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The nature of coding has become increasingly complex over the past few decades, with legislation requiring more and better information and users demanding speed and flexibility. Robin Meade looks at the latest solutions to fulfil these needs

This year is a landmark for two specialists in the coding and marking sector – Imaje, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Allen Coding Systems, which has completed 30 years.

Both agree the market had changed considerably in that time. The number of industries that have to mark their products and those such as engineering, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, aerospace, automotive, construction and chemical that have to conform to greater labelling requirements has increased dramatically. So, too, has the amount of information that has to be coded for legal specifications or quality control standards and also the need for traceability.

“Printers can no longer stand alone, but must have the ability to be integrated onto the production line, communicate via software with other equipment or share information with other printers or labelling equipment, thereby reducing the risk of input error,” says a spokeswoman for Imaje.

Imaje, which markets the 9000 range of small character inkjet printers for the FMCG market, says it has been forced to move from being a supplier of inkjet printers to a multi-product provider. This is underlined by its acquisition of Markpoint to gain entry to the print and apply market, its partnership with Rofin Sinaar to gain a hold in the laser market and the establishment of technical and service centres around the globe.

Imaje is not the only company looking to the future. The world premiere at Total of Domino UK’s thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) printers was the company’s wake up call to the industry that it was serious about diversifying from its original inkjet base. Parent Domino Printing Sciences acquired print and apply specialist Mectec Elektronik from Swedish company Thermoscribe last year and more recently the Danish thermal coding specialist Easyprint. On the eve of the show, Domino also acquired Easyprint’s UK distributor On-Line Coding, of Reading.

Domino sales manager Nick Horne says the company is also looking globally. “Our core products are continuous inkjet, laser coding and outer case coders, and product identification. In the UK were see these as a diminishing market because manufacturing is simply packing up and heading East. There are replacement projects, but we have to redirect our business.

“Thermal transfer overprinting will give us the impetus to bridge that gap. We deal with nearly all the multinationals and we believe this shows that we are serious about new markets. Our new product will drive the second generation of products.”

TTO plays a big part in flexible packaging using a thermal transfer printhead and ribbon that makes contact with the substrate. The technology is capable of high-resolution barcodes text and graphics on continuous and intermittent modes.

Domino’s new V-Series plus range is headed by the V200+ TTO overprinter that can achieve a print resolution of 300dpi while applying high-quality variable data, including real time clocks, Data Matrix codes as well as logos onto a wide range of flexible packaging materials.

Designed for use in both continuous and intermittent modes, the V200+ can be mounted on a variety of packaging equipment, including vertical or horizontal form, fill and seal machines and label applicators, making it suitable for many key food, pharmaceutical, health and beauty applications. One or more can either be controlled via one colour touch screen or any networked PCs or OEM packaging machine running a web browser.

“The debut of the versatile V200+ printer is a significant milestone in the introduction of TTO technology to our already comprehensive coding and marking portfolio,” says Domino TTO product manager Jon Cossins.

The V200+ includes simple “dancing arm’ technology, maintaining ribbon tension between new and used ribbon spools, resulting in less maintenance, increased uptime and higher production speeds. The V200+ also offers the “highest-capacity ribbon rolls currently available” – up to 1,400 metres ¬- which translates into reduced changeover and increased uptime.

Linx Printing Technologies, which launched its new 6900 continuous inkjet printer at Total, is not so sure the party is over. Charles Randon, senior product manager for CIJ, says the market offers prospects for both networked coding inkjet printers and less sophisticated standalone installations. Around two thirds of the market’s food and beverage customers in Europe are SMEs.

He says: “Each production site might have its own network and adding to that is easy to do, but adding a network for coding on top of that is more of a problem and can be expensive; it has to be hard-wired, there is less flexibility. The benefits make this a cost-effective option for some, but we are still seeing a big market for standalone because it is easy to use and you can move it around the factory.”

The Linx 6900 was developed for both markets, in that it has Ethernet and I/O connections, and is also easy to set-up as a standalone machine. It is a partner to a wide range of product coding requirements and can print up to five lines of text, graphics and barcodes at single-printed line speeds of up to 8.4m/s. A key feature is an intuitive colour user interface with wysiwyg display and menu systems, and low-maintenance operation.

Linx marked the launch at Total with a game, Lock ‘n’ Code, available from The player is armed with a Linx 6900 and has to complete four short shifts whilst coding items, which pass by on the production line. Linx’s marketing manager Simon Powell says: “We wanted to highlight these capabilities in a way that is both informative and entertaining.”

