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Automatic Bar Code Compliance Labeling

RM Palmer candy company labelsPalmer's in-line label print/apply system makes it as easy as taking candy from a baby.

With the advancements of bar code technology and, more specifically, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), R.M. Palmer Company, a leading chocolate candy manufacturer, realized its customers were beginning to impose stronger shipping label requirements on products received at stores and distribution centers.

"Most of our customers never even required a shipping label," reports Bruce Kline, Palmer's EDI Coordinator. "The UPC case code symbol preprinted on the sides of all of our cartons used to be good enough, but automated distribution centers and EDI require more information to be accessible for quick scanning."

Family-owned and operated, R.M. Palmer Company, Reading, PA, has been manufacturing chocolate novelty candies since 1948. Over the years, Palmer has become one of the leading producers of holiday chocolates and has earned the reputation as the largest hollow mold chocolate manufacturer in the world. The company is most famous for its collection of hollow Easter bunnies and other characters.

Palmer has acquired a broad customer base, including discount retail stores and drug stores across the country, as well as in Canada, Mexico and Russia. Palmer brand candies can be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Walgreens and CVS; plus in U.S. military commissaries across the country.

Customer-driven, Palmer wanted to meet the individual bar code labeling requests of all customers at all times. In an effort to comply, Palmer's objective was to find a flexible labeling system that would handle the many variables inherent in its production operation.

The Problem

Palmer's shipping operation has progressed along with advances in technology. The company has moved from stenciling cartons to ordering preprinted labels to hand-applying pressure-sensitive labels printed on site. Its next move was to automation. Palmer wanted a new system that would require as little operator intervention as possible.

"Our past labeling methods were not very flexible," says Palmer's MIS Director Audrey TeSelle. "We could not respond quickly enough to our customer's changing demands."

For an automatic labeling system to work for Palmer's application, it almost had to think on its own. During Palmer's peak production times, up to 60 trucks filled with anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 cartons each are shipped daily. One truckload can include up to 40 different products in just as many carton sizes. That meant a labeling system would have to automatically select from over 50 different label formats on demand, print the correct labels to coincide with random products traveling down a line, and securely apply those labels to any one of some 100 different carton sizes.

Palmer has a label format for each of its customers. Roughly half of the products labeled in Palmer's warehouse receive a special retail compliance shipping label for customers utilizing the serialized UCC code for EDI purposes. And that figure is constantly rising. Palmer's other customers may not require compliance labels, but they do have their own labeling requirements that Palmer must adhere to, including unique product descriptions.

In addition to handling variable formats, products and sizes, Palmer expected a new system to improve shipping accuracy by labeling orders according to a manifest data base downloaded from its main AS/400 operating system.

Finally, Palmer's operation is primarily seasonal, with intense production levels occurring around various holidays. The final requirement for an automatic labeling system was that it had to be able to keep up during peak periods.

The Solution

Palmer is no stranger to product labeling or bar coding. For nearly 15 years, the company has been working with bar code labeling specialists Weber Marking Systems, Arlington Heights, IL, to stay on top of the evolving demands of customers.

Palmer has two operating facilities in the Reading, PA, area. Its 200,000-square-foot production site has eight manufacturing lines with a ninth on the way. Here, a countless number of pieces of candy are manufactured, packaged and placed into shipping cartons to be sent across town to the warehouse.

Obviously, a large amount of labeling goes on at its production facility. Palmer has two Weber dot-matrix label printers and three Weber thermal-transfer label printers working continuously in Palmer's own on-site label shop. UPC bar code labels, nutrition facts labels and price labels, along with some carton and pallet labels, are produced here.

The 330,000-square-foot warehouse, Palmer's second facility, is where finished products are stored to await shipment. This is the location where Palmer was searching to improve its labeling operation. With a long-standing relationship already developed, Palmer turned to Weber to assist with its shipping application at the warehouse.

Palmer's shipping labeling system is 100 percent customer driven. Every customer is different and Palmer sought to meet the needs of each existing customer, as well as all new customers. Just in time for Palmer's busy Easter season, Weber completed the installation of two of its Label-Aire® Model 2138 high-speed printer-applicators and two Weber custom-engineered material handling conveyor systems. These automated, in-line labeling systems print and apply labels on demand at high speeds and with consistent accuracy. They are networked via Weber's custom Legitronic® labeling software, which has turned out to be the key to the entire system.

The Software

Palmer operates in an AS/400 environment. All pertinent customer information and order histories are kept on the midrange system at the production facility and updated on a daily basis. Every day, ASCII files carrying the orders to be shipped are downloaded to a PC in the warehouse. Each file corresponds to a particular truckload shipment and contains information on the shipper number, item number, quantity of cartons and the ship-to address.

Palmer uses Weber's label design software package to drive all of its label printing equipment. That way, any of Palmer's 50-plus formats can be accessed, created and/or edited at either of the two facilities. "We have been pleased with the Legitronic software package," says TeSelle. "It is extremely user friendly."

