The History of Label Printing

A Brief History of (Label) Printing Technology

Thermal printers and labels are the workhorse of logistics and distribution operations everywhere. Driven by the ubiquity of Auto ID systems, labels are now everywhere, and in larger quantities than ever. A typical new manufactured product will have an average of eleven new labels on its various parts and packaging. Thermal labels are even designed for use on chemical barrels with the requirement they can survive and be readable ten years at the bottom of the sea. With technology for both printers AND label materials continuing to move forward and generate new opportunities for better productivity, it’s hard to imagine that they were only developed in 1972.

Labels Didn't Always Have Printers...

The first adhesive labels were invented in the 1930’s by a familiar name in this business – R. Stanton Avery. Best known now for being a leader in supplying labels for printing at home, the early labels would be familiar to users like us today – paper with a coat of adhesive and covered with a liner made with a silicone coating. While Avery developed an early machine from spare parts and flexible, rubber printing plates for printing pre-printed labels, early commercial applications required typewriters, or a pen or pencil. Needless to say, efficiency was less of an objective than using the label for accurately identifying things they were applied to!

1. Modern flexographic plates resemble the original rubber plates first used to print labels in the 1930’s (Photo: Pannier.com)

Computers Make The Difference

Fifty years is a long time to wait for a real innovation to change things, but until the computer began to be understood for its real scope of potential applications, labels weren’t evolving as much we’d imagine. Because the computer opened the door to printers – in 1981 the inkjet printer, and the laser printer soon after in 1984 – it led to a revolution in label technology that hasn’t really slowed down in over thirty years. Labels were no longer a choice of a home-grown hand-written solution or an expensive, pre-printed option from a professional printer. The modern Avery company’s label products available in office stores, combined with Microsoft’s Word application, meant that anyone could print any label, anytime, anywhere.

And Then Things Moved Quickly

Once the computer became ubiquitous, the possibilities for labeling and printing were generally open to almost anything a user could imagine. The late 80’s and 90’s was the time when companies like Peak-Ryzex got their start and began helping businesses understand the options and help make sense of all the choices to implement the solutions they need. When did we first see some of our most common tools first come on the market?

  • Inkjet Printers – Believe it or not, the syphon recorder, used to record telegraph signals on paper deflected by a magnetic coil, was invented in 1867 by Lord Kelvin in the UK. It was actually the first inkjet printer! The image at the top of the article is a sample of the tape it printed on.
  • Dot-Matrix Printers – were invented by Rudolf Hell, who introduced the first teletypewriter with this technology in 1925, the “Hellschreiber”.
  • Laser Printers – IBM created the first commercial laser printer in 1976, with Hewlett Packard introducing the first personal-sized version with 300 dpi in 1984.
  • Thermal Transfer Printers – The SATO Corporation of Japan introduced the SATO M-2311 in 1981
  • Digital Printing – generally agreed to have come about in 1991, it refers to the lack of need for printing plates in the printing industry, but for labels generally refers to the ease of adapting label design and generating them on demand.

What's Next? Is Your Print Solution Up to Date?

In some regards, almost all printing is now a form of “digital printing” – based either on the printer technology or the software that is driving your label and form design on demand. So most new technologies will be about extending the applications for “digital”. New inkjet printers, for example, are now using long-lasting printheads that match or exceed the quality, speed and cost-effectiveness of a laser printer. New label materials now allow for labels to get more creative and be applied in more places than ever – i.e., directly onto product packages or engraved in metal. Despite the reality that the printing and application of a label for a single purpose can objectively be observed as a very uninteresting activity, there is no doubt that the levels of research and innovation going on is a fascinating angle.

If you have not looked at newer technologies and processes in your labeling solutions the last time you updated your printer fleet, you should consider doing an in-depth consultation with an expert who can help you review your current process and identify opportunities for improvement. The innovations that come through the industry every year are not only about efficiency, but also accuracy, flexibility and the expansion of what can be communicated on your label. They’re not just for barcodes anymore!

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