Hear from ProShip shipping expert, Clint Boaz, on the timing for printing shipping labels.

Whether you realize it or not, the global economy depends on little slips of sticky paper with barcodes on them. These sticky slips of paper are parcel shipping labels, and they tell the carriers everything they need to know to transport goods from warehouse (or store) to consumer.

Deciding When to Print Parcel Shipping Labels

Since shipping labels are such crucial facilitators in the world of commerce, every shipper must consider how they will print them, and specifically at what point in their shipping workflow it makes the most sense to do so. In this article, we address the options.

But first, we must think of the area in the warehouse where packages are packed and shipped as being a long line. In many facilities, this area contains a series of workstations connected by a line of gravity-fed conveyors. It’s usually located between the inventory racks and before the dock doors.

3 Points in the Process to Print Shipping Labels

In our experience, we have found three possible points for printing shipping labels that fall along this long line: the front, middle, or end of the shipping line.

Option #1: Printing Labels via Front of Line

It’s possible to print a shipping label before an order gets to the packing and shipping line (“upstream”). Possible scenarios include:

  • The shipping label becomes part of the picking documentation for single-picked orders
  • All labels for a batch or wave print together
  • Pickers generate labels on the fly using mobile printers

To accomplish this, you must have all the information to properly manifest the shipment (ship-to address, weight, dimensions, number of cartons, and carrier service level) at the time you print the label. Understandably, weight, dimensions, and number of cartons are often the most challenging to obtain before packing, but this can be accommodated with cartonization logic or post-packing amendments to the manifest data.

Advantages to front of line label printing include the reduction of both labor and package touches downstream.

Disadvantages include data integrity issues if the pre-manifested data does not match the reality your staff encounters later in the process.

Option #2: Printing Labels via Middle of Line

On many packing and shipping lines, packers place items into cartons and then move them downstream to a dedicated shipping terminal. However, it’s possible to eliminate the shipping terminal and print a label as part of the packing process – we’ll call this “middle of line” printing. The packer completes the packing steps, which triggers a request to a shipping API that returns the label.

To enable this type of integrated packing and shipping step, your packers typically must be using a Warehouse Management System (WMS) that can send an API command via software-to-software communication to a remote shipping API. This is often called “blackbox” shipping because the shipping application is unseen to the user.

This creates the advantage of a seamless workflow that eliminates the need for further package handling at an additional shipping terminal or shipping software screen.

One disadvantage is that it may take some development to extend the WMS to incorporate the external shipping API, but most modern WMS solutions contain hooks to allow for this, and there are many pre-integrated solutions available on the market.

Option #3: Printing Labels via End of Line

Finally, it is sometimes best to stick with a dedicated shipping workstation. Packers push packed cartons down to an individual who uses shipping software to retrive the order details, weigh the carton, and print and apply the shipping label (or in-line automation equipment (print and apply) completes these steps).

Even with this approach, integration of the shipping software to sources of enterprise data (ERP, WMS) is important to enable bi-directional flow of shipping information: Shipping address and instructions TO the shipping software & shipping costs and tracking number FROM the shipping software

End of line shipping is advantageous when it is impossible to know critical package details like final carton weight, dimensions, or trailer load times until after the cartons have been fully packed.

The disadvantage is additional labor or equipment costs.

How to Decide Which Label Printing Option is Right for Your Business

So which label printing method is best? This really depends on each shipper’s unique products, business model, and technology stack. The better questions address which method is possible, sensible, and provides the most value given those factors.

Fortunately, ProShip provides solutions that have been well proven to support all of these label printing methods. We would be glad to engage with your team and discover which approach works best for your business. Just say, “When!”

Clint Boaz is Senior Sales Engineer for ProShip, where he leverages his expertise to show shippers how integrated multi-carrier shipping solutions can bring efficiencies to their business. Prior to joining ProShip, Clint held various roles at UPS. Clint lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his wife and three children.