Label printers are all very well, but to make them do anything useful, we need to be able to send them data so that we can get our labels printed.
There are a number of ways to do this, one of the more common being to use label design software, such as BarTender, LabelView or NiceLabel to send the labels to the printer. This usually involves using the software’s printer driver to convert the data into a format that the printer understands.
Another common approach is to design a label file that is formatted in the programming language of the printer straight to the label printer with no label software involved. This is often used in large enterprises, where the company’s ERP or other software is set up to send a formatted file to the label printer when an event needing a particular label occurs.
Each of the different label printer manufacturers have developed their own programming language. By virtue of having the largest market share in barcode printers, Zebra’s ZPL programming language has become very much a standard for developing label files. Of course, not wanting to be left out of the fun, the other printer manufacturers have their own programming languages as well; DLP for Datamax and IPL (Fingerprint, too) for Intermec are just two examples.
For the end users of these label printers, getting locked into the language of one printer company or another, has tended to mean it can be hard to switch brands of printer – even though there might be a reason to change, the aggravation of reformatting a whole lot of label files can be too much.
To try and help with this, just about every printer company has developed emulation firmware that can allow their product to work with label files designed for other brands of printer.
Basically, this allows the user to send a Datamax DPL file to a Zebra printer and the printer firmware will convert to Zebra speak and produce the correct label. From our experience, this process seems to work fine about 90% of the time – that last 10% can be rather painful though.
We generally recommend that it is best to stick with the brand of printer that the original label file was designed for, unless there is a really compelling reason to switch.
There are a couple of printer companies that are attempting to break this reliance on proprietary printer languages. Source Technologies and Cognitive Solutions (you can read a WhitePaper on this topic on the Cognitive site) both have printer models that use the PCL printer language. This is the language used for a lot of non-label printing jobs, such as the printing done by all those HP laser and inkjet printers – PCL was developed by HP for this purpose.
I’ve been chatting with both of these companies about their PCL implementations and I’m still trying to decide if this has any advantages for most customers or not.
Most of our Winco customers are using label software to handle their label data. In these cases, the actual printer language doesn’t really matter, the print driver turns the label into the native printer format behind the scenes so no big deal. Indeed, the PCL could be a detriment in some cases. Our BarTender software for example doesn’t have a driver for the Source Technologies printers which means to use this software, I’d have to resort to using SourceTech’s generic Windows driver. While I’m assured this plays nicely with BarTender, I’d be happier to have a real Seagull driver (I’m told this is currently in development!).
Where the PCL could be a big advantage is in environments that have a mixed population of printers – hospitals being a good example. At the moment, many label printing jobs are carried out on laser printers using PCL formatted files for the print jobs. Having PCL enabled thermal printers allows the hospital to take advantage of the many advantages of thermal printing technology with the least possible amount of disruption to operations. A lot of hospital IT software, such as Meditech uses PLC label files, so using this language allows SourceTech or Cognitive printers to be easily integrated into the Meditech environment.
It will be interesting to see if more printer manufacturers decide to get on board with PCL (either as the machine’s native OS or as emulation). At the moment, thermal label printers usually have to be treated differently to the rest of an organizations printer inventory. Maybe this is the way to bring everything into one cohesive printing environment?
In any event, it is nice to see some companies trying to do things a little differently. What do you think? Would a thermal printer that is PCL enables make you more likely to buy that brand?
Let me know if there is anything we can do to help with any aspect of your labeling or identification operations – 603-598-1553 x237.