My name is Miles and I've written this miniguide to help you learn more about portable
label and receipt printers. I want to make this free of jargon or marketing speak – so please
let me know if you find any.
I timed myself reading this and it took less than 30 minutes. OK, I appreciate you're a busy
person and you want information quickly and efficiently – so I'll shut up and let you read.
In this mini guide you'll learn:
What portable printers are,
How portable printers are able to help your organisation,
How they are used
What the different kinds of mobile printer are,
What kind of labels or paper you use
How you connect these printers to your computers and
How you print with them.
What are portable printers?
Portable printers are a class of small label or receipt printers
that can be carried or wheeled to where they need to be used.
Unlike their larger desk-bound cousins, they are battery
powered and are built to be carried, with handles or straps.
Generally they are little slower and have a smaller paper or
Seven ways portable printers can help your organisation
If you're not currently using a mobile printer, or you need to convince someone, here's
how portable printers will help.
1. They are faster than handwriting labels or receipts
2. You can produce barcodes (it takes hours to handwrite just one barcode with a pen)
3. You can read all of the labels or receipts it produces – unlike many handwritten
documents. This means you (or a data entry person) make fewer mistakes and look
4. You save time as you don't have to walk to and from a desk-bound printer
5. Mobile printers are relatively tough – they bounce better than a desk-bound printer
6. You can power them from a truck or van – so you can taken them anywhere.
7. Many models don't use cables so they're easy to use and popular with staff.
In a drive to raise productivity, portable printers are being used to replace centrally
printed labels in many industries. Organisations are replacing handwritten notes such as
receipts, tickets and works orders. They're using clearly printed labels and barcodes to
reduce errors and increasing efficiency.
How can you use mobile printing?
Here is a picture of how mobile printing is used:
Shelf Edge Labelling. Portable printers are used in retail for shelf
edge labelling. Use a handheld computer to access the store
database – check what's currently printed on the shelf edge (or
better still scan it with the handheld computer) and if it needs
updating, print a new label there and then. Portable printers
reduce errors – and speed up the process.
Portable Point of Sale (POS). Before mobile communications took off,
the truly portable shop was a market trader with a bag of cash. With
the rise of plastic you need a little more than a bag of change. Receipts
are important and you can produce receipts from the palm of your
hand with these printers.
Queue Busting. Another retail or service
use for portable printers is 'queue busting',
(a less exciting alternative to Ghost Busting
– if you're old enough to remember). Tying
in to portable POS, retail staff are able to
take payments from customers anywhere
in store, not just at the checkout. A key part of this process is
the portable printer, for producing customer receipts.
Warehouse labelling. In the warehouse portable printers are used
to print updated quantity labels, identify damaged stock or
updating the status of work-in-progress. With modern
warehouses stretching over vast areas, portable printers could save
hours of walking to and from fixed printers.
Van sales. Out on the road, transport drivers print delivery notes,
receipts and invoices at the time of delivery. Portable printers are used to confirm delivery
Shelf Edge Labelling
and details of service. Most portable printers come with in-cab charging and cradles so
the printer charges and doesn't take flight on corners.
Healthcare. In healthcare, bedside sample labelling prevents
the life-threatening consequences of mis-labelling or losing
Hospitality. Hotels and restaurants are able to serve customers
at the table-side or in
the room by printing
receipts or bills.
Public Sector. In public service, currently under
pressure to save money, mobile printers can be
used, unfortunately, for printing speeding or
parking tickets quickly and legibly. Portable
printers are also used for inspection reports and
What kinds of portable printers are available?
In the past few years printers have become smaller lighter, tougher and easier to use. At
the same time they're faster, print more clearly and can print onto paper, plastic or direct
Also with the rise of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, printers no longer need cables – you can print
conveniently from your handheld computer, tablet or phone and use the hardware to
connect to the wider world using 3G or Wi-Fi.
Healthcare: Sample Labelling
Mobile printer shapes and sizes
One of the problems with putting in new computer systems is ease of use. If your printer
is too big, cumbersome or difficult to hold staff won't want to use it. Confidence in the
system could be lost and the benefits wasted. It's really important to make sure the printer
will be welcomed by staff. Another thing to bear in mind is that not all printers need to be
'carry-able'. I've described some of the options here:
Hand-held portable and wearable printers.
These printers hang from the belt or shoulder strap
so you keep your hands free. Most wearable printers
come with wireless options, such as Bluetooth and
Wi-Fi, so you can get rid of annoying cables. These
printers balance battery life and label/paper storage
against size, weight and convenience.
