By printing and applying labels directly to cartons on the packaging line, a California winemaker satisfies demanding requirements.
A few years ago, the Wente Bros. winery in Livermore, Calif. processed nearly 21,000 tons of grapes. Most of the 750, 000 cases of wine produced required some kind of customized bar coded shipping label.
“It‘s amazing what kinds of information people want on a label,” says Willy Joslin, vice president and winemaker. “We’ve got government regulators who require certain information for tax purposes, foreign countries that insist on having language-specific information, and wholesalers and distributors who have their own unique requirements. We might do a bottling of Chardonnay and end up using dozens of different case labels.”
Despite the myriad of requirements, the winery only has to purchase and stock a single, generic label. An in-line label printer/applicator system (Weber Marking Systems) simply prints on the blank, pressure-sensitive labels and applies them to wine cartons on the fly, keying off of part numbers stored in a database on a PC. The flexible system can print bar codes, alphanumerics—even the winery’s own custom logo.
Getting into bar codes
Joslin became interested in the concept of printing and applying bar codes directly on the packaging line after basically getting tired of pouring money down the drain. “We had this antique ink jet coding system and a couple of roller printers,” says Joslin. “The printheads were often plugged and the print quality was awful—the surface of our cartons is irregular enough that the code was often unreadable. And it was costly and tedious to apply the labels by hand.”
A self-proclaimed bar code rookie, Joslin began learning about automatic data collection technology by going to trade shows and talking to other users. “We’re winemakers, not bar code experts,” explains Joslin. “But we realized that we needed to learn about a lot more than the UPC bar code symbol on wine bottles if we wanted to be able to offer the kind of service that makes a company competitive in this industry.”
Before actually approaching any vendors, Joslin was able to put together a pretty good picture of what he wanted out of a system. Although he stopped short of developing a formal specification, he had a firm grip on what information he wanted to print on the labels, as well as other requirements like placement accuracy and speed.
“It really pays off to think through the details,” advises Joslin. “For example, a wine carton might seem like an ideal surface to stick a label on. But it’s actually not perfectly flat. You have to make sure that the system you buy will be able to compensate for things like that.”
Throughput requirements were another issue. Companies like Wente Bros., that have a large capital investment in automation, typically want to run that equipment at top speed. But although the rate could be matched by installing a print/apply system on each of the two bottling lines, networking to a single PC located more than 150 ft. away posed a problem: A standard RS 232 communications cable wasn’t long enough. A simple piece of coaxial cable was the solution.
Keeping it simple
Simple turned out to be best in other ways. In fact, Joslin credits a user-friendly software package (Weber Marking Systems) for the project’s overall success. Features like menu-driven instructions and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get prompt screen allow operators to painlessly format labels or make changes in the database.
“When we started this project we were sensitive to the fact that workers on the bottling line weren’t using computers on a daily basis—a few had never even turned one on before,” Joslin says. “Yet, we didn’t want to create a single, in-house computer expert. What do you do when he or she winds up in the hospital for six weeks with a broken leg? We wanted a system that everyone could learn to use and operate.”
With bar code labels on virtually all of its products, Wente Bros. is ready to start using automatic data collection to take physical inventories and, eventually, pick orders. The use of scanners in the warehouse should reduce the time to take a monthly inventory by 50%, not to mention a hefty improvement in accuracy. And no one will miss doing the data entry.
“The key was really focusing in on learning how to do one thing well—reliably print labels on the fly and apply them to cartons,” explains Joslin. “We’re still not experts on bar codes. Probably never will be. But I’d say this project went extremely well. We are already seeing the benefits. And the best part is that it is helping us be more successful at what we do best—which is make wine.”