Typically, comparisons of on-site versus off-site printing of bar code labels
focus on cost calculations. In practice, deciding to print bar code labels in
house or to outsource bar code symbol production is as dependent on your
business practices, data needs, material requirements and internal resources as
it is on cost.
The decision to make or buy bar code labels does not need to be made across
the board for all of a company's needs. Many companies with in-house printing
capabilities still outsource some labels simply because the requirements of some
applications can be best met by off-site printers.
As used here, the term "print" and "printer" refer to the production of a bar
code, graphics or text whether the image is printed, imaged or etched. Further,
since bar code symbols can be produced by a variety of means that do not require
label stock, the term "label" will be used to mean both direct imaging and
imaging onto a separate label.
It should be noted that, in large companies, with established photo-imaging
or printing facilities, the make-or-buy decision is not necessarily pertinent.
However, the decision criteria outlined in this article can help determine
whether to use a "demand" printing technology or to use "commercial"
This guideline will review all of these factors and attempt to put them in
First and foremost, special requirements need to be evaluated. (Most
evaluations start with the question of whether fixed or variable data is
required on the label. However, applications requiring materials or processes
not available for in-house printed, labels will have to be printed off site.)
A wide range of substrates, adhesives, overlaminates and even colored
printing supplies are available for in-house printing. An even wider range of
materials and processes are available through off-site vendors.
Holographic bar codes, ultra high density (e.g., .004 inch) symbols,
fiberglass and simulated woodgrain metal labels, bar codes in specific PMS
colors (sometimes desired for retail applications), extremely aggressive
adhesives, and unusual label stocks are special requirements that can be met by
A "special process" that is often overlooked is the assistance provided by
off-site label printers that may not appear to be directly related to the
Off-site printers frequently act as full-service bureaus for their customers:
maintaining databases of sequential numbers, assistance with compliance labeling
issues and guaranteeing customer acceptance. For short runs, for novice
labelers, and for small companies with limited in-house resources, these
additional services sometimes outweigh all other considerations in the
make-or-buy decision process.
Printing of variable data that has very short or no lead time (such as
variable weight) needs to be done in house. If the data is known in advance
(for example, sequential serial numbers) or is "standard" data (such as U.P.C.
numbers), then out-sourcing may be indicated.
Next, lead times from various vendors need to be reviewed. Some vendors offer
extremely short turnaround times once a program has been established. Some
companies receive data from customers, print the symbols and courier the labels
out within 12 to 24 hours. If even the fastest turnaround times are too long,
in-house printing is indicated.
Quantities of Waste
So far, the decision criteria have been relatively simple. Things get a
little more complicated from here on.
First, how may labels do you need? Five or 500,000? At both extremes
outsourcing may be the best answer. Setting up a labeling system to produce five
labels a month may not be cost-effective--unless they will be produced on a
printer that has some spare capacity and can produce acceptable symbols. For
example, a font cartridge for a laser printer may be a very cost-effective way
to produce labels for some customer or internal uses. But, it may be
inappropriate for production of AIAG-style labels.
Very large runs of known data are typically produced off site. Even this is
not a hard and fast rule. If, for example, you will need to produce a shipping
label with addressee information, or want to use generic cartoning, it may cost
very little to add bar codes to the label or printed area. In this case,
equipment, media and labor costs can be prorated according to the percentage of
the label or image that will be devoted exclusively to bar codes and may prove
to be more cost-effective than going off site.
A factor that's often overlooked, in both on-site and off-site printing, is
waste. Waste may occur through obsolescence of the data on the labels,
degradation during storage (for a variety of reasons), application problems and
other factors. Some figures suggest that as much as 10% should be added to the
cost of off-site printed labels for waste or obsolescence. This figure may be
either high or low depending on quantities, training of personnel, type of data
(e.g., serial number versus U.P.C. numbers) expected product life and many other
To calculate the quantities/waste factor, you must determine where the
optimal quantity price break occurs from outside label printers. How many labels
will you use in a month, quarter or year? If the price break indicates you
should order a year's worth of labels, you then have to calculate your possible
waste. If you're applying non-significant serial numbers to items, it's possible
that product and model changes won't cause obsolescence. On the other hand,
U.P.C. product labels probably will be affected by product or packaging changes.
This calculation is difficult to perform exactly--except in cases where you
are printing a U.P.C. symbol along with other product-specific package graphics.
At that point, the cost of the cost of the bar code symbol becomes almost
So far we have only made rough determinations of when outside or in-house
printing is required. In many instances, there will be applications where either
off-site or in-house printing can be used. The next step may prove to be the
Performing cost calculations for off-site printed labels is a relatively
simple task. Table 1 provides a worksheet for off-site calculations. In your
calculations, you may end up with prices based on minimum orders of 5,000
labels. These costs need to be converted into the same basis as your on-site
calculations, generally cost/thousand.
On-site costs are trickier to calculate. First, determine the type of
label(s), bar code, text and graphics coverage and other factors. Determine
anticipated number of labels needed per year, month or day (depending on your
volume). Convert these quantities into convenient units of measure, generally
labels per day, to determine printer speed requirements.
Determine the number and type of printers you need to achieve this volume.
(This is not a trivial task.) Remember, even if he doesn't show up on the
payroll, Murphy works for everyone. Never schedule 100% capacity for any
in-house printing system.
Calculate consumables cost. For most thermal-transfer printers, this is
simply equal to one roll of ribbon to one roll of labels. Multi-pass ribbons and
ribbon saver technologies change this simple ratio. When making your initial
calculations, it may be better to ignore these cost-savings options. If it's
clear you can make use of demand printing technologies, the cost saving options
can be factored in later. Since actual savings and performance will vary,
systems that rely on these enhancements to achieve a satisfactory ROI may be too
marginal to implement safely (see the "If you need to punt" section below).
A useful rule of thumb in calculating toner-based cost is that average text,
on which most toner costs are based, provide for only about 10% black coverage.
Bar codes need to be calculated at about 30% coverage. A typical AIAG label will
be between 13% to 20% black--a significant difference if you're running high
volumes of labels.
Calculations of media costs, printer speed and other variables aren't
standard. The speed at which a printer can feed label stock and the speed at
which it prints bar codes may be significantly different. Also, the time to
format and print the first label, or variable-data label, is generally much
different from the speed with which it prints subsequent labels.