Mark of efficiency - Printing & Labelling Special Technology Report

IT Reseller Chief Editor, Ed Holden, spoke with leading analysts and vendors about the current state of play within the printing & labelling technology arena, what potential benefits are afforded to the user by ongoing technological development and what lies ahead.

Modern forms of printing & labelling technology can take many forms, but regardless of the genre in question, technological enhancements are moving apace. Of course, one of the current challenges in just about every walk of life is the ongoing pandemic. Richard Barfield, portfolio marketing manager EMEA, Zebra Technologies, believes that, while COVID-19 has strained operations across various industries and will continue to do so in 2021, it has also been a catalyst to accelerate key technology developments that can help enterprises succeed in 2021 and beyond. “The ability to integrate new technology solutions to maintain operations and profitability, as well as optimise workflows to support continual peak demand and supply chain disruption is, and will continue to be, key,” he says. “This has accelerated workforce mobilisation as well technology and solutions adoption such as RFID printing and labelling solutions, managed print services and security.”

Barfield maintains that using mobile technology solutions to support workers inside and outside a facility is critical in managing and maintaining efficient operations and profitability. “As employees spend their working days walking or driving, they need tools that help them complete tasks immediately, regardless of their location,” he says. “RFID technology can help tag and track high value items or contents of pallets which can be quickly and more accurately located than traditional methods and this starts with the right RFID printers and tagging solutions.

Investment in mobile printing solutions that can print and encode RAIN RFID (RAdio frequency IdentificatioN) labels or tag on demand, from either 50 feet up a utility pole or 50 steps away from the nearest desktop label printer enables worker mobilisation. Zebra Technologies’ recent ZQ500 Series 3 inch (ZQ511) and 4 inch (ZQ521) rugged mobile printer models supports RAIN RFID label printing and encoding in the field or within a facility. These printers generate many kinds of product, item, asset, case and pallet RFID tags in different environments for lengthy durations.

“To complement RFID printing solutions a remote management system such as managed print services can deploy large printer fleets across multiple locations, enabling IT to maintain, secure and troubleshoot printers from anywhere, at any time. This frees up operators to focus on their work, rather than managing printers. With printer security becoming more prevalent, it’s key that enterprises implement devices that can support the staff to maintain the latest security protocols, facilitating remote management, troubleshooting and configuration of fleets of printers from a single location. With the growth in RFID printing solutions, it’s important that printers are easy to use, keeping the need for training to a minimum.”

Online shift

In terms of some of the main drivers behind these types of developments, Barfield makes the point that, today, printers don’t just print paper; they also print the RFID tags for tracking valuable assets across supply chain touchpoints. He adds that they print the barcoded labels that are critical to inventory management and loss prevention – and the shipping labels that improve accountability and traceability. They print access cards, ID cards, credit cards and many other valuables that we need. “The shift towards increasing online buyer behaviour is driving the need for greater speed, accurate traceability and the ability to deliver instant feedback as part of customer journey tracking,” says Barfield. “Combined with this, workers are becoming more efficient in their jobs by using integrated technology.

Additionally, it is becoming key for enterprises to understand data generated by these devices and how they deliver actionable insights and competitive edge. Consequently, RFID tagging is growing in popularity across many sectors as enterprises seek ways to better track and trace high value inventory and assets such as industrial equipment, IT assets, returnable containers, pallets and consumer goods.”

To streamline workflows and minimise movement, Barfield believes workers should be able to print RFID tags and labels immediately where they are working and affix them to assets to help mitigate mis-tagging. “If there is no desktop RFID printer close by, workers can carry lightweight mobile RFID printers, allowing them to be productive whilst on the move,” he says. “Zebra’s ZQ630 RFID mobile printer can be used to support warehousing, retail, transportation and manufacturing applications such as pallet labelling and tagging or asset tagging during equipment/infrastructure installation, inspection, maintenance or repair.

“Zebra Technologies offers mobile printers with on-demand RAIN RFID printing and encoding capabilities. In its portfolio, Zebra RFID rugged mobile printers are designed to bring additional RFID label printing capabilities directly to the point of labelling, whether on the loading dock or in the middle of a store. This all helps to maintain operational productivity and efficiencies.