However, with the exceptional flexibility required by the shipping lines, a custom front-end program had to be added to enhance the software. A custom control program was written that would maximize the use of the information already entered into Palmer's data base. When daily orders are downloaded to the PC, the software converts the necessary file contents into a useable labeling format.

"We wanted to satisfy our customers needs with as little human intervention as possible," says Kline. "Weber's software engineers worked with us to develop a feeder file that would withdraw existing information from our AS/400 and automatically place it into label formats. Now our operators don't have to key in the variable information for each label."

An operator overseeing the shipping lines accesses the manifest information by inputting the shipping number and the customer name. This information automatically calls up the appropriate label format. If it is one of the retail compliance formats, the software's tracking serial number feature – which is a standard feature of the package – automatically calculates the shipping container serial number and check digit.

Another advantage of the control program is that it offers a built-in check system that tracks the number of labels produced on a per-order basis and decrements the quantity from the manifest as labels are printed and applied. If a label does not match the
original manifest file, production stops. This acts as a checks-and-balance feature to catch any human error that may have occurred during order picking. The system alerts an operator when too many or too few labels are printed, or when a wrong product is detected with the shipment.

When all labels for a shipment are printed, the operator can print out a record, along with the quantity of boxes shipped and their serial numbers. Palmer uses this hard copy report to create Advanced Shipping Notices (ASNs) for customers.

The Hardware

Dual shipping lines are set up in the warehouse, each with a Model 2138 printer-applicator and a custom conveyor system from Weber.

The Model 2138 print/apply units incorporate a high-density thermal-transfer label printer with a non-contact, automatic label applicator to print and apply shipping labels
right along Palmer's conveyor lines. The models can print at speeds up to 5" per second and, in Palmer's application, apply labels at a rate of 23 cartons per minute.

"I was amazed to find out how reliable the system is," says Kline. "During Easter, by far our busiest season, we ran three shifts a day, seven days a week, for 12 weeks straight and experienced no downtime." According to Kline's calculations, each printer-applicator was labeling 15,000 cartons each day for an estimated total of 860,000 cases for the Easter season.

The printer-applicators used by Palmer are installed in an inverted form. This means that the application pad is already extended by the time the product reaches the labeling station, and when a carton passes the applicator, the unit blows the label on from a 0.25" distance with a consistent label placement accuracy of ±0.03". With a regular tamp-blow configuration, the applicator arm extends and applies the label simultaneously. This alteration was made to keep pace with Palmer's custom conveyor set-up.

Two roller conveyor lines are set up next to each other in Palmer's warehouse. During peak times, each one is connected to additional conveyor extensions that run right up to truck loading docks. Orders are manually picked from a hard copy of the manifest and are loaded on the conveyors. Along the front end of each conveyor, where the cartons are loaded, the rollers are skewed, assuring the variable-sized cartons that make up a typical Palmer shipment will travel to a common guide rail on the applicator side of the conveyor.

Also along each conveyor, Palmer incorporates a Weber-supplied bar code laser scanner and pneumatically-controlled stop gate. The laser scanner is positioned directly before the stop gate and the printer-applicator, and it reads the UPC bar code that is preprinted on all Palmer cartons. The stop gate holds up the products while the scanner sends the bar code information to the PC.

The stop gate allows cartons to pass one at a time. If the product matches the manifest, the gate will drop and allow it to pass. Sensors identify when the next carton is approaching and then activate the gate again. Rollers on the opposite side of the gate roll faster than the ones preceding the gate to guarantee cartons clear the area in time for the gate to rise and block the next product in line. If a product does not tie into the manifest, the gate stays locked and a warning light on the printer-applicator flashes to signal the operator.

For better tracking of shipments going to EDI-based customers, Palmer dedicated one of the two shipping conveyor lines to labeling those orders. On this line, an additional bar code laser scanner was installed approximately two feet beyond the printer-applicator. By scanning the bar code labels after they're applied, this unit ensures that each carton in a customer order actually did receive a label, as well as guarantees that the correct serialized 128 bar code was printed and is readable.

Using a similar custom software package from Weber, communication between the PC and this second scanner is similar to the previous scanning checkpoint. Data is sent to the PC after each scan and is batched for uploading to Palmer's AS/400. From the AS/400, information is sent electronically to Palmer's EDI customers. ASNs are created as well.

To handle cartons that fail the scan, a rejection station was installed with an additional eight-foot, custom conveyor extending out from the main line. If a bad bar code (or no bar code) is detected, the scanner signals a decoder box on the rejection conveyor. The decoder raises the pneumatically-controlled conveyor belt several inches to guide the rejected carton off the main line and onto the rejection conveyor.

The rejected carton will trigger a photo-eye sensor next to the decoder box to lower the conveyor again and let subsequent cartons pass. The rejection process happens within seconds, and the timing can be adjusted through the software.

Palmer and Weber developed this rejection method in lieu of stopping the entire labeling operation if a bad bar code is scanned. The line is designed to stop automatically only if the rejection area becomes filled or, more specifically, only if enough cartons accumulate to block the photo-eye sensor.

Once all the products in an order are accounted for, labeled and scanned again, they are palletized and loaded onto trucks for shipping.

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