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issue: June 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Label Production - Outdoor Appliances
A Permanent Solution


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by Tina Grady, Managing Editor

Outdoor equipment maker The Toro Company has been revered for its advanced applications of small-engine technology for the home and garden. The company has always prided itself that its products—lawnmowers, riding mowers, and snowblowers—have earned a reputation for durability.

Toro’s reputation is one of the main tenets around which the company has built and maintained its business. However, with product longevity comes the need to service and repair—whether it is simple maintenance or replacing parts. It is for this reason, Toro, headquartered in Bloomington, MN, U.S., uses and stands by the process of thermal transfer labels, which are laminated to their products.

Lane Steele, a manufacturing engineer for Toro, says when his team initially turned to thermal transfer labels, they were evaluated for durability, reliability, flexibility, speed-of-format change, and cost. They were also rigorously tested for gasoline, oil, fertilizer, sun/ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, power washing, and abrasion. Although label tests of the thermal labels were promising, Mr. Steele and his team found the field trials that followed proved to be disappointing—petroleum products were found to vary widely from one region to the other. Labels that stood up to open gasoline formulations were often made illegible by another. Mr. Steele knew he had to find a way to protect the thermal labels but still allow his team to use the thermal transfer printing process because they had found it was much easier than the previous processes.

Mr. Steele’s search eventually led him to a German-engineered precision laminator that was able to offer the protection for which he was looking—the DG-110 Laminator/Die Cutter from The Danby Group, located in Norcross, GA, U.S. Several segments of Toro began using the DG-110 more than 10 years ago for the labels it was producing. And now, a decade later, when some of Toro’s equipment that they were placed on need service performed, the labels are still intact and as clear as when they were placed on the product. “Ten years is a pretty good representation in the field,” Mr. Steele tells APPLIANCE. “We implemented the new process in 1994, and since then, we have received positive feedback. With the machine we have today, we’ve pretty much solved all of the problems from before.

The Danby Group's DG-110 Laminator/Die-Cutter unit is a thermal transfer printer with 200-, 300-, or 600-dpi print resolution. The process the machine uses has helped outdoor appliance maker Toro protect its product labels from erosion and is used on all of its gas-powered equipment.

“We saw improvements pretty much right away,” he continues. “Since we’ve gone with the new system, we haven’t heard yet that a serial tag has fallen off.”

Mr. Steele says that Toro has been so pleased with the DG-110’s performance that it uses the system in its Windom, MN, U.S. plant, and a sister facility in Mexico also just recently began using the system.

Overcoming Challenges

Toro lauds its current label process because before the company began using thermal transfer labels in combination with the DG-100, it was facing difficulties when servicing its outdoor appliances. Because of the rugged conditions its products go through—such as inclement weather and exposure to corrosive chemicals and oils—there is often damage caused to the spec plates/labels affixed to them. These labels contain serial numbers, special warnings, and other specifics that are needed when attempting to repair or replace a part.

Toro set out to find a product that would overcome this challenge, as its label plates were not only unreadable after several years of a product’s use, but some fell off. The process the company was using to affix the labels was cumbersome and had several liabilities, Mr. Steele says. “A decal can be obliterated,” he says. “We want to be able to tell the model and vintage. If 20 years down the road the part needs to be replaced, we want to know what the vintage is.”

 
The DG-110 machine used to laminate Toro’s metal serial number/product information labels allows the operator to quickly change over the batches. “It is like printing a different [Microsoft®] Word document out of a PC,” says Lane Steele, a manufacturing engineer at Toro Co. “Before we printed thousands of tags because it was hard to change over. Now we have flexibility…and can ensure we don’t duplicate serial numbers."
 

The Initial Process

In the early 1990s, Toro used a hot-stamping process to affix its decals and labels to products. The process used a roll of pressure-sensitive material—essentially “glorified tape,” as Mr. Steele refers to it. A die comes down and has a reverse image of the printing that is wanted on the material. The die heats up to high temperatures and then comes down with an ink ribbon between it and the material to be printed and melts the ink material into the tape, leaving an image.

This hot-stamped process, says Mr. Steele, was not working well, and the acid-etched process that Toro’s acquisition of Lawn Boy brought with it was not sufficient for the company’s needs either. The acid-etched printing plates were expensive, had a long lead-time, and held Toro’s number of format options to only 30.

This presented one of several problems. Mr. Steele says that Toro was also considering increasing the number of serial digits, which he says placed an additional burden on him to make the digits fit into the existing space. As the Toro product line expanded, a greater variety of label formats became necessary. It needed a labeling scheme that would be able to accommodate additional information, which included all of the following: model number, serial number, company name and address, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) information, patent information, CE (European conformity requirement), decibel rating, and rpm.

“That’s when we began looking for other solutions,” says Mr. Steele. “Specifically, we wanted something that would use a computer to figure out how to print the labels.” Mr. Steele explains that it became necessary to quickly switch back and forth between model numbers and blocks of serial numbers. That is when the company began using the thermal transfer process and shortly after, began using The Danby Group’s machine as part of the Toro labeling process.

 

How It Works

The Laminator/Die-Cutter operates in line with the thermal printing process, says Genie Ragin, managing partner of The Danby Group. A heavy laminate is applied to a metalized roll label stock after it passes from the thermal printer, Ms. Ragin explains. The DG-110 then die cuts the label from the stock, strips away the matrix, and rolls up the finished synthetic labels, which are still adhered to the backing. “Each laminate label is made by printing on a thermal transfer printer using a resin ribbon or wax ribbon,” she says. “The technology involved here is the heat transfer—it’s transferring onto the label material.”

The labels have a rounded corner that gives the finished label the look of a traditional metal plate and reduces the tendency the square corners have of lifting or peeling off. The precise registration of the die cutter allows the labels to be designed with a fine border, and they can be cut in custom shapes. The system is capable of producing up to 100 labels
per min.

The flexibility of spec plate formats, and the speed with which they can be changed, has allowed Toro to produce a unique serial plate design for each piece of equipment.

After more than 6 million labels produced and 10 years in the field, Mr. Steele says the thermal labels protected with laminate applied by the DG-110 have met and exceeded Toro’s expectations. “This machine is bulletproof,” Mr. Steele says. “Our testing department is stringent in the testing requirements our labels have to go through. The system has met all the testing requirements for durability issues.”

 

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