Karen Peacock, head of print solutions, Dakota Integrated Solutions, believes thermal transfer printing is here to stay. “The basic benefits and levels of convenience associated with this type of solution are well-established and I think technological developments for this type of printer will continue to become increasingly refined,” she says. “At Dakota, we regularly receive enquiries for this type of printer; some from companies that are still using old-fashioned pen and paper-based systems. We can help these companies to move up technologically, with all the resultant benefits such as improved cost, accuracy and speed. So, there is still a healthy demand for thermal transfer printing.”

Peacock believes another key development recently brought to market is Zebra’s LaserBand 2 Advanced wristbands for babies and maternity. “The self-laminating LaserBand 2 Advanced direct print laser wristbands feature an advanced shape and design that makes assembly easy and allows the wristband to lie flat on the wrist to enable quick scanning, while providing superior patient comfort,” she explains. “Failure to correctly identify patients is one of the most serious risks to patient safety.

Zebra’s range of baby and maternity wristband solutions cover a wide range of requirements from those relating to patient comfort and reducing medical errors through to improving workflow and streamlining admissions processes. Key requirements for these patients include; identifying the most tiny patients quickly and easily, providing a delicate, secure solution which is both practical and sensitive and ensuring precious newborns are correctly identified with their parents. Zebra’s LaserBand products are specifically designed with these patients in mind.”

Differentiated technology

Peacock also reminds us that last year Zebra acquired Temptime Corporation, a leading developer and manufacturer of temperature monitoring solutions for mission-critical applications in the healthcare industry. Temptime develops highly differentiated technology that visually notifies users if medical and biological products and shipments have experienced a temperature deviation. The Temptime time-temperature monitoring product portfolio meets the strict specifications of the largest global health organisations’ vaccination programs and serves every global manufacturer that participates in these programmes. Peacock believes this acquisition will result in many more innovations being brought to market by Zebra in the near future.

Michael Clarke, research associate, autoID & Data capture, VDC Research, reflects that in the midst of growing e-commerce fulfilment and heightened focus on mitigating the cost of labelling errors, barcode verification has emerged as strategic investment for high volume labelling operations. He comments: “As handheld verification is a largely manual process in nature, end users are gravitating towards integrated verification capabilities: the ability to print a barcode and nearly simultaneously verify label accuracy against ANSI 1 – 4 standards can significantly improve production output efficiency and mitigate labelling errors through verification automation. In this sense, printer manufacturers have introduced or are currently evaluating the strategic importance of releasing industrial printer hardware with integrated barcode verification capabilities.”

Richa Gupta, consulting analyst, VDC Research, believes the current focus on printing and labelling solutions has never been greater. “Not only has shipping and logistics seen a huge uptick because of the sharp rise in e-commerce orders and sales, but the need to track-and-trace the source/origin of products is greater than ever before,” she says. “VDC’s ongoing research on the enterprise labelling market (titled ‘Cost of Errors – An Enterprise Barcode Labelling Study’) is focused on the industry-specific regulations driving investments in solutions for bringing down labelling error incidence and eliminating manual (operator) errors.”

Gupta also reflects that COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on globally distributed supply chains and end uses’ growing need to eliminate manual processes in order to not only eliminate errors but also minimise human contact. “As e-commerce sales spike across the globe with more and more purchases being made online, VDC expects to see rising interest in and evaluation of automated label printing solutions that sufficiently address the need for labelling accuracy, consistency, and ease-of-use,” she says.

In terms of drivers for change, Gupta believes from the standpoint of enterprise barcode labelling, government and industry regulations drive end users’ evolving requirements. “The COVID-19 pandemic has especially served to highlight the need for minimizing human contact and ensuring labelling consistencies across globally distributed supply chains,” she says. “Government and industry regulations are only getting stricter and the cost of non-compliance is increasing sharply. Operational headcount has been dealt a severe blow with nationwide lockdowns (across the globe) and with this, the need to eliminate manual processes has never been higher.”

Dynamic solutions

Clarke adds that, in this sense, stronger e-commerce fulfilment strategies and the growing need for traceability has accelerated labelling automation investments. “With the increase in packaging and shipping volume, enterprises require dynamic labelling solutions: automated features such as eco-cut settings that reduce label waste, auto-peel and cut controls, as well as media re-winders, enhance labelling efficiency,” he says. “Additionally, traceability has become a strong investment driver, particularly in the food & beverage, automotive, and pharmaceuticals industries where the fragmented product tracing capabilities has increased consequences.  Improving consumer safety and mitigating cost liability from product recalls in the automotive and food & beverage industry has strengthened demand for automated labelling and traceability solutions where strengthening returns management and reducing counterfeit medicine in the pharmaceutical supply chain has increased label automation within the sector.”