Vehicle mounted printers.
Most mobile printers can be used successfully in
vehicles - delivery trucks, forklifts, vans, emergency
Most printers can be used with special
permanent mounts and hook up to the vehicle's
power supply. Obviously you'll need to replace
ink or paper ever so often so these printers can
be easily removed from the vehicle. This is also
important if you need to print closer to the
customer. Zebra, the leading maker of label
printers, has a 'palette' (think painters palette,
not warehouse pallet) which holds a portable
printer and one of a range of handheld terminals
from the Motorola.
Cart mounted printers.
One interesting way to overcome the mobility problem is by putting a desktop printer on a
cart or trolley that can be wheeled around. Printers can be powered from batteries and
there's usually enough space for a PC/laptop or handheld computer to 'drive' the printer.
This solution could save money or allow you to print more labels or different colours and
materials (i.e. paper or plastic labels). This solution is often seen in libraries or warehouses
or other large buildings such as hospitals schools and universities.
Tiny belt mounted printers
Vehicle mounted printers
How to connect to your portable printer.
Cables are quickly becoming optional today, thankfully. Whilst most portable printers
come with a cable option, almost all of them have wireless options as well. Particularly
with portable printers, cable free is the way to go. Your users will appreciate the ease of
use and you'll have fewer maintenance problems. Setting up a wireless printer might take
a few minutes longer, but the reliability payback in terms of fewer 'connector' or frayed
cable problems make it a worthy investment.
Bluetooth is a small radio chip that is usually built into the printer's electronics. Bluetooth
enables items to talk to one another wirelessly. It replaces the communication cable. You'll
find it on phones, laptops, portable and handheld computers and of course printers.
Bluetooth equipped devices can talk to one another up to 100m away, but most devices use
the short range standard which connects up to 10m away. Bluetooth is reasonably secure,
power efficient and wirelessly connects two or more devices. Unlike Wi-Fi it doesn't need
a hub through which to talk. Imagine it as an invisible cable from your handheld
computer to the printer.
Wi-Fi is found all over the place these days - many homes and public places have a wifi
network. Like Bluetooth it's a small radio chip that allows the device access to a wireless
network. A Wi-Fi network is usually made up of a number of antennas which mesh
together to cover an area with radio waves. Wi-Fi equipped devices are able to connect to
the Wi-Fi network when they're bathing in the radio waves. Through this Wi-fi Network
they can reach other computers spread out around the organisation and, via the internet,
Another technical name for Wi-fi is 802.11. 802.11 is the international standard that
enables different manufacturers' equipment to talk to one another. Wi-fi lets your devices
talk to one another at different speeds, depending on the '802.11' standard your printer
and network meet. At a basic level, the 802.11 standard communicates at 11 Mbps, which
is enough for basic print jobs. The new 802.11n standard allows much faster data speeds
and improved security. Check the printer specifications to see what Wi-fi standard the
printer is capable of talking to. Pretty much all printers are 'backwards' compatible, so
they'll always be able to communicate with older Wi-fi standards.
Sometimes the printer will receive it's commands from distant network computers, in
other cases from the person carrying it. For printers used outdoors and away from the
Wifi Network, Bluetooth would be a better way for a handheld computer to print on a
Most portable printers keep the option to print
using cables. Cables options are cheaper but
as I mentioned earlier, less convenient.
Perhaps the most common situation where
cables are still used would be in vehicle use,
where the printer and terminal are not carried
much. Most connectors are USB or Mini USB,
but there are still a few printers still using
Serial (if you're older than 30 you might
remember serial connectors).
When it comes to accessories, most mobile printers come with cables,
but more useful 'mobility' accessories include shoulder straps, belt
clips, vehicle mounts, printer chargers, soft cases and printer stands.
When you buy a printer, check what accessories are available and (if
it's not possible to 'try before you buy') see if you can get photos of
the accessories to check they'll do what you need them to do.
Managing your printers
Portable printers can print onto a wide range of things from RFID
tags (special electronic chips that communicate wirelessly with a specially equipped
reader), sticky labels, receipts and tickets. With such a wide range of materials and
documents, printers need to be fine tuned to print well. Print speeds, darkness settings are
two settings that you won't find on laser printers, but can be adjusted on a portable printer
and need special software to run them.
