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Codes and printed information have become ubiquitous on all nature of packs and products, and information requirements have grown exponentially, as Robin Meade discovered

Coding and marking has come a long way since the food industry began providing simple product information on consumer packaging. The number of applications beyond expiry dates and batch numbers, the number of industries requiring the technology, and the spread of people who need to access the information, have grown beyond measure.

Recently Moorfields Pharmaceuticals, the pharmaceutical manufacturing unit of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, implemented standardised barcoding to GS1 UK supply chain standards on its special medicines. These number only 100 and are prescribed by doctors and pharmacists for eye drops and solutions when no licensed product is available.

Using barcodes, though, allows the 3,000 or more users to be served through an automated dispensing and ordering process, while also improving stock control.

To deliver the burgeoning demand for coding and marking the technology has grown too, from inkjet, laser and thermal transfer overprinting to a future with the possibilities of RFID. Coder/applicators enabled for RFID are now coming onto the market. However, Simon King, director of Domino’s Integrated Solutions Group, says the take-up of RFID generally has been slower than originally envisaged.

“As with many emerging technologies, RFID was heralded as a ‘silver bullet’ with the potential to provide total, infallible traceability from manufacturer to consumer in every aspect of our lives,” he says.

“The reality check came quite swiftly for those who believed the technology was mature enough for implementation at unit level in sectors such as pharmaceuticals. Issues such as price per tag and questions about the absolute reliability of the technology are delaying universal adoption of RFID at unit level.”

The mass of new products and improved IT to manage them continues to be developed from existing technologies. To code and mark effectively, choosing the correct method can make the difference between a smooth operation and happy customers, and disaster. Types of substrate, speed of application, print quality and sophistication and total cost, such as consumables and service, need to be considered.

Inkjet has low running costs compared with contact technologies and is capable of printing variable information and graphics on a wide range of substrates. Imaje says it has the only true multi-head, multi-jet inkjet coding system for marking primary products in its 9000 range of small character printers, and the company has now increased running speeds, with the introduction of the 9040S developed for the US beverage industry. It can print two lines of seven-dot font at up to 2.7metres/sec. The space between the two lines has been reduced to 1mm to provide good print quality on limited space, such as PET bottles, cans and glass. It also has an automatic rinsing system.

Linx Printing Technologies has added colour in its 6900 Spectrum printer for use with pigmented inks. The company says it incorporates all the features of the recently launched Linx 6900 and can print up to five lines of text, barcodes and graphics with a range of coloured high opacity inks.

Several new pigmented inks, offering improved drying times for faster line speeds, have been launched to accompany it. Linx Brilliant white ink 1306 contains a very high pigment content to provide for opacity print on a variety of surfaces. Linx High-opacity grey ink 1311 is designed for applications where previously both white and black inks might have been needed, and is suitable for printing on either light or dark coloured substrates.

Domino was a pioneer in the use and development of inkjet, and its A-Series CIJ printers are claimed to be the best selling in the world. Its equipment has been used across many industries and in a variety of ways. A-Series printers were used to print special labels for a Wimbledon promotion in which a unique code was printed on the reverse of a conventional offset sheetfed-produced label on Robinsons squash bottles. The printer and Editor GT controller generates 60 million unique codes. Barry Davidson, production director of packaging printer Tipografic, says: “As a result we have received considerable interest in other promotional opportunities.”

Domino is one of the first suppliers to acknowledge the effect of the loss of manufacturing, and with it packaging, to Asia and eastern Europe. However, its outer case printing technology is still in demand and has been taken up by one of the UK’s largest kitchen, bedroom and bathroom flat pack furniture manufacturers.

Gower Furniture supplies Wickes, Focus and builders’ merchants such as Travis Perkins, Benchmarx and Jewson/Grahams. It has installed eight Domino C3000 plus inkjet printers to print product descriptions, customer codes and barcodes along the edges of cardboard packaging of finished goods. The system also has, via new interface tools, seamlessly integrated into existing IT systems, while ensuring data security for printed information.

Laser marking is also a well-established technology and is used in production lines for producing numerical codes, barcodes and logos onto labels, cardboard, glass, plastic, cans and caps. One of the benefits is that lasers do not require consumables, such as inks or ribbons, and make a mark thermally by changing the surface colour or ablation with the removal of some or all of the surface material. Laser coding is fast, clean and dry and low maintenance.

DataLase has formed a partnership with FractureCode which specialises in coding and marking using conventional rotary printing. DataLase has a range of processes for product identification and anti-counterfeiting using coatings and additives that react with and change colour with laser light, including edible on-product marking that is applied direct to foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals. The FractureCode deal will allow the firm to offer item-level coding and track & trace for individual products by imaging FractureCode coding with DataLase digital printing technology.

Imaje has recently extended its third generation CO2 laser coder range with the Imaje 7031S, designed for coding onto the growing PET bottle market. Image says the 7031S vector laser coder has specific wavelength properties to “guarantee perfectly legible contrast print on PET bottles. Standard lasers use wavelengths of 10.6 microns, which actually engrave the bottle. The 7031S has a wavelength of 9.3 microns, which enables the beam to stay on the surface, thereby keeping the PET intact.”

The company says the lower wavelength also uses less energy, creates less dust and, more importantly, creates greater contrast on the marked material. “The code created by standard lasers is only visible as a result of light interacting with the engraved mark. The 7031S beam stays on the surface and results in a colour change – slightly off white. The contrast of the code is, therefore, enhanced and, with bolder fonts available, consumers will find the codes easy to read, irrespective of whether the bottles contain light or dark liquid”.

The 7031S can mark at speeds up to 80,000 bottles/hr. With a variation tolerance of ±10 mm between the printhead and the bottles different sizes of bottles (33cl, 50cl and 100cl) can all be marked on the same production line, reducing or eliminating changeover times.

