Durability is an incredibly important factor in choosing labels for the healthcare industry, leading suppliers of barcodes and labels that work with healthcare facilities to seek out more durable alternatives to traditional labeling—such as direct mark.
In this post we aim to answer some common questions about direct mark technology—what it is, what makes it different, how to get direct mark and how much it costs compared to pressure sensitive labels.
What is Direct Mark Technology?
Direct mark is a marking technology capable of placing images directly onto the surface of an item. It’s commonly used on glass or plastic containers, like tubes, vials, microwell plates and more.
There are two main methods of direct mark: a reductive process such as laser etching, and additive processes where inks, resins or foils are fused to the surface of the item.
Some laser etching systems combine additive and reductive processes by applying layers of ink to the surface prior to etching them away revealing the different colored layers or surface below. This preserves the integrity of the labware and allows for the use of color.
Since the mark is applied directly to the surface of the labware it’s much harder to peel off than most pressure sensitive labels. While consistent abrasion—such as filing the mark—can remove a direct mark image, infrequent abrasion—such as what may occur with robotic handling—isn’t likely to impact your image.
In addition to being able to stand up to abrasion, both direct mark methods are capable of enduring chemical and extreme temperature exposures. Once again, the lack of adhesive eliminates one of the most precarious factors of a label.
This isn’t to say pressure sensitive labels are fickle—with proper engineering and application, pressure sensitive labels can withstand extreme exposures. Plenty of viable pressure sensitive options exist to withstand common lab exposures and cryogenic storage, but if your current solution isn’t working, or you’re looking for another feature only direct mark can offer you may want to consider direct mark.
As far as appearance goes, since the object itself becomes the media—a transparent background is an option. Many direct mark customers take advantage of this to add graduation lines, but it can also be useful for at-a-glance identification, branding and aesthetic purposes.
Adaptability to Shape and Diameter Needs
Another benefit stemming from the lack of media is direct mark’s ability to adapt to unique shapes. The ink or etching can stay true to the form of irregular shaped labware items that may be difficult to accommodate with pressure sensitive labels—like conical tubes.
Additionally, direct mark has little to no effect on the diameter of the tube making it especially suitable for applications where tubes need to be able to fit into trays.
Additive direct mark methods offer another benefit—color. Introducing color to your direct mark strategy—or any labeling strategy really—can aid in both organization and branding initiatives.
Color can be a useful tool in keeping your samples and processes organized. By color coding samples, technicians can identify instructions, chain of custody and/or storage locations at a glance to reduce likelihood for error and simplify tracking.
Branding also becomes easier with the addition of color—since many brands use color to represent their identity. Including logo’s on labware can also add to the organization benefits of color when samples are destined for compound storage in addition to promoting brand awareness.
How to Achieve Direct Mark?
There are two ways you can achieve a direct mark strategy, in-house or pre-marked. We’ll discuss both here and explain why we choose to only offer direct mark through our READY Labware Services, pre-barcoded labware program.
Direct Mark In-House
A small number of direct mark tube and vial labelers for use in laboratories and sample storage facilities are available on the market.
These labelers can offer the benefits mentioned above, durable imagery, colored inks, transparency, minimal effect on tube diameter and adaptability to tube shapes—and even more they allow users to include information that isn’t available before the tube reaches the benchtop such as patient specific data.
While these systems suited to laboratory and storage facility use can provide the features mentioned—they are somewhat limited in their capabilities in comparison to the equipment available to label and labware manufacturers.
These machines are generally limited to the labeling of tubes and vials—they cannot accommodate microwell plates or non-cylindrical pieces of labware. Additionally, there isn’t always much flexibility in the tube sizes able to be accommodated.
There’s also limited flexibility when it comes to the type of tubes used—its strongly recommended to use tubes or vials with a white patch or label already applied if you intend to print barcodes. Only one color can be printed at a time, preventing users from printing a barcode with a white background in a single pass—assuming white inks are even available.
While printing text onto a translucent background in any color is acceptable, it’s not recommended to print a barcode onto a background of any color other than white, and the barcode itself should be printed with black ink. This is because barcode readers rely heavily on contrast—the stronger the contrast between the bars and the background, the more reliable the code will be when it comes time to scan.
Due to the limitations of these systems we only recommend utilizing an in-house direct mark strategy if your processes require data that can only be obtained immediately prior to labeling. If you’re interested in a direct mark solution and can work with generic data or provide necessary data ahead of time, we suggest you seek out a pre-marked option.
Pre-Direct Marked Labware
As with most pre-marked labware programs, customization options vary—some companies will only offer generic sequential barcodes with little to no color options on limited labware items, others will offer broad ranges of labware options, custom sequences and custom color imagery.
