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European Manufacturer Simplifies Pallet Labelling and Reduces Costs at Multiple Locations

Overview

Customer

Pan-European manufacturer. Turnover +£1bn.

Business Problem

An overly complex and expensive labelling system at the end of every production line in every plant. Prone to producing duplicate labels.

Exmos Solution

Develop an intranet based system using standard laser printers and thin clients at the end of each line.

Tools used

  • Microsoft SQL Server 2005
  • Visual Studio 2005/2008
  • c#, JavaScript, HTML, CSS
  • ASP.NET Ajax
  • Seagull Scientific Bartender
  • Seagull Scientific Commander

Benefits

No more duplicate pallets, simpler label design, less hardware at the end of each line. Hardware comprises low cost, standard equipment available off the shelf.

Abstract

Exmos designed and developed an intranet based pallet labelling system allowing operators to trigger label printing from a thin client to a network printer at the end of each line of a 24/7 production facility.

Business Problem

Exmos' customer was looking for a replacement for their current pallet labelling system. Their existing system was prone to producing duplicate labels and was extremely complex to design labels for. These problems caused a great deal of cost in terms of man hours as well as lost product and unnecessary delivery cost. Depending on their clients' logistics system, when duplicate pallets arrived at a client's site they would either be returned or would not be noticed and both pallets with the same details would be scanned in to stock. However, only one pallet would be counted as delivered.

The existing system was also overly mechanical and automated. It would print the label and also attempt to attach the label to the pallet. More often than not, this would fail and operators would have to manually attach the label which was time consuming. However if part of the hardware failed it could be both expensive and time consuming to replace these specialised parts.

Pallets need to be scanned into the warehouse after production. If the current system failed, production would effectively stop as soon as the number of pallets without labels exceeded the amount of space at the end of the line. For this reason, a new system would need to be able to print emergency pallet tickets, which would be printed in advance by office workers.

The business requirements were:

  • No more duplicate labels
  • Hardware can be replaced with minimum downtime and from low cost, readily available equipment
  • Labels can be designed by any member of staff using a simple WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor
  • Office workers can manage the jobs running on each line
  • Office workers can print emergency labels to be used in the event of system downtime

Exmos Solution

It was decided to use a web based system with the printers installed on the web server, this had the following benefits:

  • No software installation was needed at the end of each line
  • Almost no configuration was required at the end of each line
  • The system was not dependant on specific hardware
  • The machine triggering the print did not necessarily need to be near it's printer

Some people had concerns about the responsiveness of a website's user interface. However having seen the interfaces produced by organisations such as Google Maps, Zoho and other AJAX style websites both Exmos and their client were confident that an interface could be designed to match almost any windows forms solution. Importantly, Exmos developers' already had considerable experience in this area.

Office workers were provided with simple web forms to edit the production data which was imported from the client's production system. They were given further forms to assign production data to each line and to print emergency labels in advance. The whole system used ASP.NET membership for security.

Shop floor workers had a configuration screen to enter which line the machine was on and printing screens to trigger the label printing.

For the label design and physical printing it was decided to use the industry leading label software from Seagull Scientific - Bartender. This decision was made due to the usability of the label design software and the experience Exmos developers' had with Seagull on a previous project. As well as providing easy to use software to design and print, Seagull offer a Windows Service called Commander and a .net API both of which can be used to trigger Bartender to print labels.

The life of a job on this system:

  1. The label is designed using Bartender
  2. Production data is loaded into the SQL Server Database
  3. An office worker edits the production data and confirms this job has sufficient data to print a label
  4. When the job starts on the shop floor, an office worker assigns the job to a line
  5. On the shop floor, if the PC is not configured, the user sets what line the machine is on
  6. As each pallet is completed the user triggers a print by clicking a button. If necessary they can cancel and reprint
  7. At the start of each day an office worker produces enough emergency pallets for each line
  8. When the job is complete a new job is added to that line replacing the old one

The life of a pallet print on this system:

  1. The user clicks print
  2. A unique sequence number for this pallet is created
  3. A record is created for each printout for this pallet. Sometimes pallets have multiple labels
  4. Before printing it checks if the user has clicked cancel
  5. For each print Bartender is triggered to print with the unique sequence number and printer
  6. Bartender pulls additional data from the database
  7. Bartender prints to the printer. This is configured to each line and installed on the web server
  8. Each print record is updated after Bartender acknowledges successful printing

Business Benefits

After running on just two lines for several months, the system was applied to all lines at the initial site. This immediately allowed for the replacement of an unreliable system with a five figure cost for the hardware and software. The replacement solution on each line has a standard network laser printer and a thin client running only a browser. The new hardware can be replaced at little expense through any vendor, and the software can be configured in a matter of minutes.

Further Development

After running for several more months without issue the system was Further developed. It can now be used on multiple plants at once, in different languages and with a webservice interface so internal systems can automatically trigger the pallet label print.

The system is currently used in 7 sites across Europe in 3 languages.