Beyond Labels

by Katie Lee

Choosing the right mobile printer solution.

By John Murphy

Choosing the right mobile printer may not at first appear to be a critical consideration in the overall operations of a retailer, but functionally inefficient printers that do not integrate well with existing networks and software systems can become a costly obstacle in achieving goals in operational performance, customer service and overall profitability.

A mobile printer encompasses far more than just hardware used to print labels. It also includes software that controls the units and integrates their data with enterprise systems through existing networks. To help assure the purchase of the optimum printer system, a thorough survey of day-to-day operational needs, system requirements and functional expectations must be conducted and analyzed before creating product specifications and a request for proposals. Using the survey results, a targeted list of specifications can be created that directly addresses the hardware and software requirements needed to assure easy system integration, efficient management and operational optimization.

Know Your Operations

The first step in conducting the survey is to thoroughly understand your operational needs on a day-to-day basis from functional, hardware and system viewpoints.

To determine functional and hardware requirements, the associates on the floor are often your best resource. They know what slows down operations and can provide important input on what features will enhance productivity and the pitfalls to avoid.

RL3e RLE4252A perfect example is a retailer who assumed that the smaller the printer, the easier it would be for associates to use. However, the retailer did not consider that smaller printers use smaller rolls of media and have less operational life due to smaller battery size and capacity. While handy to hold, the smaller unit resulted in significant operational inefficiencies. The smaller rolls of media required more frequent changes, and the associates had to change batteries more often because the small capacity battery often discharged before the task was complete. These printer issues translated into degraded customer service when the store opened because re-pricing was not complete, and the associate was still engaged in producing labels and unavailable to assist customers. Gathering input from associates would have revealed the importance of a printer that could complete the task without reloading or exchanging batteries.

Another mistake was a retailer who wanted the lightest possible unit thinking it would help associates. However, the lighter one provided significantly less shock resistance when dropped. Since the average company keeps a printer for 6 to 8 years, durability is an important consideration in overall product life, productivity and cost of ownership. Not taking a factor such as shock resistance into account could prove costly in the long run.

Hardware Considerations

When examining operational needs and evaluating potential printers, there are four critical factors to consider in maximizing productivity and minimizing costs over the lifetime of the units:

• Ease of use: A user interface that is too complicated or not logically constructed will negatively affect productivity and frustrate associates. Always evaluate the user interface on a handheld printer carefully for efficiency and user friendliness.

• Media capacity: The more frequently an associate needs to reload media, the lower their efficiency. If associates typically label large quantities of items at one time, look for printers that accommodate larger rolls of media to minimize reloading.

• Battery capacity: Like media capacity, if large quantities of labels need to be generated at one time, units with a larger battery capacity should be considered to avoid work stoppage when a battery becomes discharged and another printer must be substituted in its place.

• Durability: The unit must stand up to everyday use. Interestingly, experience has shown that handheld printers used inside buildings experience more drops and harder use than units employed in the field. Purchasing a durable unit will help prolong the life of your printer investment as well as boost productivity by minimizing equipment malfunctions from drops.

Printer Management Software

In specifying and analyzing the features of the printer software system, the critical factors to consider are its ability to monitor and manage printers as well as its user interface.

RL3 labelsMonitoring printers allows oversight of the use and health of each printer. Error messages alert system managers to problems to assist in troubleshooting, which will minimize downtime and maximize performance. Data on individual printers and users allow critical analysis of productivity and performance.

Managing printers is a critical function. This provides the ability to add or remove printers from the system and to configure, change and update operating software, parameters and permissions including setting restrictions, user control and security. Look for a user interface that is intuitive and easy to configure.

A final operational consideration is printer software that provides the ability to build customizable configuration parameters in addition to the standard set provided. This flexibility can be critical in assuring the system’s viability as operations and needs evolve.

Integration With Existing Systems & Hardware

Another important factor to consider is the printer’s ability to integrate into your existing business systems and structure.

Unfortunately, too many retailers still have a fear of adding new hardware or software because, after expending enormous resources, they worry they will upset their system now that everything is finally working together. However, gone are the days when new printers required the expense and delays of using specialized network coding experts in back rooms to write programs and scripts to integrate printers with existing systems.

Seamless system integration is now the industry standard, and new systems no longer have the setup problems of just a few years ago. Today’s printer manufacturers know that their products must allow installation without disruption of operations or they will lose business, even if the product is feature rich.

The compatibility requirement includes integration with enterprise systems, accounting systems, inventory systems, wireless networks, security protocols, specialized applications and existing printers, even those from different manufacturers.

An additional important requirement of any potential printer system is its ability to integrate with optional external platforms and services to assist in and enhance the management of print functions. These third-party external platforms and services can offer a host of additional features and functionality to improve printing efficiency and productivity. Typically, an external platform will connect over the Internet to provide a single management console that integrates multiple functions for convenient, fast system control of printer communications, security, setup, upgrades, troubleshooting and data backup.

Even if an external platform is not currently being considered, utilizing one in the future may be advantageous as requirements change, so do not overlook this potential when evaluating systems. In addition, always note the printer manufacturer’s outside partners providing external platforms and services. Look for industry leaders with proven software and experience in similar applications and operating environments.


The final consideration is the ability of the printer manufacturer to provide outstanding customer service both during system installation/integration and going forward. Be sure to specify your service requirements both during and after installation, and look for a manufacturer with a good reputation.

An ancillary factor is the printer manufacturer’s ability and willingness to provide customized support if requested. If a unique need arises, the printer manufacturer is usually the best resource to modify software or create a new application or report as needed. Look for a printer manufacturer with a broad range of customization experience able to understand your requirements and provide an effective solution.


Handheld printers are an important tool in today’s retail environment, and any retailer contemplating the purchase of new units needs to consider the operational environment, printer software functionality, user interface, integration with existing hardware and software, and customer service.

— John Murphy is senior product manager at Datamax-O’Neil where he is responsible for supporting current portable product solutions and setting direction of future product development efforts. Email the author at [email protected]. Datamax-O’Neil manufactures mobile and desktop label printers for retail, manufacturing, warehouse, healthcare, ticketing, postal services and RFID labeling requirements.

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