Gupta explains that VDC’s research indicates end users are increasingly scrutinising costs associated with production and distribution, even as their reliance on manual processes reduces to achieve growth and profitability objectives. “With an eye on scalability and agility, we expect end user investments in automated labelling solutions to increase with a stronger focus on seamless enterprise application integration,” she says.

Pete Basiliere, research vice president, additive manufacturing, Gartner, explains that 3D printing (3DP), also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, is a technique that uses a device to create physical objects from digital models. According to Basiliere, there are seven 3DP technologies that employ a small but growing range of plastic, ceramic, glass, metal and biomaterials, making the technology useful in a wide range of applications and appealing to a wide array of organisations. 3DP is used throughout product development and production processes. The opportunities are:

  • Rapid, iterative prototyping of products for existing and new markets
  • Tooling, jigs and fixtures that are used within manufacturing to make or assemble parts
  • Finished goods that are the final product or a component of a larger product

Basiliere says the result is new business models that disrupt industries by enabling new value propositions, lower manufacturing and inventory costs, and higher product quality that transform existing and facilitate new customer relationships. Basiliere adds that manufacturers are always under pressure to produce goods that are better, faster and less expensive. “The increased use of 3D printing to ideate, innovate and create new products and processes enable CIOs and their peers to optimise manufacturing and supply chain costs while generating new revenue,” he comments.

Key findings from the Gartner report ‘Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for Manufacturing Industries: 3D Printing’, states 3D printing’s ideal use is the manufacture of innovative, customer-focused products with custom and novel geometries that disrupt industries and open new markets. According to the report, there are seven 3D printing technologies that employ a growing range of ceramic, glass, metal, plastic and biomaterials, making the technology useful in a wide range of applications and appealing to a wide array of organisations. 3D printing is generally used to prototype new products or to manufacture low quantities of existing products, with in-house use for tooling, jigs and fixtures used to assemble conventionally manufactured items growing.

The report recommends that CIOs digitalising manufacturing industries should work with their peers and staff to:

  • Enable new product opportunities and optimise manufacturing and supply chain costs by enabling the use of one or more 3D printing technologies in prototyping within existing manufacturing processes or to produce finished goods.
  • Ascertain, provide for and support 3D printing’s information technology requirements within the organisation, as well as with supply chain partners and customers by developing network, archival and security software and hardware criteria.

“Ideate, innovate and create new products and services that cannot be made with any other manufacturing technology by implementing topology-optimised computer-aided design (CAD) software and providing training on generative design techniques,” says Basiliere.

Better, faster and less expensive

In terms of why 3D printing is a Top 10 trend, Basiliere makes the point that, in addition to manufacturers needing to produce goods that are better, faster and less expensive than before, many CIOs and their peers interpret current geopolitical and economic indicators as threats to their organisation’s survival. “For that reason, they are striving to optimise manufacturing costs, while simultaneously producing goods that more precisely meet their clients’ needs,” he says. “Forward-thinking leaders consider 3D printing a product development and manufacturing tool that will create new business opportunities and generate additional revenue sooner, while simultaneously driving cost out of their supply chain and manufacturing systems.”

Basiliere reflects that many people think 3DP is only good for prototyping new products or low-quantity manufacturing of existing products. “Yes, rapid, iterative prototyping is currently the dominant use case – and, yes, given its slow production speeds, 3DP is not a viable alternative to high-volume, conventionally manufactured parts, such as moulding, casting or machining,” says Basiliere. “But this is changing. GE Additive has already 3D-printed 30,000 metal jet engine fuel nozzles for its LEAP commercial aircraft engines (each engine uses 19 fuel nozzles), which was 100% of its supply and spare parts requirements. The nozzles have novel internal geometries that are impossible to manufacture with conventional mass production processes.

