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Can laser and inkjet disciplines work comfortably alongside each other? Paul Gander talks to the coding industry and comes up with some answers

When ink jet companies first started to sell laser coding, those who were still decisively in the ink jet camp at that stage criticised the move, suggesting that the newer technology competed with the older one. The fact that nowadays most ink jet suppliers either have their own laser range or cooperate with suppliers who do seems to imply that the two approaches really are genuinely complementary rather than competitive.

Chris Church, UK laser business manager at Domino, ridicules the idea that the two technologies are incompatible within a single company’s portfolio. “Domino has exploded the myth that an ink jet company can only sell ink jet and a laser company can only deal in laser because they compete with each other. The disciplines work comfortably alongside each other.”

Mr Church admitted that it was possible for a customer to cross over from one technology to the other. “Coca-Cola was using Domino ink jets and is now using one of our laser systems,” he says. “Without a doubt, the market for laser is growing for environmental as well as long-term cost reasons.”

In general terms, though, the same Domino sales team sells both ink jet and laser. There will always be a sense that the dual-technology supplier is cannibalising its own business. “We have taken a market sector approach on the basis that there are areas where laser and ink jet are each more suitable.”

The choice of system may be driven by the substrate to be coded, he says, or by other customer-specific needs such as pressure to eliminate solvents or limits on capital investment.

As the example of Coca-Cola dem-onstrates, the market has shifted to the extent that any ink jet supplier is expected to have access to laser alternatives.

There is sufficient crossover to create a real risk that installed ink jet coders will be replaced by laser units, in some areas at least, so suppliers have to be able to keep their customers on-side. In Domino’s case, the addition of laser has been incremental to the business as a whole.

Since its acquisition of the Xymark business over two years ago, Linx Printing Technologies has also been able to offer a strong laser alternative to its established ink jet business.

Sales and marketing director Marc Lafferty notes that the fundamental attitudes of customers towards laser have shifted in the last few years.

“A few years ago we had to sell the concept of the technology first before we sold the system. Now there is no need to do this. Acceptance of laser is a lot higher now, even if it is still not as high as ink jet.”

The recent history of the two companies serves to underline the increasing importance of laser coding and the way in which these suppliers have kept pace with, and also helped to shape, customer expectations.

Linx had its own system before the acquisition of Xymark but could not compete very effectively in high-speed industrial applications.

Xymark’s BB2 coder, on the other hand, was installed on bottling lines handling up to 70 000 bottles/hr.

The BB2 is IP66 rated, ideal for coding in particularly dusty and wet environments.

Domino’s history of buying into laser technology stretches back even further. In 1994, the company acquired Directed Energy’s DDC range. The particular strength of the system, which remains a competitive advantage for Domino in its latest series, was the smaller size of its laser tubes.

The company then looked to German company Sator, a manufacturer of bespoke, high-end scribing lasers. “They had the basis of a technology we needed, with the fastest-scanning head system in the world,” says Chris Church. “Sator was already talking to venture capitalists when we came along.”

What emerged was a close fit between Sator’s niche capabilities, Domino’s earlier DDC range and the company’s well-developed sales network. A 25% stake in Sator was increased earlier this year to a 51% holding, with the option of purchasing the balance over the next few years.

Domino was already in a strong position with its DDC dot matrix range and the DSL industrial scribing laser that it inherited from Sator.

The DDC had proved itself in high-end, high-speed applications, such as Krones labelling lines or PET bottling installations, where there is the additional benefit that speed is combined with control over the amount of energy to which the material is exposed.

The arrival of the DSL range fitted in with a shift in customer marketing circles in favour of improved coding quality.

The next move for Domino was to produce a smaller, more accessible application of the Sator technology.

“Ultimately, both the DDC and DSL systems were developed as high-end solutions,” explains Chris Church. There is a huge difference between the £8000 or so that an end user might pay out for an ink jet coder and the £20 000 or £25 000 cost of the DDC and DSL systems.

“If you’re a high-output user, it may be easy to justify the additional cost but, if you’re a low- to medium-volume user, it’s much more difficult,” he says.

Domino’s S range, introduced this year, logically combines the smallest CO2 tube on the market, as used in the DDC range, with the fastest scan head available, from Sator’s DSL.

“It’s an obvious thing to do but we didn’t just want to produce a smaller version of the DSL,” says Mr Church. First out is the S200, based on a 20W tube and capable of speeds of up to 70m/min, depending on substrate.

