Color Me a Label....But Make it Cheap.
February 19, 2010 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Which method is better for printing short-run color labels: A) pre-printing a big batch with the color graphics only, then printing all text (black) in-house with a Zebra thermal printer as needed; or, b) printing the whole darn label in-house with a Primera color label printer?

We need a choose a method of producing short-run labels for our product containers. Option A is to incur all the usual setup-fees (dies, color plates) and purchase a large (20,000) up-front batch of labels from a commercial printer, but printing only the color graphics. To finish the labels, we would then print all text in-house with a monochrome Zebra-type thermal printer. Option B is to suck it up and plunk down the cash for a Primera LX900 color "thermal inkjet" label printer, and then print the entire label in-house. (If it matters, our labels are 1" H x 5" L, so not terribly big).

Our problem is that we will have about 200 different variations of the text that goes on the label depending the specific product and size of container (the label size/layout will be identical though). We know that we can't get locked into a completely pre-printed label, so I'm trying to weigh the flexibility of printing on-demand with the Primera v. lower cost per label with the preprint color/Zebra black text approach.

My gut tells me the better route to go is with the Primera printer, but I'm nervous about high ink cartridge costs if the Primera cartridges are ink-suckers anywhere like a normal desktop inkjet. The downside to the Zebra printers is that their print quality is noticeably lower than the Primera.

Any short-run producers on AskMe with Primera color printer experience? What other aspects of this should I be considering?
posted by webhund to Work & Money (5 answers total)
i don't have experience with primera printers, but my gut tells me to go with the offset option & then digitally print the copy in-house. i say this because it seems easier to get nice enough looking black text with a cheaper machine, while it takes a high-end printer to have the color graphics look nice. especially if your design has large (relative to the size of the piece) areas of solid color. and to invest in that kind of printer probably would end up costing quite a bit more than printing the 20k labels. especially, yes, the upkeep.
posted by apostrophe at 7:24 PM on February 19, 2010

ok, sorry, this is my worst askme habit--the add-on comment. but i just re-read your question. if you're doing 200 different versions of the labels, but all the difference is just in the copy (and all the copy is black), can't they print all those versions at once up on the same sheet?
posted by apostrophe at 7:28 PM on February 19, 2010

My experience in designing labels is that most went with the printing a master label in color, and then imprinting the specific information on the label as needed. A trip to the grocery store should bear this out.

Closest thing I could find to back that up was a sales page for the LX810 which makes the claim that label cost is about 12-17 cents per label for a 4"x3" label (and I'd bet that's just for media and ink and not the hardware). Their own cost chart shows the point where offset/flexo label printing makes more sense is around 13,000 units.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:04 PM on February 19, 2010

That should read "designing labels for grocery clients."
posted by MegoSteve at 8:05 PM on February 19, 2010

Printing the same color pattern, over and over again, isn't going to be cost-effective in-house. You're going to have more up-front costs using a print shop to do generic color labels with a blank spot for your other information, but that's going to be the most efficient and cheap in the long run.

Also, maintaining a printer in-house puts error responsibility on you; if you print out a bunch of labels with an unwanted cyan stripe down the middle, that cost of wasted time, ink, and labels is on you, while with a printshop you only pay for good copies.

Even if the cost is more effective to do the label in-house, figure out if an inkjet/thermal printer going to give you as professional of results as you want. If the printer you buy has trouble with consistent registration, and the color is a little crooked versus the label edge and the black text is a little crooked off that, it's going to look unprofessional. Also, inkjet and color laser and offset printing each has a different "look and feel" on the paper, which will affect how people see the product.

Another option is to talk to the print-shop and tell them your exact plan: what you're asking about is, essentially, a "mail merge" type of project, like how a magazine has your address printed right on the cover (they don't print an entire magazine just to get one with your address). Most full-service print shops are probably equipped to do what you're talking about, printing thousands of color and adding black-and-white custom text after.

Lastly: While it certainly can be done, mixing printing processes (color printing press and thermal printer) means you need a sticker paper that can handle both; if you're using the thermal toner roll in your Zebra printer, you're probably fine, but if you want to use thermal-paper labels, make sure the printer knows this.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:09 AM on February 20, 2010

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