There are a few ways to label your tubes and vials, but which is the most cost-effective strategy? Truthfully, the answer depends on your processes.
Let’s take a look at 3 readily available tube and vial labeling methods—manual, automated and outsourced—and compare their associated costs.
Most facilities have used a hand-labeling strategy at some point in time—it’s accessible and makes sense starting out when throughput and budget can be low and/or unpredictable. However, hand labeling can inhibit growth due to the amount of time, effort and budget necessary to accommodate such a strategy.
While it may seem cost efficient and practical—this method is rather expensive for the average lab. Let’s break down the costs of manual labeling:
Regardless of how your labels are obtained and applied—consumables will play a role in the cost, and with few exceptions will include the same three items: labware, labels and inks/ribbons.
Your consumable costs will vary depending on your tubes and vials, volumes, print technology and whether your labels are purchased pre-printed, or you print in house.
The only equipment required in a hand labeling strategy is a printer—unless you’re ordering your labels pre-printed.
A range of printers are available at a variety of price-points—with simple and affordable models, to more capable investment pieces—but no matter the printer it will likely cost less than print-and-apply automation.
This reduced amount of up-front capital investment plays a major role in the misconception that hand-labeling is affordable. While the equipment itself may be inexpensive, there are associated costs in parts and maintenance in addition to consumables and labor.
While properly operating your printer can reduce how frequently you need to replace parts—check out this blog for 5 tips to keep your printhead in tip-top shape—your printer will require regular maintenance in order to keep it running at optimal performance.
In addition to the labor involved in maintaining a printer, replacement parts (such as printheads and rollers) will need to be purchased as necessary to keep your printer functioning properly.
There is also the potential for unexpected technical issues to arise, so consider what might be at stake monetarily if your lab were unable to print labels for a day.
Overall—when it comes to equipment you can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on a printer up front. Over time, you will likely need to invest in maintenance materials to keep things running smoothly in addition to regular consumable and labor costs. You may also want to factor in potential losses in the event technical difficulties interfere with throughput capabilities.
Applying labels by hand is very labor intensive—labels must be carefully applied to your tubes and vials in an effort to maximize readability. When printing is taken into account, consumables must be refilled and printers maintained which adds to the necessary labor involved if you choose to print in-house.
Inconsistency in label placement can also lead to unexpected losses and is a result of relying on manual labor. If a label is placed at an off angle, automated scanners may not be able to pick-up a reading downstream. Another potential issue would be bubbling or folding—samples may lose their integrity if there is a bubble or fold interfering with barcode scannability. Samples are often valuable, so you don’t want to lose them due to preventable human mistakes.
Additionally, it’s likely your facility has more valuable work to focus on. By reducing the amount of time and effort spent on tedious and time consuming tasks like labeling, employee time can be reallocated to efforts that bring you value more directly.
It must also be kept in mind that labor, like consumables, is a recurring cost, not a capital investment and unlike consumables, labor is a high value necessity.
While hand labeling remains commonplace in the healthcare industry, it’s neither strategic nor cost-efficient when labor & the bigger picture are taken into account. That is unless your facility is working with extremely small volumes.
If you’re labeling, let’s say 14 tubes per day that won’t come into contact with automated scanners later down the line, hand labeling will likely be justifiable.
In the case of facilities processing larger volumes of labware, while equipment costs are low and consumable costs standard, you end up paying for the laborious process of carefully applying labels in the long-run. Proper application of labels to labware can take hours when performed by hand and lead to significant physical stress when performed repeatedly, further slowing down the process.
Automated Label Application
Automated labeling can be intimidating—it requires planning, real estate, effort and capital investment to ensure proper implementation. What many facilities often dread the most is the risk involved in such—oftentimes—large investments.
While in the beginning automated labeling equipment was, to some facilities, an unattainable luxury—as the engineering of these products has been streamlined, label applicators have become more accessible and affordable.
Let’s take a look at what you can expect when it comes to investing in automation:
Consumable costs are going to remain comparable to hand-labeling—you’ll be looking at recurring labware, label and ribbon purchases or recurring pre-printed label purchases.
You will want to keep in mind that your labels will need to be compatible with your equipment—this may lead to a change in cost if you need to find new labels.
It’s also possible that your consumable purchases may increase in frequency or quantity due to increased throughput—though this is the result of higher performance, mainly applying to labs who utilize automation with the goal of increasing volumes.
Equipment costs are the biggest cause for intimidation when it comes to investing in an automated strategy. We will be the first to admit—automated equipment is an investment that needs to be vetted properly. However, when you consider the long-term performance enhancement it provides, you can justify the value. Trustworthy equipment has proven time and again to provide timely returns.
Depending on your throughput needs and budget there are a variety of options—from tube and vial labeling models like the cab Axon 2 which require limited operator involvement (a less than $10,000 investment) to models like the Flex Tube Pro which can be left to operate independently for up to two hours (starting at $100,000.)
This broad range of cost comes from the broad range of equipment capabilities necessary to accommodate laboratories big and small and their differing needs.
The main goal of implementing a tube and vial labeling automation strategy is to reduce labor—and it does a great job of doing that. This is where you’ll see immediate returns.