Euromark Coding and Marking has new low ink consumption CIJ printer. The Hitachi PXR series combines speed and print definition with low ink use and low emissions, says Euromark managing director Ian Luck. “The new PXR printers offer exceptional quality, reliability, low cost of ownership and convenience.”

However, thermal transfer printers remain big. Essex seed merchant E W King, which has a product range of more than 1,000 varieties, chose this technology to upgrade its ability to print packets on demand up to an area of 90x160mm. Rotech installed an FF250 feeder with a 100 packs/min Bell-Mark printer. The machine’s Versastyle software allows all the pack formats to be stored on a dedicated PC.

Markem has enhanced its SmartDate 5 thermal transfer coder to safeguard manufacturers against missing date and batch codes, and the threat of product recalls. A relative motion feature has been developed for continuous operations, such as bagging and flow-wrapping where missed or incomplete codes can occur if the line is stopped during the printing cycle to make adjustments. It detects the slowing of film and completes a readable code even if the film comes to a stop halfway through the printing process.

A spokesman says that during a three-month trial involving more than 15 million prints, SmartDate 5 eliminated all non-printed packs during the normal incidences of lines stoppages.

Markem has also recently added to the specification a web pages feature that allows a coder’s controls to be integrated into those of the parent machine, a pick list data selection for faster set-up and additional bar code support so that ID Matrix and PDF417 codes can be printed dynamically.

UK marketing manager Lucy Holden says: “Simple human errors when setting up a date code can have huge consequences. In the pressured shop floor environment it’s all too easy to miss a month-end date change or pack the wrong product in the wrong bag sleeve or carton.”

While technology and efficiency are driving the business model, issues such as errors and traceability have come to the fore, not least with the incident of avian flu at the Bernard Matthews site in Suffolk where confirming the supply chain was paramount to the health and safety response.

James Butcher, managing director of Claricom, says traceability and coding errors are one of the hottest topics in the food industry. UK law has significant penalties, even imprisonment for up to two years, for breaches and this extends not only to the principal manufacturer, but also to companies producing the smallest ingredients or colourings. “Traceability systems are of little value if the batch or lot code on the consumer product is wrong or the product information it contains is inaccurate. However, given this information is typically set up manually, human error is inevitable,” he says.

Claricom’s packaging coding management system (PCMS) provides a centralised environment of all data and is used among others by Cadbury, Dairy Crest, Northern Foods and PepsiCo. Once the data is confirmed in the production database, the PCMS transmits the information via a generic interface compatible with leading coding, labelling, barcoding and RF technology to ensure consistency across all packaging.

Coding Management, an advisory division set up by Claricom, says a typical manufacturing facility can save from between £50,000 and £500,000 a year by taking a best practice approach to managing coding operations. These include the cost of wasted packaging and reworks, optimising product life, more efficient manufacturing, eliminating withdrawals and creating reliable traceability.

Claricom has a PCMS in use at sauce manufacturer New Ivory, part of the Matthews Food Group, linked to Linx inkjet coding equipment. Managing director of New Ivory, Geoff Allison, says: “Life is very demanding in chilled food manufacturing. Where there were three salad dressings, now there are ten,” he says, adding that the company has had to adapt to making more frequent batches.

And the complexity of information is increasing. For example, the National Union of Farmers has called for country of origin labels to be used routinely in supermarkets. Chris Wyres, technical manager of DataLase, says: “The printing of variable information such as country of origin, ingredients, batch numbers and barcodes can be extremely costly for manufacturers and any changes can cause significant delays on the production line. The manufacturer would have to stock labels with each country.”

DataLase said it its process using a low-power CO2 laser can add variable information at the end of the production line. The area to be marked is coated with the company’s colour change chemistry until the information is activated by the packer in the final stage to cause a black and white colour change to display the data.

RFID is another technical innovation finding a home in the coding and marking sector, not least because the cost compared with primary applications of the technology, are more easily justified. Markem last year launched its 800 Series high-speed RFID encoder/applicator for cases of consumer goods. The company says it can tag 100 cases/min with all forms of tags, including inlays.

Meanwhile, Weber Marking Systems has developed an RFID version of its 5200 series printer-applicator that can print, encode, verify and apply pressure-sensitive RFID smart labels to cartons and pallet loads in one operation.

The 5200rfid comes in a selection of print engines that use thermal transfer technology to produce smart labels with text, bar codes and graphics at 203dpi. As the labels are printed, digital information is encoded onto thin UHF tags embedded in the smart label material. The encoded information is verified by the system and the label applied. Labels up to 5x6in can be dispenses at up to 12in/sec using the non-contact tamp blow method.

