One question we’re frequently asked by our customers in research and diagnostics is, "What exactly is an automatic microwell plate label applicator and what does it do?"
The simplicity of our answer may surprise you. In their basic form, automatic microwell plate label applicators do exactly what the name suggests—they automatically apply labels to your microwell plates.
They can greatly reduce, or even eliminate the task of manual labeling from your facility, saving you time and budget. However, determining what kind of applicator makes sense for you given your goals, processes, and business case may not be so simple.
In order to help you find the best label applicator system for you, here are some points to consider:
How are you applying labels today?
Assuming you're already using barcodes to identify your plates and are looking to explore application options, we should first consider what your method is today.
Whether you’re purchasing plates with generic labels already applied, have your own staff labeling in-house, or a combination of the two strategies, it's important to understand how you're accomplishing this task now, and the challenges that come along with your current process.
Knowing how your current process works will help in determining feasibility in shifting to an automated process.
How many labels?
As you can imagine, the need to apply a few hundred labels per day vs. the need to apply a few thousand or even hundreds of thousands will lead to a different kind of applicator solution.
For starters, your automation supplier will want to know how many labels are being applied to each plate, how many sides need a barcode, what level of placement accuracy is required for automated scanning, and how quickly all of that needs to be done to keep pace with the workflow. Some equipment is capable of applying labels to multiple sides of a plate automatically, while other automated labelers require manual intervention to label multiple sides.
In instances where multiple labels need to be applied to each plate and a higher volume of plates need to be labeled, a plate labeler that can automatically label multiple sides of each plate will be most helpful. On the other hand, if you have a smaller volume of plates, or labels that only need to be applied to one side—no matter the volume—a labeler without that capability will do just fine.
For labs with extremely high volumes, we might recommend purchasing multiple plate labeling systems.
The unique thing about microwell plate labelers is that volume rarely affects the footprint of the labeling equipment, however, most microwell plate labelers can be easily integrated into larger workflows. This is extremely helpful if there is an existing automated workflow that would be improved with a labeler, but labs that expect to build an integrated workflow beginning with a labeler will need to keep real estate in mind.
What are you hoping to accomplish with label automation?
More specifically, why are you considering automating the labeling process? A few reasons our customers are typically looking to do this include the following:
- Reduce manual labor associated with labeling and reallocate staff to more value-added activities
- Improve label placement accuracy for reduction of downstream bottlenecks due to scanning
- Reduce errors associated with manual labeling
- Integrate the labeling process with existing lines or workflows to optimize efficiency
Goals in all of the above areas can be reached with the right automated plate labeling solution. Plates of different well-constructions and heights can be labeled precisely with automatic adjustments, labels can be consistently placed on multiple sides of each plate and automatic scanning can ensure accuracy and scannability of labels, all while speeding up your processes.
Different applicators have different capabilities, however, so understanding your goals will be critical in determining what kind of label applicator makes the most sense for you.
Do you need a system to both print and apply plate labels?
Some automatic label applicator systems will automatically print labels and apply them. Other systems are designed to apply an already imaged label or die-cut part. If your labeling strategy requires variable data (date, lot code, product-specific information, etc.), you'll need to consider a system that, at a minimum, prints information on-demand before automatic application.
On the flip side, if your primary goal is to apply labels only, you might want to consider forgoing automation altogether and instead explore the benefits of outsourcing. Learn more about Computype's program for pre-barcoded microwell plates here.
What is your budget?
It should come as no surprise that investing in automatic label applicators can vary in cost depending on the features necessary for your processes and environment.
We can’t speak for all suppliers, but as an example, our standard automated microwell plate label application options start between $23,000 and $40,000 based on operator involvement requirements. Additional accommodations are almost always necessary and will affect the cost so it’s unlikely you’ll end up paying the base price.
Custom automation is another option, with an even broader range in cost. Typically, custom automation will cost more than a standard solution and this is primarily because custom solutions are generally only necessary in extremely high throughput situations. In order to meet high throughput goals very large equipment is often required.
Whether you go with a standard or a custom solution from a trusted partner when considering business justification for a label applicator system, it's helpful to think through opportunity costs; what is the expense if a labeling mistake occurs, or if an asset doesn't get labeled at all?
Also, consider what you’re already spending on labeling. Think about the number of hours your employees spend labeling, the amount they’re getting paid to do so, and how that adds up over time!
Simply put, automatic label applicators can greatly reduce or even fully replace the manual task of labeling. Determining which kind of system is right for you will depend on multiple factors associated with your goals, process, industry, and label volume.
Here at Computype, we've been helping customers improve their labeling processes with label automation for over 40 years. Our Global Services Team and Equipment Engineers are experts in helping you determine which applicator makes the most sense for your business, budget, and future goals.