Cool Tools: Labling Tools
Published: January 2010
As buildings become more complex and dependent on sophisticated electrical and data communications systems, it is essential to accurately label the wiring and components. Consequently, manufacturers are providing labeling equipment to perform this important task efficiently.
Needed for electrical installations are heat-shrink tubing and adhesive labels for marking wire, terminal block markers, and UL-approved polyester materials, including white, clear and metalized polyesters for placement on panels and components.
Datacom jobs need labels for cables, patch panels, faceplates, blocks, and to identify racks, shelving and bays.
Frequently used labels may be made in the office or a job-site trailer. But much of the task is done on-site with handheld tools that are compact and easy to use and produce labels printed on a variety of materials to meet specific requirements.
Self-laminating labels are popular for identifying wire and cable, and heat-shrink markers frequently are used in control panels and other harsh environment applications.
“Portable label printers are quickly becoming an integral tool in the electrical toolbox because they are no longer just label printers—they’re versatile, multifunctional tools,” said Stewart Landy, North American product manager for label printers for Brady (www.bradyid.com).
“Today’s label printers give professionals the flexibility to create labels for both inside and outside of the panel. High-end portable printers can produce labels as wide as 2 inches, and most bench-top label printers can print labels up to 4 inches wide. This means professionals can create a variety of wire markers, including heat-shrink sleeves and self-lams, and then turn around and create larger labels for the outside of the panel—all with one label printer,” he said.
Landy added that label printers continue to offer more advanced functionality, and there is an impressive variety of materials, including self-laminating heat shrink sleeves, nylon, polyester, indoor/outdoor vinyl and more.
Today’s equipment not only creates labels that identify, but also those that communicate, providing key points of information, such as compliance procedures for lockout/tagout and arc flash.
“One of the biggest improvements in portable label printers is the ease of operation,” Landy said. “Portable label printers can now be fully operated with only one hand, making it easier than ever to print labels on the job site. The latest models feature dual cutters with label retention, which keeps the label from falling on the floor after it is cut. The cutter operates with the push of a button, which eliminates fatigue and allows for one-handed cutting. Wrist straps make the printer much easier to hold, and a magnet accessory affixed to the printer, allows it to be attached to panels, I-beams and other magnetic-receptive surfaces.”
In addition, Landy said, new portable label printer models are designed to withstand the wear and tear of a job site and have built-in impact guards and a rugged design that protect the printer if it is dropped or in contact with other tools in a toolbox.
Shawn Whittaker, product line manager for the Panduit Corp. (www.panduit.com) cited several recent innovations in handheld labeling systems:
• QWERTY-style keyboards allow two-handed thumb typing for faster data entry.
• Advanced technology can produce continuous tapes of tear-apart labels to facilitate handling and installation.
• Large backlit graphic display provides improved viewing, even in poorly lit areas.
• Time-saving features include automatic legend repeat for wire and cable markers and automatic spacing of legends to align with terminal block/patch/panel/faceplate positions.
“Portable label tools continue to become smaller, more intelligent and more powerful,” Whittaker said. “They are capable of printing a wide variety of industrial label materials, such as self-laminating labels, heat-shrink markers, marker plates and die-cut component labels, in addition to continuous tapes.Automatic cassette recognition and setting of print parameters can now eliminate setup time. Computer connectivity allows label information to be imported from a laptop or PC and the printer firmware to be upgraded as added functionality is developed and released.”
Continuous tapes are commonly used for facility identification, such as pipe and conduit, terminal blocks, cable tray and pathways.
“Die-cut labels, which are sized for the specific application or component they are to be applied to, are used for many other applications. In all instances, it is critical the label material and adhesive are industrial-grade, and designed to withstand the environment they will be used in for the life of the installation,” Whittaker said.
Advances in Label-Making Software
Advances in software provide many of the benefits found in current portable label-making tools. Brady Product Manager Stewart Landy identified three major trends that make label tools more productive and easier to use:
•Application specialization: Software programs now offer specific features for the electrical industry, tailored for the market and offering the exact functionalities that electrical contractors need in their workflow. With more industry-specific features and functions, the software programs are easier to use and more effective than ever before.
•Automation of label printing and application into the manufacturing process reduces errors and provides increased productivity. By eliminating the need for multiple processes, a labeling system is more efficient.
•Upstream integration into the product design process reduces errors introduced among different processes and redundant tasks and, hence, improves productivity levels. —J. G.
Matthew Scott, manager of channel marketing—industrial, Newell Rubbermaid (Rhino labeling tools, www.dymo.com), said users of labeling equipment require precision and accuracy for every project.
“Today’s labeling tools can make your labels on-site, printing exactly what is needed for the project,” Scott said. “They print labels in seconds to cut and adhere immediately to the job at hand, saving time and money. Intuitive hot keys help format commonly used labels quickly and easily with a touch of a button—a great timesaving shortcut that provides a professional edge. Over the past two years, our labeling products have become PC-compatible, which allows the user to upload Excel sheets and save them directly to the printer.”
For electrical work, today’s mark printers make it easy to mark hundreds of wires within the same project, keeping them all separate and safe, Scott said. For voice/data/video, patch panels, wire and cable and faceplates are most common.
Thomas & Betts (www.tnb.com) recently introduced a new labeling tool.
“Thomas & Betts has been involved in identification products since 1968,” said Dan Vega, group product director. “We actually had wire marker printers that date back to 1985, as well. The identification product line is a good fit with some of our wire-management products like cable ties, terminals, connectors, grounding products, wiring duct, heat shrink, etc. We have recently expanded our offering to the thermal transfer printers that are so popular today.”
Vega said improvements in software are making labeling tools easier to use. Technology has improved to allow smaller, more portable printers. More printers today have the capability of using external software to allow more capability. Many of the more complex functions have been simplified by using wizards that step the user through the label-creation process.
“The challenge for manufacturers is creating software that has improved features while maintaining ease-of-use characteristics that all users want. The easier to use, the more end-users are willing to purchase labeling products,” Vega said.
Panduit’s Whittaker cited the importance of such recent innovations as the ability to put labeling software on a USB flash drive, which provides portability for a mobile work force and eliminates the need to install a dedicated copy of labeling software on each computer; he also cited market-specific labeling wizards that can help select the optimum label for a particular application, can simplify and speed label creation, and can help generate label legends that are compliant with industry standards, such as those by OSHA, TIA/EIA, ANSI, UL. Whittaker said the ability to import data from a spreadsheet, database or CAD files, such as AutoCAD or Visio, also is important.
“This not only saves significant time, but also reduces errors associated with manual entry of identifiers into the labeling software,” Whittaker said.
With a growing selection of products, what should buyers consider when evaluating and comparing products?
“A number of factors should be considered. Be sure to select a high-quality industrial solution that will withstand the intended environment for the life of the installation. Look beyond the initial purchase cost to consider innovative time-saving features that will result in the lowest total installed cost.Select a product from a company that can provide a comprehensive solution for all applications in electrical and data communications infrastructures. This not only helps customers consolidate vendors, but will also make support and service easier,” Whittaker said.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at email@example.com.