Zebra printers come with something called Zebralink which enables IT staff to remotely
manage and monitor the printers from anywhere on the network. That can be quite useful
if your organisation has grouped specialist expertise in one place, but the printer fleet is
spread around the country or world. Zebralink sends messages about the printer's status
and enables you to keep an eye on problems with your printers. If you combine
ZebraLink with Zebra's ZebraNet Bridge software, you're able to not only monitor your
printers, but you can update the printer software and setup the printers remotely.
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Mobile Printer Connectors
Printing with a Portable Printer.
As you probably know, there are a number of types of printer:
Dot matrix and
Portable printers usually use Thermal technology. Thermal label printers are perfect for
mobile printing because they can be made smaller, they can print onto a range of different
materials, they're tough and don't need much maintenance. Finally they are perfect for
printing barcodes, which is a common task for mobile printers. Laser printers would
simply be too big and inkjet or impact printers would be less reliable and more expensive.
What are Thermal printers?
Thermal printers are printers that use heat to create images on paper. There are two kinds
of thermal printers, but they both work in a similar way. Both use a heated printhead to
create the image on the label or paper. The printhead comprises of hundreds of tiny
elements that heat and cool as the paper slides underneath.
Direct thermal printers need special chemically treated paper to create a black and white
image. As the elements on the print head heat up, the paper under those elements turns
black and the image is built up. This happens extremely quickly (printers can be as quick
as 100mm per second).
The other method is called Thermal Transfer. The same printhead is used to melt wax or
resin onto your label and produce the image. Again, this is done at high speed.
There are a number of benefits and disadvantages to each method. Thermal transfer is able
to print onto a wider range of materials. You can print onto plastic, paper, card etc. With
thermal transfer printers you can use different coloured inks. In some printing situations
you need plastic labels – say for example you're labelling assets used outdoors, or plant
samples in a field trial. Sometimes labels need to be resistant to chemicals and thermal
transfer is the only way you can print chemical resistant labels.
One disadvantage, however, is that thermal transfer does require an extra consumable
item which may increase the cost of printing and is an extra thing for the operator to have
to think about. Also, you need to have a special printer with the components to handle
these ink ribbons. The printer becomes a little bigger, more bulky and expensive.
At the moment there aren't many portable thermal transfer printers.
Direct thermal label printers are much simpler (no need for ribbon components) and the
user doesn't have to think about replacing ink. However, direct thermal printers produce
less durable images. Thermal coated paper or tags tend not to cope with scratching very
well and they will turn brown over time when exposed to heat. That's not a problem for
short life labels which are only expected to last a few months or for food labels where they
will remain cool.
Most portable printers print using direct thermal because it's simple to use, small, compact
and convenient. In use it's been found the type of documents printed by portable printers
tend to have a short life so there isn't any need for thermal transfer. But if you're printing
asset labels which do need to last a long time, or you need labels that resist chemicals and
solvents then the P4T from Zebra is probably the best option.
As you'll appreciate no printer can work without power and all mobile printers use
batteries. A good mobile printer battery will last a shift, in other words, 8 hours. If the
printer is used on the road, access to a mains charger might be hours away. Printers losing
charge part way through the day would mean the driver needs to return to base. That
makes you either a hero or a villain depending on how committed the driver is to his or
her job. Either way, your boss probably won't be too impressed. An unexpected return to
base could cost hundreds of pounds in lost time and fuel costs. So it's important to make
sure the printer you buy has a battery that will last.
There's no hard and fast rule about how
long a battery will last. Battery life
depends on how much printing is done,
what size labels or receipts are printed,
what materials the printer is printing
onto, how much wireless
communication is going on and battery
condition. Battery condition in turn
depends on how well charged it was
and how old the battery is.
How to avoid a flat printer battery.
Some of this is obvious, but here's a checklist to help you avoid a flat battery.
✔ First – test the printer in a typical scenario before you commit to buying hundreds
of them. If it doesn't last, test another model.
✔ Secondly – consider charging options. If you're using the printer in a vehicle, then
you need to buy a vehicle charger. Look at battery chargers that will charge spare
batteries. Again test this before you buy a fleet of printers.
✔ Thirdly – consider spare batteries. It could cost more to have a lorry return to base
Mobile Printer batteries
for a replacement battery, just once, than the cost of a new battery.
✔ Fourthly – Choose an efficient printer. Whilst you have to consider the batteries,
the printers play a big part in battery life. Modern portable printers have a number
of energy efficiency features that will prevent the dreaded flat battery scenario.