As we discussed in the manual labeling section, labor is expensive, and it’s likely you’re spending more on it than you might expect.
When you decrease the amount of employee time and effort allocated to labeling, you cut the overall cost of your labeling process. Automation ensures a consistent rate of application, and that rate is generally much faster than manual application—generally application will take between 3 and 7 seconds depending on which equipment you choose; this can be less than half the amount of time spent as compared to manual labeling.
It’s likely you’ll end up with a few extra hands post implementation—and this can actually work in your favor. Spare employee time can be reallocated to tasks that offer more direct value to your mission—further optimizing your process and increasing your opportunity to see ROI.
Overall, automation is designed specifically to target the most costly part of the labeling process—labor.
Yes, label automation equipment requires a significant capital investment, however this investment can be returned through the reduction of employee time spent labeling. Plus, you’ll find further value after you see your returns as your equipment continues to provide optimized performance and your employees can continue to focus on your mission.
Outsourcing is a method of marking that is often dismissed by or unknown to facilities who could benefit from it. While generic pre-marked labware is available, many are unaware of programs that allow laboratories and storage facilities to tailor labware marking and preparation to their unique needs.
However, one major downside to this method is the inability to accommodate data that isn’t known at the time of ordering. There are some exceptions to this rule though; if you are able to provide data after the order is in place—but a few days to a week prior to shipping—your supplier may provide some flexibility. However, if you’re seeking to add time sensitive data to your labels and improve your process, automation is a trustworthy option to consider as well.
If you choose to utilize a pre-marking strategy—generic or otherwise—you condense your consumable purchases into one. Instead of requiring tubes, labels and inks or ribbons, you place a single order for your pre-marked labware.
You must keep in mind that your supplier will be covering these costs and passing them onto you in your final order—but there may still be some opportunity for savings. Your supplier may be able to negotiate with partnering suppliers. For example, as part of our READY Labware Services program, we negotiate costs with labware suppliers then pass savings onto our customers.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re working with a company offering more customized options, is the availability of specialty marking technologies. Many suppliers of pre-marked labware are capable of providing marking technologies that would be difficult—if not impossible—to implement within a laboratory or compound storage facility. A lot of these marking technologies are more costly than more readily available marking methods, but provide incredible value to the right facility.
For example, at Computype, we offer ceramic labeling—an extremely durable marking solution. While on the higher-end side of marking technologies, ceramic markings are capable of providing readable markings through decades of storage and chemical treatment. While these features may not benefit every facility—to long-term compound storage companies these traits provide a value that matches, if not succeeds the cost.
What equipment? No, really! If you’re ordering your labware pre-marked you no longer need to worry about investing in printers or label automation. That is, unless you require them for additional needs or are adding labels later on—however even this situation can be completely averted by working with a supplier who can customize your order to include all the markings you need from the very beginning.
While you don’t need to invest directly in equipment, your supplier does, and will likely pass some of the equipment cost onto you. Not to worry though, equipment costs will be split between various clients and will have minimal impact on the overall cost of your order.
Labor is another cost that can essentially be eliminated—employee time and effort no longer need to be accounted for on your end. However—keep in mind your supplier will have employees of their own performing this labor instead.
The costs associated with labor on your suppliers part will be reflected in the overall cost of your order. Your supplier may be able to reduce time and labor costs associated with your order through the use of automated equipment—so it may be worth it to do the math and compare costs associated to your current process.
While it’s possible you won’t see improved costs in comparison to your current system when it comes to labor—let’s not forget that you have handed the task of labeling over to someone else, giving your employees more time to focus on tasks that can directly offer your facility value.
Some programs, such as our READY Labware Services Program offer additional services such as custom packaging and tare weighing to further reduce the burden of tedious tasks on your lab.
When it comes to the cost of pre-labeled labware it’s going to be comparable to the cost of hand-labeling or automated labeling due to the fact that you will not only be passing this work over to your supplier, but the associated costs. If you’re taking advantage of more customized options you may actually end up investing more, but in return finding more value by way of:
- Markings you couldn’t previously include (logos, graduation marks etc.)
- Durability provided by marking technologies applied directly to the labware surface
- Receiving your labware with the dirty work of sorting, kitting and tare weighing already performed
- Reliable barcodes provided by high-resolution imagery in combination with sequence management services
- Real-estate savings, you no longer need to dedicate space to label storage or equipment
Succinctly, the main appeal of programs like READY Labware Services is the ability to reduce effort within your facility and improve upon your marking technology. This allows you to find returns in dedicating more employee time to tasks that directly provide your facility with monetary value—without hiring more employees, while also reducing the number of lost, or unscannable containers.
If you can associate monetary loss to an overabundance of time spent on less valuable tasks—such as labeling, sorting, kitting or tare weighing, or to loss of sample integrity caused by a sub-par marking technology you may find value in outsourcing your labware marking.
Hopefully we’ve given you the tools to evaluate your processes and make the most cost-effective decision when selecting a labeling method.
Labor is an incredibly costly resource, and by automating or outsourcing your processes you can both reduce and reallocate in-house labor to tasks that offer more direct value to your processes, and in doing so justify your labeling costs while optimizing your practices.