“3D printing’s ideal use is just that — the manufacture of innovative, customer-focused products with custom and novel geometries that open new markets. 3D printing of the ideal customer design, enabled by generative, topology-optimized computer-aided design, results in products that cannot be made with any other manufacturing technology. Innovative designs incorporate seamlessly changing materials and material structures to easily provide customised performance characteristics, like absorbency or rigidity in different parts of a helmet or an oil drilling bit’s water or temperature resistance. 3D printing provides scope. Instead of a machine optimised to do one thing many times, we have a machine that can do different things every time.

Doraiswamy Bharath Sunderraj, industry analyst – TechVision, Frost & Sullivan, observes that 3D printing deployment within the context of additive manufacturing is becoming more commonplace. However, he stresses the point that, although this technology is often cited within discussions around printing & labelling solutions, it is a quite distinct from other forms.

Sunderraj adds that, within certain manufacturing sectors such as food & beverage, labels can now indicate the country of origin for products in line with required regulatory compliance. He also makes the point that smart labels are becoming more common. “For example, these labels can let you know how fresh the vegetables are, and with RFID they can even track where the meat or vegetables have come from – down to the actual country of origin, region and farm. So, this type of full track and trace is moving ahead in terms of adoption, although currently more so in the more developed countries. Over time, however, I believe this will become more widespread globally.”

Sunderraj believes technology and its adoption is very much on the rise but reflects that the last technology to achieve truly worldwide commercialisation was the mobile smartphone. “Now, if you take other technologies such as 3D printers, it's not enjoying the same level of commercialisation across the globe. The level of adoption can vary greatly between developing countries and underdeveloped countries,” he says.

The automation-human dynamic

Sunderraj adds that in territories such as North American and Europe, many larger manufacturers – whether aerospace, automotive, food & beverage companies etc. – are adopting some type of automation technology and other types of digitally transformative solutions. However, he explains that in some other major territories such as China or India, manufacturers are still more reliant on human labour. “This mainly comes down to cost,” he says, adding that a worker’s wages for a month is still considerably less than what would be required to invest in automation equipment. However, with the advent of COVID-19, Sunderraj makes the point that there is the requirement to take more stringent precautionary measures regarding health & safety.

For example, he observes that more companies are now looking to deploy autonomous, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 technologies. “Nevertheless, smaller manufacturers won’t necessarily have the financial resources available to be able to easily make this type of leap in adoption,” he says. “For Tier 1 companies this isn’t likely to be so much of an issue, but for SMEs it can be.” With regard to automation within the labelling sphere, Sunderraj explains that there are now fully autonomous labelling machines that are, for example, being increasingly deployed within the food & beverage industry – used to label fruits packaging and canned goods etc.

Sunderraj explains that another aspect of greater levels of automation is connectivity. “More and more companies now want to be able to access machinery remotely,” he says, adding that there are already companies that have started to connect and monitor a number of separate 3D printers over an IIoT platform. “In this way, more tasks can be allocated to the printers,” he says. “There are also several technologies with respect to smart printing technology. Table top robots with arm control are going to be used to a greater extent as printing becomes more widely controlled remotely from a different location. This has the potential to become a 24-hour running machine without the need for human intervention.”

According to Sunderraj, one key driver for change is that many types of technology used in the consumer as well as business environment is getting increasingly smarter, so more companies in different industries are now looking to adopt smart technologies as well. Sunderraj believes another driver is more environmental awareness and/or health awareness. “For example, more people are becoming vegan or they don’t want to pollute or contaminate the environment wherever possible,” he says. “Therefore, the material side of labelling production is increasingly being looked with a view to developing labelling materials that can be recycled. So, recyclability is another key driver.”

And with regard to reducing weight of goods being shipped in order to reduce carbon emissions and optimise truck load, Sunderraj observes that there is a drive to reduce the volume and/or the thickness of labels as well as the packaging and the goods themselves, such as plastic bottles. He adds that reducing counterfeiting is another key driver; for example, in the case of premium alcoholic beverages. “So, some producers of these premium products are looking to adopt smart labelling for greater, more accurate tracking and traceability,” he says.

Integration

In terms of the relationship between some state-of-the-art printing & labelling systems and back-office systems, Barfield maintains that printers should be integrated with mobile computers, scanners and the ERP systems that drive them. “Zebra Technologies has a common software platform for its mobile, desktop and industrial printers called Print DNA, making it much simpler to integrate Zebra printers with the back office,” he explains. “Print DNA is Zebra’s exclusive software toolset that makes our printers easy to setup, manage and secure. This facilitates fast integration into existing infrastructures removing the need to rewrite print solutions while embedded security features and tools deliver critical protection to enterprise infrastructures.”

