Well positioned for tomorrow's label printing. Interview with David Barnes (Zebra Technologies).

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Zebra has significantly expanded its desktop printer portfolio over the past two years and introduced many new models. In the 4" wide portfolio, these include the ZD220 and ZD230, the ZD421 and ZD621, whilst in the 2" wide portfolio for a narrow footprint, there is the ZD411 and ZD611. All of these models are available in various versions and configurations.

This wide range of models replaces the highly successful G Series desktop label printers from Zebra. Axel Schmidt, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at Jarltech, spoke with David Barnes, Head of EMEA Asset Tracking Solutions (ATS) Product Management and Business Development at Zebra Technologies, about the new models, the evolving requirements for workplace label printing, security features, and future trends in the label printing industry.  

Axel Schmidt: Hello David, thank you for your time. Since 2021, Zebra has introduced many new desktop printer models. What new features and innovations do these models offer compared to their predecessors? And what advantages do they bring to the end user?

David Barnes: Great to talk to you today, Axel. Why should your customers switch to newer Zebra printers? It’s a great question. One that I could provide various answers to. Fundamentally I would say that, as technology advances, it brings benefits and improves business outcomes – where organisations chose not to invest in smarter technology, they could find themselves falling behind.

Productivity is one potential area of gain, to give you an example: the “ZD” models are all designed to be more intuitive and easier to use and we’re making the interfaces more standardised across the full printer portfolio, which helps with a much quicker learning curve for operators.

Actually, since 2017, we’ve been on the forefront of next generation technology advances in the desktop label printer sector. We first launched the ZD420 and ZD620 families in that year and this was the start of the transition from the GK and GX respectively. This new “ZD” product range introduced the PrintDNA ecosystem to our desktop range. Powered by our common printer operating system, Link-OS, PrintDNA is an intelligent and powerful suite of applications, utilities and developer tools to simplify printer setup, management and monitoring. Four years later, the ZD420 and ZD620 were refreshed with the ZD421 and ZD621, and soon after we announced the official end of sale of the GK and GX product families.

The G Series were a phenomenal range of printers and they have proven hugely popular – it’s a testament to Zebra’s design and quality ethos that there are still so many in operation today. But these were printers whose design dates back to around the same time as the first Apple iPhone – in technology terms, we’ve seen a lot of change since then.

With the “ZD” range, Zebra have built on that success and legacy, added intelligence inside with Link-OS to deliver even greater printers that meet the demands of modern business.

Axel Schmidt: Zebra offers the new desktop printers in a variety of versions. How have the requirements for desktop label printing changed in recent years?

David Barnes:  Customers are now expecting more from their print operations than ever before. With Zebra’s ZD Series, they now can experience more with best-in-class performance and features that help them get the job done faster. In fact, ZD421 is 700% more powerful than the GK Series that it replaces, with ZD621 being 300% more powerful than the GX Series.

With the ZD Series, we now offer the most comprehensive and technically advanced print and labelling portfolio, so there’s no need to compromise.

We are finding that our customers are looking for a “Zebra for every occasion”. It’s because we span so many verticals and industries, we tend to find “Zebras” used just about everywhere. From cross-docking applications on the loading bay, inventory tracking in the warehouse, to point-of-sale and shelf-edge labelling in the retail store, even to positive patient identification in healthcare with our ZD510-HC dedicated wristband printing solution. 

Choose from direct thermal (no ribbon) or thermal transfer (wax, wax/resin, or full resin ribbon) where you need longevity of the printed image. Or select healthcare versions of our printers, which come with a dedicated medical grade power supply (IEC 60601-1 compliant), and disinfectant-ready, UV-resistant housing which is designed to handle regular sanitising with harsh chemicals and UV light, helping to increase patient safety. 

Alternatively, our ZD611 and ZD621 models can be supplied with the option of RAIN RFID print and encoding solutions. Zebra’s own RE40 RFID module provides adaptive encoding technology, which allows for excellent media flexibility and simple RFID calibration, eliminating complex placement guidelines. Optimised to efficiently print and encode labels, tags, and wristbands, they give you greater tracking abilities, deeper visibility, and enterprise insights in an ever-competitive business environment.

While linerless media is not new, we have seen a surge in interest recently. Linerless media is exactly that, it is a label without the backing liner. To use linerless media you need to use a specially designed printer and we offer both 2" and 4" desktop models with the ZD611 and ZD621 respectively. Linerless provides not just a more sustainable solution to label printing, but also one that can improve productivity, with its continuous label format and greater number of labels per roll.  With no liner to dispose of and increased productivity linerless can reduce costs.

Whatever our customers’ asset tracking challenge, chances are we have a desktop printer fit for the task and the budget.

Axel Schmidt: A car manufacturer once advertised that their model wouldn’t experience a breakdown until it reached 1,000,000 kilometres. Similarly, Zebra promotes its label printers for their incredible reliability. What tests does a Zebra desktop label printer go through before you can confidently say, “Now it meets the high standards our Zebra customers expect from us”?

David Barnes: I would argue that the secret to Zebra’s success, in addition to our 50plus years of experience, regarding the renowned reliability of our printers lies with the attention to detail of our product design, as much as it is testing. We have a number of design centres of excellence around the world, staffed by hugely experienced product and UX designers who work hand in hand with our excellent electrical and mechanical engineers. Reliability and build quality are intrinsic to our design language.   

While it is critical that the physical design of the product focuses on intuitive ease of use and reliability, they are now somewhat table stakes. Customers are expecting thermal printers to do more and solve more business problems. Our Link-OS printer operating system is common across our entire printer portfolio meaning that customers can change the printer format while still being able to utilise a common set of tools to integrate, secure, deploy and manage their printers. The intelligence inside our printers can open-up a host of new possibilities. This is really what Zebra customers expect from us.