Features include battery health monitoring – warning users when they need to
recharge. Putting components to sleep (such as display and wireless
communication) – to save power, and an important (and frankly geeky) feature
important for thermal printers is managing the printhead so it doesn't have to heat
up so much – saving precious battery life.
✔ Finally – you must manage your battery maintenance. As anyone with a mobile
phone will know, batteries don't last forever. Gradually, over the life of the battery
the full charge will decline and the battery will discharge more quickly. Even
without being used, a battery will lose it's total capacity. Have a way of tracking
batteries so each one gets it's share of use and replace it before it's unable to last a
whole shift. Have a process where you periodically check the batteries at the end of
Speak to your friendly printer supplier (like us!) for advice and help with these ideas.
How to put money in your pocket using mobile printers
You'll realise portable printers bring big benefits in terms of convenience - by printing
where the label or receipt is needed. What you need to do is convince the bank manager
(or your manager) that investing in these printers will actually pay off over a short period
The best portable printer solutions take advantage of being able to change the work
processes to benefit from this “point of use printing'' convenience. New ways of doing
things only need to save a few minutes on each transaction to add up to big time savings
over the course of the day or week. Research from companies who have successfully used
portable printers show that van drivers using portable printers (cutting out the need to
handwrite documents) on delivery routes or for service delivery are able to serve more
customers per shift. That incremental improvement means more work can be done,
without adding to the wage bill.
As well as productivity improvements on the road or in the warehouse, time is saved for
back office staff as well. Printed documents mean that that data is stored electronically –
no more transcribing and deciphering handwriting. Back office time is saved and you can
bill your clients more quickly.
Where to use portable printers
Here are some ideas of how to use portable printers.
Field sales and service
Use portable printers and handheld computers to cut invoice delays
Boost your bank balance by using a portable computer or printer with a built in
card reader to accept payments at the time of delivery or service.
Use portable terminals to seamlessly and automatically transfer work assignments
and service/delivery records wirelessly whilst your drivers are still on the road. No
more waiting for the driver to return before entering the information (and
ultimately billing your customers).
Impress your customers by printing receipts and tickets for them whilst they're
queuing. Offer top quality service and increase staff productivity at the same time.
Serve more tables in your restaurant by printing bills and accepting payment at the
table-side. If you could save employing one extra waiter or waitress how quickly
would you pay off the system?
Airlines: issue receipts in the air with a portable printer.
Hospitals and labs
How to save lives in hospitals by reducing mislabelling errors: take sample, print
label with a portable printer and stick. Once it's correctly labelled it's recorded and
can be tracked.
Replenish stocks on the ward and label them with a portable or cart based printer.
Police and criminal justice
Dare I say it – print parking and speeding tickets there and then. Legible and more
accurate, mobile ticket writing means the data is recorded on the portable computer
making the whole process more efficient.
Identify, label and track crime scene exhibits using barcodes. Print the exhibit
details on the label so it can be read by anyone on the investigative team.
Label samples for quality control.
Update details of the stock item whilst you're standing in front of it.
Label work in progress with the stage it's progressed to.
Make sure the right label goes on the right pallet by labelling whilst you're next to
Parcels and logistics
Give your customers personalised delivery receipts, collection receipts by printing
Label parcels at pickup
Retail and shops
Do your shelf edge labelling at the shelf edge! No more walking back and forth to
Use portable printers to serve customers anywhere in-store, not just at the checkout.
All businesses and even government departments and agencies are under pressure to do
more for less. Whilst we wait for Britain's factories and offices to be equipped with robots
capable of replacing humans, we need to use today's technology to enable us (humans) to
get more done. Portable printers fill a niche for workers who print labels and documents,
yet need to save time walking to and from a fixed printer. Portable printers make changes
to whole work processes possible – unlocking even greater productivity benefits. Finally
portable printers improve accuracy and reduce mis-labelling – other benefits that hits the
If you are considering a portable printer and want advice or help
www.labelproducts.co.uk would be a wise choice. Experienced with using these printers,
they're specialists in label printing – so they have up to date knowledge, so you can be
confident you're getting the most appropriate printer at an appropriate price. No only will
you find our people helpful, friendly and knowledgeable, you'll also find we've got
everything you need – servicing, labels, ribbons and software.
Pick up the phone (0800 033 7058) for advice or head over to www.labelproducts.co.uk to
find out more.
Miles Green is the owner of label products. He's been
supplying customers of all shapes and sizes barcode
printers and labels since 1994. Recently he's lived in New
Zealand and Japan and is married with two sons. He'd
love to hear what you think of this miniguide so drop him
a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.