Linx has developed a new range of scribing lasers. The Linx SL101 and SL301 with 10W and 30W power options are built to fit the production line and their range of lenses and beam delivery options mean they can be manoeuvred into tight, hard to reach spaces.

The beam delivery options for different spot sizes, product to lens distances and mark fields gives greater marking versatility. Many language options are available, while complex messages can be easily created as there are virtually no font or graphic restrictions. Linx laser product manager David Martin says: “They practically take care of themselves. No shutdown or start-up routines are needed; we use large volume gas tubes for longer tube life and lasers operate 24/7 with little manual intervention.”

German technology company Alltec has introduced a 5W continuous wave fibre laser marking system for marking and coding small parts with a high resolution and accuracy. The LF050 was developed for use with electronic components where moulded housings and circuit boards must be marked precisely. However, the firm says it is suitable for marking foils, films, bags and composite packaging too.

Product manager Manfred Suddendorf says: “Its wavelength is 10 times shorter than that of a CO2 laser marker. The system marks with high resolution, is fast, precise and offers excellent legibility. The system can achieve character heights below 150 microns with line widths well below 30 microns and has marking speeds of up to 800 characters/sec and line speeds of up to 10metres/sec.”

Videojet recently installed its 3320 laser system at a producer of own-brand personal care products to increase speeds on a new tube filling machine and cope with a new harder to mark surface coating. A spokeswoman said the quality was maintained despite a very short laser idle-time of 500 milliseconds between firings.

Domino has diversified into thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) used in flexible packaging for food production with the acquisition of print and apply specialist Mectec Elektronik and Danish thermal coding specialist Easyprint. TTO uses a thermal transfer printhead and ribbon that makes contact with the substrate, producing high-resolution barcodes, text and graphics on continuous and stop-print-start operations. Videojet’s DataFlex features a solid state, clutchless ribbon drive system that uses bi-directional stepper motors. Clutch-based ribbon drives do function as effectively, the firm says.

Transpack Medical has installed a thermal transfer printer to upgrade its overprinting to keep up with its thermoforming machines and print information without labels. The Bell-Mark machine supplied by Rotech is able to print the entire width of a 300mm web before the Tiromat thermoforming machine needs to advance. A Transpack spokesman says: “We have no restriction on the speed at which we can run the thermoformer and we are able to produce a far higher quality of print.”

Another company to benefit recently from thermal transfer technology is Greenvale AP, reportedly the UK’s largest fresh potato company, which says it has “dramatically improved” the efficiency of its product coding after replacing its existing hot foil printers with several Markem SmartDate thermal transfer coders. The Markem units print not only the “best before” date, but also the variety of potato, the grower’s code, the origin of the produce and “vital” traceability information.

To further improve productivity at its Doddington, Cambridgeshire factory Greenvale has also introduced a hand-held scanning system on each production line and networked the entire coding operation. When a shift begins, operators simply scan a barcode menu attached to each individual production line. Using Markem’s CoLOS networking software information is fed live to the SmartDate coders from Greenvale’s ERP system, Navision, which manages the daily production runs and, via CoLOS, communicates instantly to the SmartDate printers the latest product information for that particular line. The operator then checks the information is correct and signals their acceptance by pressing a line reset button that allows the information to update and start the packaging operation.

Markem says the system enables Greenvale to meet statutory requirements for traceability and satisfy retail customers’ coding and labelling demands. Greenvale has replicated the system at Doddington at its factory in Duns, Scotland.

Boots, one of the UK’s longest-established retail names, has recently installed seven Logopak 515 T print & apply labelling systems in a new warehouse development in its Nottingham site. Installed in an automated production facility manufactured by Witron, the Logopak labellers are used for the application of labels to outgoing cartons of mixed goods.

Goods are picked and placed into plastic totes which are then moved automatically to despatch. As they approach the labelling station, a permanent barcode on the tote is scanned and this data is sent to a WMS system.

On receipt of this data the information to be printed on the label is sent to the Logopak 515 T real-time print & apply labellers. The tote is stopped by a “blade stop” on the line and a label is printed, applied and scanned by the 515 T machines in real-time.

Polypropylene labels which are printed in differing colours for days of the week and other tote labels which are printed in six colour blocks are used, each with a semi permanent/removable adhesive for easy removal of the label at the store end of the chain, before returning to depot for refilling and re-use. The labels with the six-colour blocks, have five of the blocks overprinted each time by the Logopak machine, leaving only one colour showing so that labels don’t have to keep being changed, yet allowing a day colour still to be seen.

Contact details

T: +49 (0)388 23550

Domino UK
T: +44 (0)1954 782551

Imaje UK
T: +44 (0)1928 599420

Linx Printing Technologies
T: +44 (0)1480 302100

Logopak International
T: +44 (0)1904 692333

Markem Systems
T: +44 (0)161 333 8400

T: +44 (0)1707 393700

Videojet Technologies
T: + 44 (0)870 240 5543

Imaje says it has the only true multi-head, multi-jet inkjet coding system for marking primary products in its 9000 range of small character printers – and it has now increased running speeds with the introduction of the 9040S Videojet recently installed its 3320 laser system at a producer of own-brand personal care products to increase speeds on a new tube filling machine to cope with a new harder to mark surface coating Imaje has extended its range of third generation CO2 laser coders with the Imaje 7031S, specifically designed for coding onto the growing PET bottle market Linx has developed a new range of scribing lasers, the Linx SL101 and SL301, to complement its existing range The Markem system at potato grower Greenvale’s Doddington factory includes a hand-held scanning system on each production line Developed primarily for the electronic component market, Alltec’s 5W continuous wave fibre laser marking system is also said to be suitable for marking foils, films, bags an