While radio-frequency identification (RFID) has taken the spotlight of late when it comes to product identification (ID) and labeling trends, it isn't the only game in town. There are other interesting developments on the scene, ranging from alternative printing and dyeing techniques to new "label-less" labeling options to supply chain tracking solutions.
Stanley Shatz, president and CEO of Norman Shatz Co. USA, observes that the labeling/product ID marketplace is divided into three primary areas, focused on design, production control and security. His firm, which specializes in the design area, has been exploring new techniques for executing colors on its labels. "Most woven labels are made from polyester, which resists dye," Shatz explains. "Customers have been wanting the ground fabric of the label to have a cotton content that can absorb dye."
The firm recently delivered on this demand with a line of garment-dyeable cotton woven labels. "This is really an incredible technique and meets a need that people have been wanting for years," Shatz reports.
Another company moving forward with similar label innovations is Bell Label. "We are working with different grounds, figures and hot colors," states Gordon Kingdon, national sales director. "Our customers want innovation in product identification. They tell us: 'Take my logo and design it in such a way that it stands out and makes a statement.' "
Progressive Label Inc. has begun to offer inkjet printing. "We can imprint variable data without changing plates," states David Lawrence, president. "We are doing on-demand labels, using software programs. As such, we no longer have to acquire plates for printing because everything is done via computer. This is also true for our thermal transfer labels."
The use of computerized processes enables Progressive to provide next-day delivery, which pleases customers, says Lawrence, who adds: "If they have shortages, we don't have to go back to the press."
J.J.'s Mae Inc., a San Francisco, CA-based manufacturer of men's apparel, purchases Progressive's labels and price tickets as well as systems that enable it to print some stickers and tickets internally. "The reasons we selected them were quality, price and timing," says Hortencia Castillo, manager of the trimmings department. "Their products help us meet the increasing challenges of the retail market to which we sell."
No More Labels?
One concept taking the industry by storm is the new "label-less" labeling option. These "labels" typically involve the use of an ink silk screen heat transfer process, whereby the usual label content is heat transferred directly onto the garment. "We got involved in label-less garments in the last year," reports Lee McLaven, vice president of labeling vendor Laven Industries. "It is more expensive than a printed or woven label, but it does have a unique look and a softer feel. You don't have to worry about label itching."
The idea of using a tag-less label identifier in a garment is nothing new, according to David Slauter, vice president of global sales and marketing for supplier Shore To Shore Inc. "There have been all kinds of transfer and silk screen technologies available for many years," he explains. "However, no one had ever thought about putting it on the back of a T-shirt to replace the traditional sewn-in label that consumers complain about."
Paxar Corp. is also involved in the label-less trend. "Consumers have been complaining about fabric labels for a long time," reports Ted Fountas, vice president of marketing. "Recently, a national brand put 'irritating issues' on center stage as they promoted their new product."
Paxar has launched Soft.mark, a line of labeling options for applications that require the highest level of comfort. The line encompasses printed and woven labels incorporating Paxar's "So Soft" processing techniques, as well as new in-plant labeling supplies and heat transfers. For the latter, Paxar will be building on expertise it acquired in 2001 with the purchase of a leading Norwegian heat transfer technology firm. Plus, Fountas says: "We have also added transfer printing capability in our North Carolina plant."
Shore To Shore Inc.'s label-less offering, Ever-Brand, also recently hit the market. The Ever-Brand transfers result in very little surface texture. "You don't notice that it is there," Slauter says, noting for comparison: "If you have ever felt a silk screen transfer, it has a significant 'hand' or 'feel.' . When you touch it, you definitely realize something has been transferred onto the garment."
With Ever-Brand, the fused label image (including multi-color graphics) can be stretched repeatedly without harming graphics and text, Shore To Shore reports, adding that it eliminates the cracking, peeling and puckering characteristics of traditional fusible graphics. The transfers can be applied to both light and dark materials, including synthetic, poly- cotton blend, 100 percent cotton, spandex and other stretch fabrics. The finished graphic media come in both sheet and roll form and can be applied with standard heat transfer systems.
Ensuring Ease in Barcode Reading
There also have been strong advancements in electronic reading of tag and label data. Among other solutions, Symbol Technologies specializes in equipment for reading barcode and RFID data on apparel tags. "Our product can be attached to a point-of-sale [POS] device or a mobile device, which we also manufacture," reports Marianne McKeown O'Brien, vice president, general merchandise retail vertical marketing, Symbol Technologies.