Weber is offering a special retrofit kit to upgrade 5200 V2 printer-applicators. Weber UK managing director Bill Knox says: “The new 5200rfid recognises the increasing importance of RFID technology and adds this important capability so that customers can be well prepared to meet the new and future requirements of the supply chain.”

While balancing efficiencies and benefits against the cost of innovation is an important issue, a number of new products and enhancements in more established technologies have been launched.

Sister companies Norwood Marking Systems and Allen Coding Systems have introduced a portable coding system to lower the cost of ownership by reducing the need to buy multiple machines.

The BDSV coder transports products from a hopper through the printhead with a vacuum drive, removing the need for a belt drive. The offline carton coder sits on castor wheels so it can be moved from one line to another. The BDSV handles carton blanks from 90x80mm up to 315x315mm at 160 cartons/min and is available with the NX4 thermal transfer or 60/35S hot stamp printer. An extra long version can be fitted with multiple printheads for more finished products from a single pass.

Allen has also launched the LaserSYSTEM Plus range of laser coders. These have 10 and 30 watt output, laser coding systems and can be used for static or dynamic coding on to a variety of substrates including plastics, varnished and anodised metal, glass, paper, and coated and printed cardboard.

A spokesman says its is easily operated by a touchscreen terminal or handheld device, and has an Ethernet interface. By changing lenses, the marking area can be extended to 250mm x 250mm.

Challenges demand innovation

The future trends and the challenges that lie ahead in the coding sector are many and varied. Nigel Bond, group managing director, Domino Printing Sciences shares his thoughts with Gerry Duggin

Increasingly challenged by the introduction of ever more demanding legislation and regulations throughout the global supply chain, the requirement for innovative coding and marking applications and techniques throughout a range of different markets – in particular, the food, beverage and pharmaceutical sectors – is growing at a significant pace, says Nigel Bond.

“Manufacturers and systems integrators of coding, marking and traceability solutions are facing increasing demands from customers in a range of market sectors, so naturally, these customers are looking to their suppliers to deliver solutions that not only integrate seamlessly into their existing production lines, but add tangible benefits to their business”, he says.

Bond asserts that the continuing focus on “lean manufacturing” to achieve “world class” productivity and increased profitability, combined with strict procurement practices among major companies, is putting the pressure on machine manufacturers to provide a full technology spectrum spanning the entire range of primary, secondary and pallet coding. “Packaging companies are looking to their suppliers to provide solutions to meet every application, from printing variable data, text and graphics, to the management and application of unique Data Matrix codes and RFID tags.

“Today, our customers are looking for a better and easier way to operate equipment that eliminates the opportunity for manual errors and therefore reduces production downtime. Suppliers that can deliver coding and marking solutions that maximise output and production efficiencies and provide higher levels of networking, automation and traceability systems both in-house and throughout the complete supply chain, will certainly find themselves in a strong position and with the competitive edge,” explains Bond.

Last year Domino continued to actively pursue the acquisition trail, which resulted in the addition of three new companies into the Domino Group – Mectec Elektronik, the print & apply labelling machinery specialist; Thermal Transfer Overlay (TTO) printer manufacturer Easyprint: and US-based Enterprise Information Systems (EIS), an integrator of RFID-based Track and Trace Systems.

“These new additions to the group have given us the extra breadth of technology to offer a complete ‘one-stop-shop’ for all our customers’ needs across the primary, secondary and pallet coding chain”, comments Bond. “Acquiring Mectec for example has given us the scope to introduce a whole new range of print and apply labelling solutions giving us the full offering of application methods to print variable data onto outer cases and pallets. Equally valuable will be the development of our Thermal Transfer Overlay (TTO) printers through our acquisition of Easyprint.”

As regards technology, both outside and within the packaging industry, Bond says interest in RFID and other track and trace-enabling technologies is continuing to rise. “Consumers are fast becoming aware of RFID and other machine-read codes in day-to-day transactions. Inside the industry, this is fuelled by mandates and regulations, and manufacturers in sectors such as food and pharmaceuticals can no longer avoid embracing these applications. However, despite their much-publicised role in revolutionising packaging, successful track and trace solutions certainly won’t be an ‘off the shelf’ package. They will need to be sufficiently customised and integrated into the whole manufacturing process of the end-user, and therefore delivery of bespoke solutions are the way forward. In addition, RFID is going to be most effective when combined with other coding and traceability systems, and based on internationally-recognised alpha/numeric and 2D solutions, such as Data Matrix codes.

“There is a wealth of statistics out there confirming the enormous interest in RFID and it’s evident that manufacturers, distributors and retailers are starting to assess its potential. According to industry forecasts, the global RFID market will top $7 billion in 2008, primarily driven by item-level RFID happening faster than expected. Others look to the retail market for their growth indicators, suggesting that retail expenditure on RFID will increase ten-fold by the year 2011, from $400 million in 2004*.