With the shift from backend servers into the cloud, Barfield considers that deploying and managing connected applications and printers is easier using printer management cloud applications. “This removes the need for having an on-premise infrastructure where all services are run, managed and maintained from within the enterprise on their own hardware and servers,” he says. “Often, this ends up more expensive and less flexible than a cloud-based one. An overall benefit is better connected operatives who have access and input into those applications, printing and labelling systems.

Barfield adds that, until now, enterprise-grade label printers have not been able to directly print PDF. Zebra has created PDF Direct – an on-printer app that allows Print DNA printers to directly receive and print PDFs – without middleware. “This solution eliminates the complexity associated with printer drivers and middleware platforms enabling PDF documents to be printed directly to Zebra Print DNA printers from ERP systems,” he says. “This means those documents can be archived for later retrieval and reprinting as well as being created at the intended print size – eliminating the need to scale documents, which can induce bar code scanning issues.”

Barfield also reflects that the growth of device mobility and connectivity has also been a large influence. For example, all newer Zebra printers include Bluetooth connectivity. “For some mobile printers this will be the only way they communicate, for other printers it may just be a temporary connection that is used for set-up or fault-finding,” he says, adding that Bluetooth is also a good way of connecting other devices such as scanners directly to the printer. “As Zebra has developed Print DNA, its common printer software platform, we adopted existing network standards. Print DNA is Zebra’s exclusive software toolset making our printers easy to set up, manage and secure. By working with the latest wireless technology and versions of Zebra’s Print DNA with Remote Printer Management, customers can be assured of their network security. This also benefits developers by making it easier to build their applications and not worry about how the data is transmitted between each Zebra printer type.”

Barfield adds that remote management software tools such as PPME (Printer Profile Manager Enterprise) and Zebra Thermal Managed Print Services, make it simple to deploy large fleets of printers across multiple locations. “IT can now maintain, secure and troubleshoot printers from anywhere, at any time – freeing up operations to focus on work, rather than printers,” he explains.

Remaining concerns?

Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of printing & labelling systems? Barfield maintains that with increasing data breaches, enterprises need peace of mind about security when adding a new device or printer to their networks. “Each connected wired or wireless device should have mechanisms built in to help prevent, detect and fortify against cyberattacks such as a data breach or denial of service,” he says. “Printers are no exception as they are a potential cyber target, transmitting sensitive data across a network that if unsecure can be accessed by unauthorised parties. Therefore, it is critical to assign security controls to printers specifically. Security assessment tools and features such as protected setting modes are available to ensure that only authenticated changes can be made, allowing users to block unintended printer software updates. An example is Zebra’s PrintSecure solution.”

Barfield adds that printer security is becoming so prevalent that it is vital enterprises implement printers that can support the staff in maintaining up-to-date security protocols. “This facilitates remote printer management such as Zebra’s PPME (Printer Profile Manager Enterprise) and Thermal Managed Print Services, to troubleshoot and configure fleets of printers from a single location,” he says. “For enterprises looking to implement new printers in the workplace, it’s key to ensure that any printer selected, is developed in alignment with the guidelines and best practices established by globally recognised security organisations, including International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework.”

Gupta explains that automating barcode label data generation and printing has helped lower error incidence and increase end user confidence. “However, several organisations rely on antiquated systems and manual processes that drive up labelling errors and data/design inconsistencies,” she says. “Decentralised operations also persist presenting several challenges such as high IT costs, delayed label design changes, complicated template management, and errors leading to recalls and rework. Such environments are now increasingly viewed as being ‘disconnected’ – highly inefficient and prone to errors. VDC believes an organisation with highly decentralised operations is also not viewed as being agile or scalable – the quality of production and distribution deteriorate as errors become unmanageable and the ability to react quickly to changing conditions becomes impossible to achieve.”

Clarke adds that fragmented label requirements across countries has created challenges with label compliance amid stronger cross border selling. “Label ISVs have aimed at software solutions to address nuances with country label standards: creating easier label design software with embedded standards and compliance considerations has eased navigation of labelling requirements across countries,” says.

