print and apply TTO industrial labeling

The Evolution of Labeling Technology

We take labels for granted when we go to the store and buy hundreds of consumer packaged goods every month, but how many of us stop and think how those labels got there? Perhaps more importantly, how many of us consider the ways in which these packages and labels have evolved?

To answer these questions, we went out and did some research to see if we could track how industrial labeling equipment — and the technology behind it — evolved over the years. What we found is that innovation and adoption happened constantly, making it difficult to come up with a clear story on how label printing has progressed from then to now. In fact, many companies still use some of the most ancient technologies to this day!

Yet, a few pieces of printing technology did stand out, so here are the labeling technologies that we think have pushed the manufacturing industry forward the most over hundreds of years.

1800 — Tin Cans, Paper Labels, and Lithography

Some of the oldest forms of labeling were built directly into the product packages themselves. Glass, metal, and even stone was stamped with trademarks indicating the name of the craftsman or company who had manufactured it.

At the beginning of the 19th century, this practice began to change as mass manufacturing made stamping inefficient and more prone to damaging goods when trying to process them in large volumes. Mass glass bottling and, later, canning demanded a process that could be done at high speeds. Since adhesives that could be used to make paper labels were not yet available, companies chose to print directly on the tins through a process known as “lithography,” which was invented around the same time.

Unlike traditional “press” printing, lithography could transfer from one flat surface to another if the printing drum was coated in an oily substance in the shape of the pattern desired. Lithography produces beautiful, crisp images result printed directly onto tins, cans, and other objects. In fact, many modern mass canning operations still use lithography today.

1880 — Adhesive Paper Labels

As lithography grew in popularity, mass printing in full color became cheaper than ever. Experimentation with gum-based adhesives allowed product manufacturers to begin printing paper labels separately and then attaching them to products.

Typeset printing also allowed smaller companies like pharmacists and regional manufacturers to print simple lettered labels and affix them to generic bottles and cases, allowing consumers to differentiate between products even if the packaging was nearly identical.

1970 — The Rise of Package Coding

As industrialization lead to a rise in mass manufacturing of consumer packaged goods, manufacturers began to struggle with ways to monitor the flow of goods and keep track of inventory within swelling warehouses. The solution was to begin applying unique codes to each box that could help manufacturers, distributors, and retailers keep track of each individual product type by shelf-keeping unit (SKU). Around the same time, retailers began to demand ways for items to be read automatically by electronic scanning equipment at checkout rather than having to be punched in manually, which could lead to mistakes. An employee of IBM developed the universal product code (UPC) bar code in response, leading to packages having both SKUs and UPC codes listed upon them.

Printed labels had to be more precise and legible than ever, requiring higher resolution labels that were predominantly pre-printed.

Industrial Labeling Equipment Now — Shrink Film, Digital Inkjet, Thermal Transfer, and More

Rapid advancements in material science and digital printing have lead to huge changes in the way our goods and products are produced.

Shrink film, for instance, allows lithographic and paper label printing to be replaced by cheaper plastic packaging materials. Pallet loads are automatically identified using Print and Apply Labeling that enables computerized warehouse management and streamlines logistics for producers. Digitally controlled printheads and thermal transfer overprinting technology allow for materials to be printed as part of the main process line with precise, high resolution images and the ability to change print job requests on-the-fly.

Your production operation can adopt these latest labeling capabilities to achieve better process speeds and economies of scale than you ever envisioned. If you want to know more about how to reduce costs and increase production through modernizing your process line, you can contact one of our industrial production consultants today to get started.


  • Mark Raab

    The process of identifying today's packaging manages to simplify the means in which consumer's are informed. Examples of this are: Ingredient Panels - Pricing - Best if Used By - Date of Manufacture - Bar Coding and Data Management name just a few of the many benefits derivived from digital devices. The impack of these "Smart Tools" is significant in the modern era. Raab Sales helps customers understand the best use of these devices and helps them achieve their goals. Painless! Mark Raab President Raab Sales, Inc.

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