As a leader in barcode and labeling solutions we get asked a lot of questions about barcode application best practices. This conversation typically leads to analyzing the facility’s current practices and looking into alternative barcoding methods. Now, you might be asking yourself “what are the different methods of barcoding tubes and vials?” and this is another common question we get asked.

Many labs are too focused on their research and growth—as they should be—to stay updated on the latest label application practices. This is why we are here to tell you about three different barcoding methods, when they make the most sense to implement and how they can allow the right lab to spend less time thinking about barcodes and more time doing research.

1. Apply tube labels by hand

Labeling tubes by hand is always an option. All you need to accomplish a hand labeling strategy is trained staff and either pre-printed label stock or blank label stock and a printer. When a manual labeling strategy is in place, technicians will either prepare their own labware prior to testing or a team of labeling staff will prepare the labware for lab technicians. This method is widely practiced, but what many of the labs utilizing this method don’t know is that it’s best suited for a very narrow category of labs.

Hand labeling is really only fit for low volume or inconsistent lab operations that don’t require complete precision of placement and have time to spare on preparation. In most cases this applies to labs that are just starting up where it can be cost efficient to utilize existing employees to prepare labware when sample volumes are low. In-house hand labeling solutions are especially helpful in cases where sample volumes aren’t consistent since labels can be printed as needed and media can be changed to utilize the printer for other purposes. If a lab doesn’t require variable information they can also begin ordering pre-printed label stock from a supplier to speed up processes as their sample volume begins to grow and become more consistent.

Outside of the start-up situation, the drawbacks of hand labeling become more apparent. Obviously, when labels are manually applied a human workforce is required, and that workforce will need to grow as volumes increase, right? Not necessarily, although hiring more employees is definitely an option it is a huge long term investment. While alternatives like automation and outsourcing are also large investments, they usually end up being more cost efficient than hiring new staff when factors like employee reallocation and improvements in efficiency and accuracy are considered. Though investing in new employees could be valuable to your lab, investing in an alternative labeling solution and reallocating employees to more valuable positions may be a better option depending on where your lab is in terms of growth.

Another important consideration when it comes to manual labeling is the possibility of human error. Tubes and vials often contain human specimens that must be accurately marked for proper diagnosis and treatment of patients. When mistakes are made during the manual labeling process the integrity of your samples will be compromised unless steps are taken to avoid or resolve errors. When sample integrity is lost in the diagnostic field it can lead to potentially dangerous situations that must be avoided at all costs.

Poorly placed labels can also cause issues by interfering with downstream processes. As automation grows more prevalent samples are more likely to come into contact with automated equipment at some point during processing. Automated equipment requires accurate label placement to identify samples, which is difficult to achieve when labels are being applied manually. Standard Operating Procedure often requires employees to wear latex gloves when handling sample containers that adhesives are prone to stick to, making accurate placement even more difficult.

Lastly, if your lab makes the decision to label by hand, employees are then responsible for keeping inventory of all necessary materials like labels and ribbon, and maintaining a printer which can be costly if errors or inconsistencies are to occur.

2. Purchase an automated vial label applicator

Automation equipment is growing more prevalent as it improves efficiency and accuracy in all areas—including labware label application. A range of labware labeling equipment exists, offering different levels of automation—from standalone desktop units that apply labels one at a time, to larger more customized machinery that can be integrated into a larger automated workflow. For example, here at Computype we offer two tube and vial label automation options. The first, the Tube Pro is a standalone desktop label applicator that can apply a single label to a single tube as needed. We also offer the Flex Tube Pro, a larger piece of machinery that can sort, orient, label and dispense up to 2000 tubes and vials over the course of two hours at the push of a button. The Flex Tube Pro can also be incorporated into a larger workflow to complement existing automation processes or future endeavors.

Automated equipment ensures accurate labels are precisely placed on labware for consistency and scanning efficiency. Automation equipment is also able to apply labels significantly faster than they can be applied by hand further improving efficiency.

Automated labeling isn’t for every lab, but there are a few cases where it’s likely to be the ideal labeling strategy:

  • High volume applications: With high volume applications label automation can expedite the process and enable a higher throughput rate. This increases efficiency, and makes the labeling of your tubes and vials part of your existing process. It also frees up employees time—that would normally be spent labeling—to work on more valuable tasks that could also use an efficiency upgrade.
  • Larger automated processes: As mentioned above, automation is becoming more widely used in the healthcare industry. If your practice is already utilizing automatic processes or looking to move towards automation your labels may need to be precisely placed in order to prevent stoppages downstream. Many automated labeling systems can be easily integrated into larger automated systems, further promoting your shift to automation and ensuring consistent scan rates throughout your process.
  • Label accuracy is critical: In healthcare, when human samples and specimens are being held in tubes and vials, conserving the integrity of the sample is always the number one priority. When automation equipment is used variable data can be recorded and accurately placed on samples in a single step to reduce the risk of mislabeling.

As with any method of labeling, label automation does have its drawbacks. The main drawback of automation is that it’s a major investment of both time and budget. Typically, this shift in process will require capital expenditure and a lot of planning. You will need to consider if there is enough space for the equipment, how existing automation will integrate, what will be done with the current labeling space, and where your employees will be reallocated. Once all is considered, as long as your automation implementation plan has been fully considered you should see justification of ROI.

3. Source pre-barcoded labware kits

A few label and labware suppliers have outsourcing programs where they take care of the procurement, printing and application of barcode labels onto your labware. The labware will be prepared to your specifications and some suppliers even offer additional services like tare weighing, special marking technologies, kitting, sorting and custom packaging. This solution enables you to be completely hands-off when it comes to labeling and leaves you and your staff to focus on more valuable laboratory processes.

This option is ideal for applications of any volume that don’t require variable information and will need a more long-term barcoding solution than a regular pressure sensitive label. For instance, samples that need to be stored within harsh environments for long periods of time may need a more durable marking technology that can’t be applied in the lab.

At Computype we offer 3 different marking technologies to accommodate labs that require more resilient or colored identification options, including a variety of pressure sensitive labels, direct mark and ceramic labels. Once you’ve selected your marking technology you can choose whether or not you would like your labware to be tare weighed and decide how you would like it to be packaged. A system like this is an ideal option for time and labor savings. You’ll also save space in the stock room by removing all of your labware and label related supplies.

Just like the other two options, there are drawbacks. For starters, since your labels are being printed and applied ahead of time, time sensitive or patient specific information can’t be accommodated. Additionally, although an outsourcing program provides flexibility, time, space, and manual labor savings, it takes direct control over labeling away from your lab when you aren’t in-house to oversee the process. This is why it’s important to work with an outsourcing partner you trust to collaborate with you, so you can be sure they are accommodating your specifications and working to meet your needs.

As you can see, there are various ways you can label your tubes and vials. Labeling by hand, integrating label automation equipment, and outsourcing your labeling are all viable—potentially beneficial—options for your lab depending on your current sample demand and consistency. If you feel like your current labeling method isn’t working for your lab, reach out to your supplier to see what they have to offer. Computype has the resources to accommodate all of these options, and can advise you on finding the best option to meet your goals and improve your processes.


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