Convergence

With regard to technology convergence within the printing & labelling systems and related equipment marketplace at the moment, is this as a positive move? “Convergence in the marketplace should be viewed as benefitting customers regarding efficiency of their operations but also from a sustainability perspective such as reducing waste,” says Barfield. He adds that Zebra’s ZQ210 mobile printer, part of the ZQ200 Series, is flexible and easy-to-use for warehouse operators and associates in retail and hospitality settings. “By offering multiple media types, this printer is one of the few mobile printers in its tier that prints both receipts and labels,” says Barfield. “Employees can easily swap media types based on the application. The new printer can also support linerless media. Similar to a roll of tape, linerless labels have no backing and comprise special adhesive enabling them to easily peel away from the labels underneath.”

Barfield explains that used liner material does not need managing, reducing waste for a greener enterprise. He adds that enterprises can choose the media, when and where needed. According to Barfield, benefits of linerless printing include:

  • Improved productivity as media rolls contain 50% more labels and require fewer media changes.
  • Decreased weight in mobile printers reduces label roll shipping as linerless rolls can weigh up to 40% less than traditional, pressure-sensitive labels with liner.

Barfield comments that Zebra Technologies is an innovator at the edge of the enterprise with solutions and partners that enable businesses to gain a performance edge. “Zebra’s products, software, services, analytics and solutions are used to intelligently connect people, assets and data to help our customers in a number of industries make business-critical decisions,” he says. “We can provide full solutions for asset identification, tracking and intelligence.”

Gupta considers that seamless integration with enterprise application systems, including but not limited to ERP, WMS, and SCM, is now the order of the day, especially in organisations with globally distributed operations. “From a labelling standpoint, this is essential so that appropriate and relevant information is sent to the right printer, and he labelling data is coordinated automatically,” she says. “The global coronavirus pandemic has served to emphasize the importance of placing the right label on the right product/package via the right printer at the right time.”

Clarke adds that cross-compatibility and interoperability are key features improvements of modern printing and labelling systems today. “As enterprises leverage multiple branded hardware across their technology portfolio, end users widely prefer a brand agnostic approach: seamless integration across all devices is key for streamlining operation efficiency and synchronising workflows in areas such as label design and standardisation, regulatory compliance and remote management,” he says.

Gupta explains that VDC’s research shows this integration offers several key advantages by helping:

  • Eliminate operator (manual) error with software solutions leveraging data from an enterprise system to populate labels.
  • Mitigate label errors and reprinting costs.
  • Adequately meet labelling-related regulatory standards laid out by government, industry, and customers.
  • Offer operational efficiencies, as labelling data is consistent across the entire enterprise.

Gupta believes data capture and labelling technology convergence has been beneficial to channel partners and customers. “Printers with built-in validation and verification capabilities are generating interest because of their ability to ensure that the right label is placed on the right product, thereby mitigating the risks associated with chargebacks,” she says. “From VDC’s perspective, product development innovation along these lines will help printer hardware vendors align their products with increasingly specialized opportunities and also adequately address niche (unique) application requirements, like those thrown up during today’s highly challenging and uncertain business environment.”

Clarke adds that technology convergence within printing systems have also aimed to support the mobile point-of-sale (mPOS). “Integrated payment capture and scanner functionality have created all-in-one devices that can support mPOS operations from receipting, product verification, and order checkout,” he says. “Thus, technology convergence within AIDC is enabling end users to achieve efficiency gains and obtain cost savings by deploying singularly integrated hardware with extended functionality instead of separate devices for these applications.”

The future

What might be the next key innovations/developments to look out for over the next year or two? Dr Jonathan Harrop, Director, IDTechEx, makes the point that the past decade has seen an explosion in 3D printing, among hobbyists and professional users alike. “The ability to prototype – or even, increasingly, industrially produce – almost any component with just a CAD package and a 3D printer has transformed the manufacturing landscape,” he says. “Although there are drawbacks to the process, including proportionate cost and scalability, recent improvements in 3D printing capabilities meant that pre-COVID-19, commentators predicted a bright future for this technology and the sector had been on a solid upward trajectory for around a decade. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc with many sectors, including the automotive, aerospace and industrial markets that have adopted 3D printing most enthusiastically.”

