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Take a fresh look at your labelling options

May 10, 2018 | By Stephen Earley

May 10, 2018 — Numerous identification products for wire & cable, terminal equipment and electrical cabinets are available on the market today, and each has its pros and cons. Ultimately, the most-important thing is to select markers that will remain readable and in-place throughout an installation’s lifetime.

In fact, an identification marker’s long-term staying power and legibility is how it demonstrates its value, particularly when faced with the conditions of a tough industrial environment.

During their life, ID markers allow technicians and engineers to quickly find the right cables and terminations, ensuring they can efficiently carry out inspections, repairs, refurbishments or retrofits. When a marker fails (e.g. the print rubs away or the material fails), then maintenance work becomes more time-consuming and costly, which helps highlight the hidden cost of choosing the wrong marker system!

With the lifetime of some installations extending to several decades, the right ID markers can be worth their weight in gold.


Challenges and choices

When choosing the right identification solution, it is important to consider the application, particularly in harsh conditions. Over their lifetime, markers may be put to the test against a combination of environmental factors that can include extreme and rapidly cycling temperatures, strong sunlight, abrasion, mechanical wear and tear, chemicals and moisture.

With this in mind, it’s important to check that identification systems are certified to meet the standards of the application in which they will be installed. You may need to turn to a specialist range developed for the specific conditions found in defence, marine, aviation, electronics or general electrical installations.The key is finding the right marker for the job at hand.

For example, for one-off or low-volume projects, pre-printed wire & cable markers could be your best option. These take the form of push-on or snap-on markers with individual letters and numbers that can be applied by hand to form any word or number set. They are good value for small volumes as they don’t require a printer, and can even be the most cost-effective solution for large volume applications when cables only require a short identification code.

However, as complexity grows, installers need to introduce longer, alphanumeric codes, sequential numbering and bar codes. These justify the investment in a printable system that is compatible with an automated approach. For example, this can enable the installer to download identification codes or numbers from a CAD system and print-off numerous markers for the installation.

For this type of complex wire & cable installation, some installers prefer to use markers in the form of flagging labels. These stand out and are easy for maintenance technicians to sort and search through for the right connection. Alternatively, other installers prefer self-laminating wrap-around labels or heat-shrink sleeves, which lie flat against the cable and have a neat, tidy appearance.

The other main type of marker for wire and cable is heat-shrink sleeving, and this is typically used on installations that need to survive the harshest of environments, such as aviation, marine or railway.

Meantime, printable  at labels are used to identify terminations, buttons or connections in electrical cabinets and equipment. Many different varieties are available to suit different industries and environments; again, installers should choose carefully to ensure the label and its adhesive meet the demands of the application.

Taking a systems approach

Over the years, a huge amount of materials science has gone into the development of identification markers. The key to long-term performance is to think of ID markers as a system, not as individual products.

This system approach includes the material and print settings, ink and software. Not only have the elements of the system been developed together, they also undergo rigorous laboratory testing together against relevant industry standards. These tests show that, even when put through significant mechanical abuse, high- or low-temperatures or exposure to industrial fluids, the mark remains readable and the material stays in place.

Another aspect of markers is consistency. Markers are created in batches, but without careful control of the manufacturing process and traceability of raw ingredients, the product can vary. Quality can be impacted by the smallest of things, such as mixing rates or production temperatures. Even the grain-size of chemical additives can alter the characteristics of material and, therefore, the performance of the product.

To combat this, installers should choose markers that are manufactured under tight quality controls from end-to-end of development, testing and manufacture.This eliminates variations between batches, leading to consistent ID markers that will be dependable, readable and firmly attached when needed.

New developments in identification

It’s worth taking a fresh look at what’s available on the market today, as manufacturers often introduce new products that have the potential to save you time and money.

Future developments underway by materials scientists include enhancing the performance of existing labels. In fact, the latest generation of polymer-based labels can be used as an alternative to engraved metal plates that have traditionally been used in aviation and other industries. Manufacturers can save time that would have been needed to engrave the metal plates, as well as attaching and varnishing them. With digital printing, it’s even possible to create highly customized markers that optimize the time of specialist technicians, letting them focus on manufacturing rather than printing labels.

Stephen Earley is the global product manager for identification systems, TE Connectivity.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Electrical Business Magazine.

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