However, Bond believes that, “RFID, rich in potential and important as it is, will only be part of a multi-strand approach to developing 100% secure solutions to track and trace products from manufacture through distribution to consumption.”


* Frost & Sullivan (2005: World Retail RFID Markets – A Retailer Perspective)

Small volume revolution

A system for late stage printing of pharmaceutical blisters said to be ideal for multi-variant, small batch production which the company says will “revolutionise” the way drugs companies pack small volumes of tablets and capsules has been introduced to the UK by Hapa-Laetus UK.

Senior personnel from the UK/Ireland distribution, sales and service centre for on-demand print and pharmaceutical packaging security system providers Hapa and Laetus showcased the compact, all-in-one system at an open day in early May. Explaining the thinking behind its development, James MacKenzie, director, sales & marketing, Hapa, said the two companies’ research suggests that while many pharma companies report achieving pharmaceutical packaging efficiency rates of 95-98% when running a batch, typical uptimes may be as little as 20-30 minutes, with changeovers taking anything up to seven hours on some blister lines. Such machines may consequently end up running for only 20-40% of the time.

MacKenzie elaborated: “Maximising the amount of time pharma packaging equipment is actually running, something pharma companies now widely dub ‘optimising Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)’, is the Holy Grail for drugs producers today. Our Late Stage Customisation system addresses this by allowing manufacturers to call off small blister batches of, say, around 10,000 and then overprint the required data, downloaded via a digital software interface, directly onto the blister quickly and efficiently.

The new line will typically combine a Hapa 800 series drop-on-demand inkjet printer using solvent-free UV inks (for “ultra-fast” drying), a blister infeed/handling system, a Laetus Argus Inspect wt inspection system for identifying blank blisters prior to printing, and a Laetus Polycheck wt high-resolution camera-based “data management” system installed after the print module.

MacKenzie explains: “At the outset a small Data Matrix or other unique identifying code will typically be flexo printed onto each blister to identify the batch number, drug and dosage etc. The blisters can the be called off from storage at any time, at which stage the Argus Inspect wt system at the infeed will verify the code to ensure the right product artwork is set to be printed before printing actually starts. All necessary information can then be applied, with the data checked post-printing by an easy-to-use Polycheck wt data management system. In tests we have achieved print speeds of up to 240 blisters/min.”

Hapa-Laetus stresses that, alongside offering higher OEE, the Late Stage Customisation system should improve production lead times, enhance flexibility, allow more efficient resource utilisation and efficiency and improve security as quality printing will be achieved with full data management control. MacKenzie added: “Import duties should also be lower than with pre-printed blisters, as Customs will be able to treat the packs as bulk product.”

The system is fully compliant with the US FDA’s 21CFR Part II regulations governing the keeping of electronic records of all “key events” throughout the manufacturing process.

Of the two vision systems likely to be specified the Argus Inspect wt is based around a compact, “user-friendly” control panel that evaluates, operates and monitors all connected control stations. With a smaller field of view than the Polycheck wt, it is designed principally for inspecting one and 2D barcodes and OCR (optical character recognition) for plain text such as expiry dates, batch and serial numbers.

The Polycheck wt system, while also offering quick, reliable verification of one and 2D barcodes and OCR, will typically be specified for total print inspection.

Contact details

Allen Coding Systems
T: +44 (0)1707 379500

T: +44 (0)115 955 5153

T: +44 (0)151 423 9360

Domino UK
T: +44 (0)1954 782551

T: +44 (0)1942 228882

Imaje UK
T: +44 (0)1928 599420

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

T: +44 (0)161 333 6400

T: +44 (0)1707 393700

Weber Marking Systems
T: +44 (0)187 5611111

One or more of Domino’s V200+ TTO overprinters can either be controlled via one colour touch screen or any networked PCs or OEM packaging machine running a web browser 1618 Domino’s V-Series plus range is headed by the V200+ TTO overprinter that can achieve a print resolution of 300dpi while applying variable data, including real time clocks, Data Matrix codes as well as logos onto flexible materials

Dominochop A key feature of Linx’s new 6900 is an intuitive colour user interface with wysiwyg display and menu systems, and low-maintenance operation LX1649__Linx_6900_ Imaje says printers can no longer stand alone, but must have the ability to be integrated onto the production line and communicate via software with other equipment Imaje_9000_ink claricom Domino’s Nigel Bond says the demand for innovation is growing at a “significant pace” Nigel_Bond_3 The Late Stage Customisation system allows manufacturers to call off small blister batches and overprint the required data downloaded via a digital software interface