Axel Schmidt: Security is also becoming increasingly important in label printing. What security features do the new Zebra desktop label printers have to protect against data theft and manipulation?

David Barnes: When it comes to safeguarding organisations and customers’ data, printers today are far more at risk. Unless protected, printers are 68% more likely to be the source of an external threat or breach and are 118% more likely to be the source of an internal threat or breach*.

With Zebra’s ZD Series printers you can trust them to help keep your sensitive data safe and strengthen your security posture. Featuring PrintSecure, part of our proprietary PrintDNA software suite, offering unmatched security features for peace-of-mind protection.

PrintSecure gives you the tools to easily configure printers to use secure connections, assess potential vulnerabilities, block unauthorised access and control your data exchanges.

Axel Schmidt: Which new features of the ZD printers do customers like the most? Is there a clear favourite model among customers?

David Barnes: That’s another good question and one that’s really hard to pinpoint given the sheer breadth of use cases and applications that we see our printers being used in. There is one quite novel feature that always gets a lot of interest and that is the battery accessory.

We also have a phenomenal range of mobile printers at Zebra, but as good as those models are, they don’t provide thermal transfer technology, for when you need high-quality, long-lasting labels, high-resolution printing at 300dpi or large rolls of media. So, by simply adding a battery accessory to our ZD desktop range, it’s now completely possible to make your ZD4 or ZD6 range of Zebra printers portable. We see a lot of interest and sales of this accessory. There is even a special Zebra carry case to complement it, which has special pockets to carry our mobile devices. The better together message is certainly one that resonates with customers.

Zebra printer emulations are also a great PrintDNA application that proves to be popular – in simple terms, this one really helps when you come to upgrade your printer fleet to smarter Zebra technology and you don’t need to worry about changing back end systems as you can simply ask your Zebra printer to emulate another printing language, making drop-in of your new printers really quite seamless.

And something else we are getting increased interest in is Managed Print Services (MPS) – at Zebra, we estimate that over 50% of businesses don’t know what they are spending collectively on thermal printing. MPS means different things to different people, but at the core it is about understanding what printers you have, where they are and then managing them. At the other end of MPS is procuring a thermal print solution “as a service” to include the printer, maintenance, and the media.  This is a change that we are seeing and one that could be huge! Zebra’s common intelligent Link-OS architecture combined with PrintDNA tools help bring MPS to a reality in a way no one else can. 

Axel Schmidt: The trend overall is towards increased compatibility, mobility, and customisation. Additionally, there is a growing demand for labels with variable data, higher complexity, and colour printing. What trends does Zebra see in this regard? Where is the industry heading when it comes to communicating information on goods and products? Will label printing be replaced by another technology in the near future?

David Barnes: I’ll deal with the complexity of label printing in a moment, but let’s start with the number of labels that are being printed. I see that the number of labels required to run our digital, always-on economy is only growing. We just have to look at our personal lives to ecommerce, click and drop, click or buy online pick up in store convenance all of these demand efficient and accurate Asset Tracking Solutions.

Our end users are working with us to demand more from their labels and therefore more from their printers. One of the benefits of the thermal printer is that it doesn’t use any ink or toner which helps to make printing more cost effective. Currently the use case for a full colour label is very limited. However, enabling colour to be part of an end users labelling solution can be very useful and it always surprises users that we have a solution for adding colour to labels through our printers. Zebra IQ Colour labels are a type of label that can be printed in colour using a Zebra thermal printer. We work with the end user to predefine sections of the label during label design that are activated by heat, turning from clear to colour when printed. IQ Colour labels can be used to create more visually appealing and engaging labels that can help to improve customer loyalty or productivity.

When we talk about asset tracking solutions, we of course need to discuss RFID. This is the big trend, and we are seeing big steps by end users to integrate RFID labels and tags into their business processes with real results for their customers and their bottom line. As the technology becomes more mature, we are forecasting big growth in the RFID business, whether this be in retail to speed up checkout or in transport and logistics and package tracking. This growing trend is reflected in the significant level of investment Zebra has made into its full RFID portfolio. Despite this rapid growth in RFID, we do not see this to the detriment of traditional labelling solutions – the two are very much complementary.

Ultimately asset tracking is about visibility and being able to deliver actionable insights to facilitate decision making. We are taking visibility further; we recently introduced a range of environmental sensors which currently facilitate end user customers to track temperature excursions both visually (through thermal printable indicators) and electronically using dataloggers and visual indicators. We are already seeing a significant level of interest across our traditional verticals, specifically in the areas of cold chain logistics for food or pharma. But also, among a number of surprisingly novel applications, the one that is most interesting to me is making sure that my wine is transported at the correct temperature, so it is not spoilt during transit. Whilst today it is all about temperature, we are looking to support other environmental measures in the future.

Speaking of environmental factors, we are also working hard to support our end users with labelling solutions that align with eco credentials. As mentioned earlier we are seeing growing interest in our linerless media and printers, which not only has potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and label waste, but also increase productivity and provide for a safer working environment. We now have the beginnings of a comprehensive portfolio of sustainable supplies, which extends to and includes recyclable RFID labels.

So, in summary, labels are here to stay and are only going to become more intelligent.

Axel Schmidt: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! I appreciate it.

*According to a 2018 vs. 2016 survey conducted by Spiceworks as noted in the Printer Security: The New IT Imperative Report, Research Shows That the “Humble Printer” Remains a Security Blind Spot 

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