This, and other factors, are impacting 3D printing just as it reaches maturity as a versatile manufacturing technique and have stalled that pattern of growth. But for how long? IDTechEx’s new report, ‘3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030: COVID Edition’, answers that and related questions, and takes a look into the next decade for 3D printing technologies. “For, while COVID has clearly had a huge effect on industry, there remains every reason to forecast a brighter future,” continues Dr Harrop. “Without doubt, the impact of COVID-19 is being felt at a pivotal point in the evolution of 3D printing. Having been invented in the early 1980s, the technology became more widespread following expiry of a key patent in 2009, and within a few years the technology had become affordable enough for entrepreneurs and hobbyists to use. Initially, most printing used the fused deposition technique with plastic filament which, while useful, had clear limitations in terms of the accuracy and durability of objects produced.

“However, new techniques were quickly developed, including 3D printing with metal, carbon fibre and fiberglass materials, which opened the way for more sectors to replace traditional fabrication with 3D printing.The precision of printed objects has also increased, and the latest generation of 3D printers has the capability to work to measurements smaller than the width of a than a human hair. This brings the potential of 3D printing to even more industrial sectors and extends its use in output-critical environments including aerospace and medical devices.”

Adoption of 3D printing currently varies much by industry and geography, with use concentrated in the US and parts of Western Europe, leaving many markets as yet untapped. “Apart from the market for 3D printers themselves, Dr Harrop makes the point that several related sectors have grown alongside the 3D printing boom. “Chief among these are the development and production of printable materials for various markets, and third-party enterprises that refine and finish 3D- printed goods,” he says. “Whether these will emerge from the pandemic, and/or remain sustainable as printing techniques become more refined, are important questions.”

Dr Harrop believes that, as a manufacturing technique, 3D printing’s future is entwined with that of the industries it serves. “Those industries have been hugely affected by COVID but will doubtless be revived in due course – although like many businesses, their ‘new normal’ may differ greatly from the old,” he says. “There are other issues that could restrict 3D printing technology, too, including trade-offs between speed, precision, volume and scalability; cost per item; the nature of printable materials and access to markets and supply.” In the wake of COVID-19, much has become uncertain. However, Dr Harrop believes ‘3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030: COVID Edition’, provides crucial guidance and insights into this relatively new, but increasingly vital, technology.

Barfield believes RFID printing and labelling solutions are and will continue to be key in enhancing visibility across operations for retailers, manufacturers, transportation and logistics providers and the healthcare sector. “Integrating temperature intelligence solutions such as Zebra Temptime temperature sensors can indicate if items have been exposed to potentially damaging conditions that can impact their efficacy and safety,” he says. “There has been a growth in the demand for Thermal Managed Print Services. Users are expecting more and more of a services-based business model for their thermal printing environment and tend to compare it to the level of their office printing arrangements. The ability to automate supply fulfilment providing the correct labels at the right time at the right place, but to also to deliver a comprehensive set of solutions to proactively manage, monitor, secure and optimise end users’ thermal printer environments will be key for enterprises to optimise their operations and increase efficiencies.”

Peacock reflects that RFID is a technology that has been available for a couple of decades and there is an increasing need for it. “One of the main barriers has been cost. However, the technology is becoming more affordable, which is resulting in wider adoption. Zebra is also developing some inlays. With regard to RFID on the print solution side we are already there.”

Sunderraj believes we will continue to see greater levels of automation, where more plants will be able to operate round the clock with barely any human intervention required and where labelling will be able to change themselves in a fully automated way. Gupta makes the point that the amount of data/information that needs to be placed on a label is only increasing while real estate for the same on product packaging is going down. “From VDC’s perspective, this poses a conundrum for even the leading manufacturers and suppliers out there as they work with their solutions partners to sufficiently meet changing considerations and requirements,” she says. “We expect the AIDC vendor community to work with its channel partners to innovate and bring to market solutions that not only address functional requirements but also help end users improve their reaction times to changing market (production and distribution) conditions.”

Clarke adds that VDC expects extended software functionality to continue to drive innovation within printing and labelling systems. “Enterprises are demanding dynamic functionality in terms of remote management: remote settings control, hardware performance diagnostics, error tracking, output analysis, preventative maintenance analysis and battery management are all key capabilities that improve labelling efficiency,” he says. “Moreover, cloud integration will also prove important for printing systems to improve operations for label design storage, brand customization, and data collection leveraged for actionable insights.”

Gupta concludes that this pandemic has significantly driven up consumer reliance on e-commerce, which will also make labelling that much more important – so the right customer gets the right product at the right time.

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