Due to the range of customization capabilities available from different suppliers, it’s important to check that your supplier is capable of meeting your specific needs. If all you need are generic sequential barcode sets then most suppliers offering direct mark will be able to accommodate your needs. However, if you have a custom sequence and/or are seeking to include color, logo’s or other more specialized markings you will need to seek out a supplier who can accommodate your requests.
Keep in mind what type of direct mark a supplier is using as well. As we mentioned before, laser etching alone doesn’t allow for the use of color and also isn’t able to provide high contrast barcodes—so it’s best suited for adding single tone logos and graduation marks. If you’re looking for higher scan rates and/or colorful logo designs you’ll want to find a supplier who can provide an additive or combined direct mark method.
To serve as an example of what a pre-marked direct mark service might look like, let’s talk about our own program, READY Labware Services. Through READY Labware Services we offer ink-based direct mark alongside our standard labeling options as well as ceramic labels.
We offer generic sequences if requested, but are also able to accommodate custom data requirements—we just need your specifications upon order placement.
In addition to custom barcode sequences, our direct mark offerings can include custom colored and shaped markings. We can work with a broad range of shapes and sizes of labware—though there are some limitations so it’s important to discuss details with your representative. We can also provide additional markings necessary to meet your organization and branding needs.
When it comes to sorting, kitting and packaging your order we work with your needs just as we would any other pre-marked solution under the READY Labware Services umbrella—we can also provide a tare weight upon request.
These programs tend to be extremely scalable as well—meaning facilities processing the smallest to the largest of volumes can be accommodated so long as they find the right supplier for the job. This can be extremely beneficial for labs and storage facilities both small and large where resources currently dedicated to labeling are limited and could be dedicated to areas more valuable to your bottom line.
To put it simply, any facility interested in a direct mark strategy that doesn’t require extremely time sensitive information can find a solution—they just need to find the right partner to ensure all needs are met.
How Much Does Direct Mark Cost?
You can expect to pay a bit of a premium when implementing direct mark in comparison to a pressure sensitive labeling strategy for a number of reasons—mainly the features direct mark offers that pressure sensitive labels can’t.
Here we’ll break down the expenditures you can anticipate when investing in direct mark as well as how you can expect to justify the expenses—so long as the strategy works for you.
When it comes to purchasing an in-house strategy there is the capital investment of the printer itself as well as recurring consumable costs. The printer is going to be significantly more expensive than a standard pressure sensitive label printer—but keep in mind it’s functions are more comparable to a printer-applicator and thus the pricing will be more comparable to tube and vial label automation than to a label printer.
You can also expect to pay more for the specialized inks, unless it’s a system that utilizes thermal transfer ribbon. This increase in cost can be easily justified with the lack of media and increased staying power—providing lasting barcodes and eliminating label costs.
Like we mentioned previously, while the costs can be justified in this manner, unless you require time sensitive data on your tubes, you may find a pre-marked labware solution more efficient—cost and otherwise.
With a pre-marked strategy the equipment cost becomes the suppliers responsibility, taking a bit of the weight off your shoulders. While your supplier of course will need to make up for that cost through their customers—they will likely have multiple clients to split the costs between making it more affordable for everyone.
Keep in mind however, that the equipment your supplier has isn’t likely to be what’s available to you and will likely be more expensive—but also more capable. Your supplier will also charge you for the services they are performing through supplying and marking your tubes (and possibly even more).
Some direct mark processes require a curing phase where inks are exposed to UV lights to harden. This adds time, labor, equipment and energy to the process that will also need to be accounted for.
You can expect to pay more for pre-direct marked tubes, than pre-labeled tubes. This is in part due to increased consumable costs, labor involved and also due to the features available only with direct mark.
So, you’ll want to ensure you can justify a direct mark strategy before you invest. If you can attach monetary/sample loss to your current processes that would be solved with transparency, compatibility with oddly shaped tubes or reduced impact on tube diameter direct mark may be a justifiable expense. If you’re working with a supplier who can offer a range of custom options consider whether you can attach monetary benefits to adding color, branding, graduation lines—if you can’t? just keep it simple.
Overall, direct mark is a unique marking method that offers durability and adaptability to unique shapes in comparison to pressure sensitive labels and can include additional features like color or graduation lines.
Direct mark is a great choice for facilities where a pre-labeled labware program is practical and efficient and pressure sensitive labels simply don’t cut it. Most importantly, you’ll want to seek out a supplier who can meet your needs or tailor their services to meet them.