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What Material is Used For Barcode Labels?

The barcode label material can make or break your barcode system. If an unsuitable material is chosen, it can deteriorate or fade, slowing down operations in your warehouse or making packages harder to track in logistics.

The choice of barcode material has cost implications but the solution is not as simple as going for the cheapest or most expensive material. It’s much smarter to consider which needs the barcode label will serve.

In this article, we’ll explore different barcode label materials and their pros and cons. We’ll also discuss the factors to consider before choosing a material and whether a normal printer is suitable for printing barcode labels.

What is the Best Label Material for Barcodes?

No material can be considered the best for all barcoding applications. The same qualities that make a label material ideal for one application may make it a liability in another.

A good barcode label material should:

  • Produce labels that are easy to scan and remain in place throughout their intended lifespan.
  • Be compatible with available label printing technologies
  • Be cost-effective
  • Cope well with its normal operating conditions

Based on this criteria a durable yet expensive label material will be a waste if the label will only be used for two months in a climate-controlled office setting.

Types of Barcode Label Materials

Paper barcodes are common. This is no surprise because they are cheap and suitable for many applications. However, many industrial applications require more durable label materials.

Paper

Paper labels are cheap and work well in general barcoding applications. They can also last long if used in controlled conditions without exposure to high humidity, liquids, high temperatures, and sunlight. On the other hand, regular paper labels can easily degrade and tear.

There are variations of paper labels with different qualities. Coated paper labels resist tearing and last longer than uncoated labels. Colored paper labels are used for color-coding, e.g., to identify items on different rack levels. These can be harder to scan due to poor contrast.

Wet-strength paper labels are used on items that will be exposed to some water. They are common on products stored in refrigerators.

Paper is a common label material for shipping labels, WIP goods, and assets such as file folders.

Polyester

Polyester is more durable than paper. It resists water, oil, and tearing better, and is a popular choice for industrial barcode labels because it holds up well in harsh environments. These labels can remain in place at temperatures as high as 300°F or as low as -40°F.

Polyester labels cost more than paper but are cost-effective because they last longer. Some labels may last for 10+ years. However, their rigidity makes them unsuitable for curved surfaces.

Polyester barcode labels are used in outdoor applications or applications where the label may be exposed to substances that can scratch, smear, or wear other label materials such as grease. These labels are commonly placed on Motors, pumps, electronics, and tools.

Vinyl

Vinyl labels are less expensive than polyester ones. Unlike polyester labels, they conform better to irregular shapes. They can be great for outdoor applications if covered by a UV-resistant film.

This material can withstand temperatures as high as 275°F and has good scratch, chemical, and moisture resistance. On the other hand, vinyl labels are fairly thick and their surface isn’t suited to high-density barcode symbologies. Additionally, resin ribbons don’t print well on vinyl.

Vinyl labels can break apart during removal giving them a tamper-resistant quality. These labels are used on racks, shelves, and for items placed outdoors.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene labels have good water, tear, and oil resistance despite being just a little more expensive than paper labels. They can last as long as 6 years and the print quality is good because the material accepts ink well.

Some polypropylene labels can be a little pricey but don’t last as long as polyester or vinyl labels. They also don’t conform as well as vinyl and are unsuitable for applications where they may get squeezed.

Polypropylene labels are used outdoors such as on construction tools and public locations.

Niche Label Materials

Other barcode label materials with niche properties are used in specialized applications. Examples of such materials are:

  • Magnetic materials: These labels have magnetic properties and are designed to be attached to metallic surfaces. They are used to label storage units, metal shelves, and metal racks. They can also be moved from location to location.
  • Reflective materials: These materials have reflective properties that make the barcode scannable from a longer distance. These are good for applications where barcodes are less accessible, e.g., items stored at higher levels in a warehouse.
  • Polyimide: This is a polymer with excellent heat resistance. It remains durable even at temperatures above 480°F and is commonly used to label electronics.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Barcode Label Materials

To have an effective barcode system in your company, it helps to consider a few factors when choosing your label materials. Some factors you should consider are discussed below.

Operating Environment

Barcode materials can be affected by heat and moisture. These can cause the barcodes to fade or cause the material to fall apart. Some internal environments can be very hot or very humid. In the outdoors, a label may be exposed to extreme temperature changes, weather, and UV.

On the other hand, some barcodes will also remain in climate-controlled offices and warehouses. For your barcoding system to be functional and cost-effective, consider the environment in which the barcode will be placed.

Mounting Surface

Some mounting surfaces are less suitable for certain label materials. Flat surfaces will accept most materials. However, stiff materials can detach themselves from curved surfaces. Some mounting surfaces may be rough or hard to clean.

Ensure the material you choose can conform and remain attached to the mounting surface.

Contact

Items that are regularly handled, e.g., tools and equipment, should be labeled using materials that can withstand this contact. Regular contact with different materials or even human hands can cause fading of printed information or tearing of some material.

Time-Frame

Some barcode labels need to remain in place for years but others will serve their purpose in a matter of months. Barcodes used in logistics, for example, will have no use once the package reaches its intended destination.

Expensive but durable labels make sense if the labels must survive for years. Paper labels, which have a lifespan of around 6 months, are suitable for short-term use.

Scanner and Printer Compatibility

Some materials are harder to print on than others. Unless you must use a certain label material, it’s smarter to choose materials that are compatible with existing printing equipment. Similarly, avoid materials that will be harder to scan with existing equipment.

Scanning Distance

Being able to scan a barcode from a distance is an advantage if barcodes are placed in areas that are hard to access, e.g., hazardous environments or on the higher shelves in the warehouse. Some materials have qualities that make them easier to scan from farther away.

Chemical Exposure

Consider the specific chemicals a barcode will be exposed to in its lifetime. This could be chemicals from a manufacturing process or just cleaning fluids. Some label materials resist many chemicals, but will still be damaged by a common cleaning agent.

Cost-Effectiveness

When calculating the cost-effectiveness of a label consider the cost of the material and how often you’ll need to replace the labels. You should also consider the cost of additional equipment in case you have to buy special printers to print the labels.

Can Normal Printers Print Barcode Labels?

When considering barcode labels for industrial use, it’s important to also think about the type of printer you’ll need to print the labels. If you already have a regular printer at hand, you may be wondering if you can use it instead of buying a specialized printer.

You can get barcode labels at no extra cost by using a free barcode generator and printing the barcodes on paper using a regular inkjet or laser printer. The barcode will be scannable as long as the print quality is good.

However, printing barcode labels using regular printers comes with challenges such as:

  • Print quality may not be good enough to facilitate easy reading/scanning
  • Inkjet prints can easily smudge
  • Standard printers can’t print barcodes on many of the materials above
  • Standard printers require consumables while thermal printers don’t
  • Regular printers don’t support high-speed label printing, etc.

Thanks to these disadvantages and more, label printing using standard printers in industrial applications isn’t recommended.

Conclusion

The choice of label material will determine the cost, durability, and readability of your industrial barcode labels. The most durable materials cost more but are better for long-term labeling.

Paper labels are a good option, especially for barcodes that won’t be exposed to harsh environments and are not required to serve more than a few months. For barcodes that must last years, polyester, vinyl, and sturdier materials are a safer bet.

Factors such as operating environment, handling, and scanning distance should be considered when choosing label materials. You may also need to invest in specific types of printers to print on some materials.

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