Trials and Tribulations…..
When thermal printers reach the end of their working life a number of obstacles stand in the way of simply throwing them away and plugging in shiny new replacements. This document will provide an insight into some of the generic pitfalls and obstacles that may arise to prevent a smooth and seamless transition, and use a specific use case as an example.
Things to be aware of: These printers are normally going to be driving mission critical process within your business. As with any changes that can have a potentially expensive effect on your business you want to make sure that your transition from the old printers to the new ones goes as smoothly as possible.
Some things to think about:
- It may be quite some time since you last refreshed these devices. “Quite” can often in our experience range from 5 to 10 or even 12 or more years. This extreme delivery of ROI however can come at a price. Even when staying with the same vendor the large time span can mean that printers firmware (the programming that drives them and sets their behaviour) can change.
- Coupled with the previous point is that often the printers are being driven directly by host datatstreams. These datastreams in many cases were hand coded by application programmers who were not familiar with the print languages and as a result some of the output can be in-efficient or rely on certain behaviours in that printer firmware. The longer the period before replacement the more likely that the vendor will have tightened up, fixed or changed the operational way in which the print language is interpreted, normally to the operational detriment of the new replacement printer.
- Every vendor in the thermal market tends to have their own print language(s). Although most will have some form of compatibility emulation for other competing languages you need to bear in mind that having a 99% accurate emulation is still not good enough if it causes an error in your label and you can’t change the host datastream. Issues as documented previously may also exacerbate print fidelity issues. EG Vendor – “our emulation is 100% compatible with “xxxx” emulation”. Indeed it most certainly is, with today’s printers, but is it with the ones the other vendor was making 12 years ago?
- Personalisation – Any personalisation logos fonts etc. will need to be ported to the new printers.
- Asset management tools. Will the printers need to have specific files added to make them compatible, will this affect your licensing costs?
- Is the print quality the same? New printers may power the print head elements in a slightly different way and the labels (and/or ribbon) that you have been using in the “old” printers may result in a worse print quality on the new ones. Strange as it may seem this does happen.
- Will the new printers use the same media and ribbons as the old ones? I.e. is the winding (the direction in which the label and ribbon is wound off its roll) the same on the new printers as the old ones.
- User familiarisation – it is highly likely that the menu systems and operation of the new printers will be different from that of the old (especially if switching vendors). Consideration should be given to retraining or familiarisation for staff. Not only will this help with any change management it will also reduce potential damage, borne of frustration with the new devices, yes it does happen
- Security. A lot of replacement projects will be for first generation printers that were wireless connected. Is it time to upgrade your wireless security? Do the new printers have certain features that need to be locked down to prevent potential breaches of your firewalls?
So now you have had the time to digest all that how best should you proceed?
Like any good project the earlier you identify issues the far less costly they end up being to your business. Always run a pilot project and make sure you cover the following points.
- Always test single label prints but also fully test batch printing (if relevant to your business). The replacement printer should be able to print 5000 labels with the same (or ideally better) efficiency as the old ones. Things to look out for on multiple label runs include:
- Registration creep over multiple labels
- Stuttering between labels
- Pausing after “x” amount of labels.
- Deteriorating print quality
- Always test “every” label type / format you are going to send to the printer. With large WMS systems and the lack of test facilities it is often hard to even get the ability to generate “test” labels from the live system. It cannot be stressed how important it is to make the effort to do this before progressing too far with the project. Yes I know this sounds like a no brainer but you would be surprised how often this doesn’t happen.
- Put the new printers through the “whole” process including any staging requirements or how the support process (yes unfortunately some of them at least will go wrong at some point) is going to work for you.
- Use the enhancements that are built into the newer printers to increase your operational efficiency, don’t ignore them. Depending on your vendor and provider you may want to look at:
- In mobile printers – better battery management and replacement cycles (bad batteries account for a lot of Wi-Fi and print issues as they deteriorate). The intelligence in newer printer gives you the ability to monitor and pre-emptively stop failing batteries.
- Use tool such as REG to help reduce downtime and reduce the need for skilled IT involvement in the first line diagnosis and repair of printers.
- Look to include the management and tracking of your printer assets with those of your HHT devices.
- Ensure that the repair service you choose is right for your organisation. Do you have the right support services in house or with your partner to provide the optimum level of service, against cost that you require?
- Use vendor software to manage your printers more efficiently.