The S range is limited in perform-ance in comparison with the DSL, he says, which can double this coding speed with a wattage that starts at 25W but includes a 50W option.

But the S200 is available for around £15 000, positioning it halfway between ink jet and laser on price. Domino is also planning to introduce a 10W variant, the S100. This will be slower again, says Chris Church, but will again have a lower price – closer to £12 000.

Clearly, the market for Domino’s S range coders is very different from the 1000 bottles/min lines served by the company’s more powerful lasers.

Mr Church expects key areas to include chilled or frozen food and pharmaceutical cartoning lines, where speeds are unlikely to exceed more than 60m/min.

End users who have been discour-aged by the size of laser coding units in the past are likely to be more kindly disposed towards the S range. According to Chris Church, the head is around two-thirds the size of the equivalent on a DSL and, even without the advantage of size, the circular-profile housing is far easier to integrate than previous systems. When comparing laser with ink jet, suppliers are obviously keen to talk up the longer-term costs of any system rather than considering just the outlay at installation.

Even when Domino brings out its S100, the up-front cost for a purchaser will be one and a half times the figure for a high-performance ink jet coder. But Mr Church emphasises the consumables costs and calculates that overall capital expenditure will come out at a similar level over two years.

At Linx Marc Lafferty makes a similar point about consumables when comparing ink jet with scribing or steered beam lasers. “Even for this type of laser coder, installation costs are likely to stay a lot higher for some time to come,” he says, putting the premium paid for laser as opposed to ink jet at between 30 and 100%.

“But when you take into account consumables, and arguably maintenance, I don’t think there is very much difference in cost over the lifetime of the product.”

Earlier this year, Linx Xymark brought out the VW50 steered beam laser.

While the Xymark BB2 dot-matrix coder can code at line speeds of 300m/min, the VW50 manages 250m/min.

But, as Mr Lafferty is quick to point out, there is a contrast in the quality both of the print generated when compared with dot-matrix and in the build of the coder when compared with other steered beam systems.

“There’s a fundamental difference in the types of product that have come on to the market,” he argues.

“There are the industrial, robust machines such as ours and there are the others that can only be described as ‘cheap and cheerful’.”

After overcoming worries that laser might cannibalise suppliers’ ink jet markets, Linx says it is not concerned if its new scribing range has the same effect on existing dot matrix markets. According to Marc Lafferty, Linx plans to fill out the new VW range below the power level of the VW50.

The company believes the VW series will meet the needs of pharmaceutical lines as well as higher-end food and drink such as wine bottlers. Ink jet systems remain the mainstay of Linx’s coding portfolio, with specialist systems complementing the more standard range. The 6800 Spectrum, for example, overcomes many of the problems encountered with pigmented inks.

“The problem with pigmented systems has been reliability,” says Marc Lafferty.

The coder is equipped with software which periodically circulates the ink and keeps it from clogging. Additionally, both the ink tank and the print head have been redesigned to keep the ink as fluid as possible and avoid the need for cleaning and consequent downtime.

Videojet has been a little quiet of late but was very much in evidence at the PPMA Show at the NEC in September when it launched its S25 laser coding system.

The 25W product offers the user increased line speed compared to its forerunner – the S10. It has been designed for marking paperboard, claycoat or secondary packaging labels, PET or PVC.

Standard features include tri-line, tower, reverse and invert print options, static or dynamic operation, serialising, date and time inserts, print counter and lower and upper case letters.

Up to as many as 20 100-character messages/line can be stored and two RS-232 ports are provided for downloading software and running the user interface.

Imaje’s Lightjet was developed in close collaboration with Rofin-Sinar Inc.

Key features include low power usage – 250W peak – and ease of installation thanks to its triple-hinged telescopic arm. Line speeds of up to 130m/min are possible.

The Lightjet is suitable for a range of applications where indelible and discreet marking is required.

The laser will mark paper, card-board, glass, PET and even difficult materials such as ceramic, rubber and PE.

Up to five character lines can be inserted with characters of 2-15mm. Image resolution is good even on marked or uneven surfaces.

A large number of fonts are available and variable message marking, including text, date, logo, time, can be imprinted with automatic counters and full data logging.

Imaje says that the Lightjet will provide reliable service in harsh environments. The company provides a 3- year warranty on the totally sealed laser source.