The company's newest model, the PPT 8800, has a built-in barcode reader and wireless features that can be used for mobile POS and basic inventory functions. "This has a faster processor and is smaller, so it can fit more easily into the hand," McKeown O'Brien says. "It also has a better display."
Texpak, originator of packaging clips to hold garments folded, also has developed a new product related to the reading of barcoded labels. The company, which is one of the largest distributors of tag attachment fasteners, released a new machine last month that prints barcode tags and attaches them to garments in one operation. The machine is targeted to discount retailers who receive odd lots of apparel that must be labeled with a barcoded price tag that can be read at their scanners.
"They can enter the information in at the unit, and print and tag at the same time," says Steven Kunreuther, president, Texpak. "We see this product being applicable to small retail stores, as well as retail distribution centers, which get in hundreds of garments and have to do the tagging. . We think [our new machine] will revolutionize tagging for discount stores."
Before the introduction of this machine, apparel retailers typically had to print tags at one location, and then move them to another location for attaching, explains Kunreuther. "If they [were] short a tag, or something [got] lost or destroyed, they [had] to make additional tags," he says.
Advances in Tracking Systems
Electronic systems for tracking apparel through the supply chain always have been appealing in terms of saving time and money and improving accuracy. However, as of February 2003, there is a new reason for companies who import from overseas to look seriously at this technology. On Feb. 2, U.S. Customs' new 24-hour Advanced Vessel Manifest rule went into effect.
The rule requires all sea carriers and non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOCCs) to provide U.S. Customs with detailed descriptions of the contents of sea containers bound for the United States 24 hours before the containers are loaded on a vessel. The shipment data must be transmitted into U.S. Customs' automated manifest system. If a cargo container is loaded without prior approval by customs, the container will be denied a permit to unload in any U.S. port.
While the 24-hour requirement of the new rule is a challenge for shippers in itself, an even bigger challenge is the requirement for detailed product descriptions of what is actually inside a container. "With the new 24-hour rule, there is more pressure on international shippers," says Andy Leung, product manager for Avery Dennison Retail Information Services. "Before, they could wait as long as two weeks after the ship left [a foreign port] before sending in the manifest."
One solution is Avery Dennison's InfoChain Express. With this technology, the factory can collect all of the relevant data automatically, eliminating any manual error, and send the manifest before the goods leave the factory, the company reports. "One of the requirements of the new customs regulations is that shippers provide electronic purchase order information, which our system does," says Chris Pfister, marketing manager, Avery Dennison InfoChain Express.
"InfoChain Express is a supply chain management solution that allows retailers to send electronic purchase orders to our central server," continues Leung. "A vendor or factory can access our Web site and download the purchase order."
The system then automates the packing and shipping process, following retailer instructions and ensuring accuracy, he adds. For example, if a retailer wants two large sizes, six medium sizes and four small sizes in one carton, the software and integrated scanning system can accommodate these parameters. "Then, when the factory is ready to ship, our shipment scan process will scan the cartons, capture the information and create an advance shipping notice, which can be sent to a consolidator or the retailer," concludes Leung.
Checkpoint Systems Inc. also is offering identification solutions that address supply chain management. Dave Shoemaker, group vice president of strategic marketing for Checkpoint, says the firm has upgraded and re-released its CheckNet global ticket source, a Web-based system that houses variable data and other information related to apparel brands' and retailers' ticketing needs. CheckNet feeds information to 29 Checkpoint global service bureaus, which can download the data, use it to print the appropriate label or ticket on-site and immediately deliver the finished product to local apparel manufacturers, whether they are in Bangladesh, Brazil or Vietnam, Shoemaker says.
Other CheckNet services include Web-based ordering and inventory tracking, vendor billing and source tagging with radio-frequency electronic article surveillance (RF-EAS) devices. These products and services are geared to easing and speeding the process of producing or sourcing a garment, Shoemaker says. He adds that Checkpoint also is promoting the use of solutions such as RFID to enable apparel firms to better track merchandise throughout the supply chain, from the global apparel producer all the way to the consumer, whose shopping patterns can be analyzed with RFID.