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Custom automatic labeling system enriches nursery grower's production with hands-free labeling.

After many years of relying on preprinted potstakes and clip-on tags to identify products, McCorkle Nurseries recognized a growing trend in the time required to apply labels, label waste and shipping errors. Immediately, the company set out to find a more cost-efficient and permanent method of labeling.

McCorkle Nurseries use Weber label printer-applicators for on-demand labeling For McCorkle Nurseries, a more efficient labeling solution meant one that offers on-demand printing capabilities at production time, maintains the nursery's existing potting rate, reduces manual labor, and produces a label that can endure about three years of full exposure to the outdoor elements.

"Paper and other types of tags wouldn't be durable enough for what we wanted to do," says McCorkle's MIS Director, Dollie Gamble, who researched labeling alternatives for two years. "I knew there had to be a way to automatically label our pots and track them from the fields to shipping."

McCorkle found its labeling solution through Weber Marking Systems, Inc., Arlington Heights, Illinois. Weber supplied McCorkle with a custom print-and-apply labeling system that permits on-demand labeling and high-speed automatic application, while offering a pressure-sensitive label that combats anything that Mother Nature throws its way.

McCorkle outgrows tags and stakes

Family-owned and operated, McCorkle Nurseries, Dearing, GA, was founded in 1942 by C.S. McCorkle. Now under the leadership of the family's second and third generations, McCorkle Nurseries has expanded into a 250-acre growing facility with 150 employees, a sales office in Atlanta and markets throughout the southeastern United States.

McCorkle's production planner features Southern-Grown Plants For Southern LandscapesTM found primarily in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. McCorkle grows about 1,000 different perennials, groundcovers, trees, shrubs and vines for landscapers, garden centers, distributors and retail stores, such as Home Depot.

McCorkle must ensure that the orders being shipped out on a daily basis match customer requests. The stakes and clip-on tags that McCorkle had been using, which were preprinted with UPC bar codes and product information, did not consistently accomplish this. Plants that were not in full bloom could be mislabeled, plus the tags frequently blew off en route to customer sites, risking identification, pricing and inventory errors at the customer's end.

The labeling task also was extremely labor intensive, and because it took place at the shipping dock, severe bottlenecks in shipping resulted. Additionally, to purchase and inventory preprinted tags for over 1,000 different products – many with multiple sizes – was quite expensive and inflexible. "If we overestimated our inventory or discontinued a line, we would have to throw away the tags that we didn't use," says Mrs. Gamble.

When Mrs. Gamble started investigating automatic labeling alternatives, she had several concerns. McCorkle wanted to move the labeling operation from shipping to the production site, but the latter was almost fully exposed to all outdoor elements and presented several potential labeling pitfalls.

"Our environment is not clean or dry," emphasizes Mrs. Gamble. "We were looking for a system that could handle being outdoors 100 percent of the time."

In addition to sturdy equipment, McCorkle needed labels that would adhere to plastic pots ranging in size from 1 to 25 gallons. The imprinted information on these labels would have to be legible at shipping time, which, on average, was 32 months after they were initially put on the pots. And during that time, the plants, as well as the labels, are exposed to any number of elements, including dirt, wind, rain, humidity and ultraviolet rays, plus McCorkle's fertilizers, herbicides and daily irrigation equivelent to 200 inches of rainfall per year.

Planting the seed for on-site labeling

To meet McCorkle's requirements, Weber customized a "loose-loop" automatic print-and-apply labeling system and incorporated it into McCorkle's potting conveyor line.

The system begins with the Legitronic® label design software package, written and installed exclusively by Weber, which McCorkle has loaded onto a laptop computer stationed at the production site. With the software, Mrs. Gamble has created a different label for each product in McCorkle's inventory and has stored the data on the laptop. For simplicity and cost-efficiency, McCorkle uses one universal label size and format for its entire product line. The variable information within the format includes a UPC bar code encoded with McCorkle's manufacturer (grower) identification number, a five-digit product number and the pot size. Each label also contains both the common and botanical names of the products, as well as plant specifications and growing instructions.

The human-readable data of the UPC bar codes simultaneously serve as McCorkle's inventory numbers and the identification numbers that access the corresponding label information from the data base. When new items are added to inventory, assigning the UPC code and adding the variable information to the data base can be done right on the laptop computer.

The software drives Weber's 81 Series thermal-transfer label printer, which prints labels on-demand at speeds up to 8.0 linear inches per second. Designed for industrial use, the printer can handle McCorkle's high label volume and continuous duty cycles. The combination of high-density imprinting and compatible media supplies creates fade-resistant and smudge-proof bar codes that McCorkle's customers can scan for important pricing and inventory data.

"We are very comfortable with the compatibility of Weber's systems and supplies, and we did not have to sacrifice quality when shifting to the on-demand system," reports Mrs. Gamble.

