for other equipment, the sizing of the system can be reduced by taking other equipment in the production line to electric. Typical savings per labeler is approximately 50% of a pneumatic system on power required alone.

Advancements in LPA technology, especially in all electric systems, over the past 10 years have greatly enhanced performance. Latest generation LPA technologies are nimble and smart, offering consistent precision placement at high speeds and on a variety of label sizes with greater energy efficiency. Most importantly, these systems are price competitive with older technologies still common in the market today. Carefully looking for these features will allow manufacturers to avoid costly mistakes and ensure that their investment exceeds expectations today and in the years ahead.


Diagraph, An ITW Company is a leading manufacturer and distributor of marking, coding and labeling systems and supplies, and has been in the product identification industry for over 120 years. Diagraph’s products include all-electric printer applicator labeling systems, LINX continuous ink jet and laser coders, large character ink jet printing systems and thermal transfer overprinting systems.