As labels are printed, they are automatically fed into Weber's Label-Aire® Model 2114 high-speed label applicator, which is stationed directly below the printer. The generous thread of labels traveling between the two machines is what creates the "loose-loop" effect. The applicator has the capacity to apply preprinted pressure-sensitive labels at a rate of 1500 linear inches of label web per minute, not only matching McCorkle's potting speed of one pot per second but also leaving open the opportunity for greater speeds if the nursery requires them in the future.

Though a fully integrated printer-applicator was considered initially, Weber's custom loose-loop system offers better speed and durability for McCorkle's application. Unlike printer-applicators, the Model 2114 applicator is not dependent upon the speed of an integrated print engine. Both the stand-alone printer and the applicator can operate at their maximum capacities. Additionally, the configuration of the loose-loop system places the thermal-transfer printer above the applicator and well above any contact from dirt that may damage the printhead.

To further offset potential interferences with the labeling system, McCorkle took some necessary precautions at the site. To start, the nursery switched its pot style from a spined to a smooth surface, which keeps dirt from settling behind the labels and interfering with the adhesive. Then a protective shed was eventually built around the production site to reduce the system's exposure to wind and rain.

How the system works

McCorkle's potting/labeling operation begins when trays of small plants in cells are dropped off at the potting machine. A McCorkle operator calls up the appropriate label format by typing in the product's inventory identification number. A hard copy of all i.d. numbers are printed in a nearby reference manual. The operator then types in the quantity of labels to be printed, and the thermal-transfer printer begins producing the labels immediately.

"The software is very easy to use," states Mrs. Gamble. "Many of our operators don't speak fluent English, but we've had no problem training them to use the software."

To initiate potting, a tractor-load of potting soil mix is dumped into a large funnel at the top of the potting machine, which automatically distributes the dirt into passing pots. A line operator manually puts the plastic pots onto the circular conveyor belt at one-pot-per-second intervals. As soil is dumped into the pots, a large, mechanical drill augers a hole into the soil-filled container to prepare for the plant cells. Operators manually place small plants into the holes as the pots go by.

The loaded pots follow the conveyor up a steady incline of approximately 30 degrees. By the time the pots get to the end of the conveyor, they are at the height of the trailer bed onto which they will be loaded and transported to the field.

Along the incline, pots meet the automatic labeling system, which also is positioned at a 30-degree angle so labels can be applied squarely on the pots. First, the pot passes a brush that wipes excess dirt off of the pot's surface. It then moves toward the loose-loop labeling system, where the thermal-transfer printer has already produced a supply of labels for the applicator.

One label at a time is peeled from its liner and held on the applicator's tamp pad via vacuum suction. Right before reaching the system, a pot activates an electronic sensor that triggers the applicator's arm to extend toward the pot and blow on the label from a 0.25-inch distance. Using Label-Aire's patented tamp-blow technology, the tamp pad never touches the product, yet the applicator provides consistent label placement accurate to ±0.03-inch.

Another electronic sensor stationed between the printer and the applicator monitors the label level. If the quantity of labels falls short of the sensor's eye, a signal will inform the printer to produce more labels. That way, the applicator has a continuous feed of labels.

To insure adhesion to the pot's rounded surface, the pot then passes by a roller that gently smoothes over the label. Operators on top of trailer beds lift the pots from the end of the conveyor and load them onto the trailers. The plants are then transported to the fields where they are grown for two to three years.

After six months of successful in-line labeling, McCorkle purchased a second Weber system to expedite its high labeling volume. These two systems label thousands of pots each day. Additionally, McCorkle purchased a stand-alone Weber 81 Series thermal-transfer printer to produce rolls of identification labels for its off-site growers.

McCorkle reaps a wealth of benefits

The McCorkle family and nursery employees are extremely happy to have found an automatic labeling system that was able to perform in the nursery environment.

McCorkle reports labor-saving, cost-saving and customer benefits from the print-and-apply system. "Hands-free labeling is extremely cost-effective for us," explains Mrs. Gamble. "The automatic labeling system is saving us approximately 16,000 man hours per year, in addition to freeing up employees who can help speed up loading at the shipping dock." She adds that the savings calculated from labor expenses alone paid for the system in just over one year.

The system's on-demand labeling capabilities also offer their own cost-saving opportunities. One universal pressure-sensitive label has eliminated the high cost of purchasing and inventorying thousands of different preprinted tags and clips.

McCorkle's customers have voiced their approvals of the new system, as well. The retail garden centers enjoy the self-service environment that the detailed labels create, and with the chance of shipping errors drastically reduced, customer check-out and inventory tracking are more efficient.

"We had a labeling concept," recalls Mrs. Gamble, "and Weber could see what our vision was and worked with us to develop a system that could actually do it."

McCorkle also considers Weber's nationwide direct sales and service organization a value-added feature. "It's beneficial for us to consistently work with one person who is looking out for our growing needs," says Mrs. Gamble, who is currently working with Weber to upgrade some additional software features.

Since McCorkle Nurseries became a hands-free labeling environment, product identification is no longer considered a dirty job.

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