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Technology may not be standing still in the world of coding and marking but here the sheer pace of change is not always a comfort factor reveals Steve Thomas Emberson

Ease of operation, full integration, reliability and flexibility are a must in the coding and marking equipment scenario. Lose one of those key elements and the rest suffers. Just like a pack of cards, they all come tumbling down.

An overview of the diverse tech-nology is required for many reasons. It could appear from a customer’s point of view as a proverbial can of worms – what technology, what production rate, outright purchase or leasing, service back up and the anxiety list goes on.

Laser technology for coding and marking is obviously the most contemporary but even here the modus operandi is not standing still. Customers of laser coding machines are themselves driving the discipline forward.

“There is an increasing desire for the equipment to be made smaller which is all to do with production and footprint on the lines themselves,” says Domino’s Colin Mills, “but this is happening and happening very successfully.”

The next wish is for more production speed so it is now possible to code and mark bottles at about 72 000 units/hr, which is very fast. In a lot of markets there is an increasing requirement for more complex codes, especially in pharmaceuticals and high value items such as compact disks.

We also have to think and be aware of ease of operation with this type of technology so touch screens are becoming popular. What is important is the need to demystify the laser process.

Inkjet technology is not only older than laser but also better understood by its customers, despite losing share to laser. “As a production process it is far simpler than laser and this still drives the market,” explains Domino’s Lee Metters. “Its reliability is also a critical selling point as it maximises the up time as well as keeping servicing simple and quick. Speed is also crucial, as it is to laser, but flexibility is a must.

“For instance, inkjet technology can be sold into markets such as South America and Asia where different characters can be developed for these local market places. Domino can print in two languages simultaneously so the product can be sold to the home market as well as exported for global consumption.”

While markets are driving the technological requirements there is also other trends which present a challenge to whatever print technology is used.

A good example of this is flexi packs that are used for a variety of products sold at the local supermarket.

New inks are required for new materials that in turn have to take into account production line speeds. For laser, new pack materials may be so thin that the possibility of burning straight through is very high. This certainly keeps the industry on its toes.

While understanding the variety of offers available there is also the same number of choices when it comes to purchasing a machine, leasing it, or even a package deal. The answers lie with how proficient the code and marker equipment customer sales force is. There are solutions to suit most people.

Outright purchase itself has different variants since the policy of the client company for its capital purchases could be ‘off balance sheet’. Compare this to complete package deals that encompass the ‘per use’ equation and the range of offers soon builds up.

It is a credit to the packaging industry as a whole that financial inventiveness for clients has over the last few years probably outstripped other manufacturing market places and therefore secured the most difficult sale.

The consumer also plays a critical role. Food and beverage have long been critical markets and not just ‘sell by’ or ‘consume by’ but also batch numbers and the ability to trace any suspect item right back to the start of the production process. This all adds up to tighter manufacturing.

While this reassures the customer, providing he or she can read it, there is an interesting aspect to food packaging and sizes of coding in that it is actually dictated by the product’s own marketing department which one would hope ensured ease of read. In the main this is exactly what happens as the 21st century disease of litigation makes coding and marking de rigueur.

Coding and marking has a huge presence and importance in global high volume products. While it may not be necessary to code and mark the teachers chalk, it certainly makes commercial sense to code perfumes, electrical goods and jeans.

These products can and often do suffer from both counterfeiting and being diverted into the wrong global markets. Here the coding becomes a touch James Bond like with anti-counterfeit codes that can be seen by machine and not by the eye.

This together with anti-diversion coding enables complete monitoring with the potential to cut the action of global criminals who specifically ‘trade’ in such goods.

As previously mentioned legislation is a large factor in driving the supply of information but it is also having an impact on, not only what is coded, but also on the total manufacturing process from running the machinery itself through to the type of inks used.

Companies such as Domino, Videojet and Linx have all brought in or started up their own environmental management systems. Linx has been accredited with the internationally recognised environmental standard ISO 14001 and is one of the first inkjet companies to do so.

In 2001 it was able to save as much as £20 000 by streamlining its waste management. Paper usage was cut by 5000 sheets a week and all paper and cardboard used by the company is now recycled. The company does not intend to rest on its well-earned laurels as the next plans are for a cut in energy bills by 10% through various initiatives.

For coding and marking there is unfortunately a myriad of EU directives, which in turn tend to be amended. Inks alone present a minefield, dependent on type and usage.

Add on the fact that differences between US Federal Drugs Administration rules and those of the European Commission and the Far East means that different inks have to be used in different pharmaceutical and food markets across the world. A large dose of legislative harmonisation is required!

There can be no more ubiquitous mark than the jolly lion that we all took great pride in as children on our daily egg.

We were upholding everything that was dear to us and we even followed the government of the day’s suggestion to ‘go to work on an egg’. Heady times! Then Edwina Currie entered the fray and eggs were no more.

Now they are back complete with lion and a whole host of information dictated by Food Safety standards. There is, however, a negative element in the new regulations in that a ‘best by’ code has been replaced with an expiration date that could be dictated by the retailer rather than the egg producer.

Europe is very much an egg eating continent and no more so than Holland. Here Videojet, with its simple but effective Triumph machine, has been successful not only in dating for freshness but also traceability that states geographical area, farm and even barn.

The Linx 4800 printer is the first in its class to secure an IP55 environmental protection rating so it was no wonder it was selected by that ever environmentally conscious company Body Shop for its subsidiary Soapworks.

“The switch to continuous inkjet coding technologies demanded a system that scored maximum points for reliability, ease of use and a compact footprint on the shop floor,” reports Soapworks quality control and environmental manager David Ridland.

“While the code we apply is relatively straightforward we have a large number of variants. There are 14 different products alone in the aromatherapy range and we export to 49 countries. We therefore needed a hassle-free product. Having proven itself on the aromatherapy range, it is now being used for other products.” A case of technology and client company working in harmony.

Going global is not only for the big boys. Preston Printers via Wright Machinery – a packaging company specialising in the snack industry – recently supplied 26 Series 32A date coding, hot foil printers to a snack company in Moscow.

These easy to operate, manage and adjust machines were integrated into a form, fill and seal production line. Different global market places require different levels of information.

Preston was successful in supplying a simple machine that dated and batch coded a requirement that was specific to the local market place.

Installation was achieved in three stages beginning in September 2002, with all parties performing their own functions to the benefit of the Moscow snack company.

While Preston Printers provided a simple solution to a straightforward requirement, Domino’s work for the US drug manufacturer Searle is at the other end of the technical process – that of invisible coding for pharmaceutical vials.

The background to the Searle vial scenario is quite complex in so far as the vials themselves needed to be shipped uncoded from the USA to Europe for country-specific labelling.

Original thinking dictated that the outer box be coded with lot and expiration marks but, if a box was broken, the entire contents would need to be discarded – an expensive business.

Searle international manufact-uring engineer Ralph Dillon takes up the story. “We were not set up to label the products according to country requirements in the US so consequently we had to ship them nude.”

The Dillon solution was to print a two-dimensional data matrix code – a compact code that takes up little space on the bottom of the nude vials in an invisible ultraviolet ink. Domino’s Amjet (Gurnee IL) provided the inkjet equipment for applying the code as well as the invisible ink.

The benefit to the process is that the use of invisible ink enables the product to be scanned at European destination for security of vials as well as receiving that country’s information codes as well.

What is quite easy to see is that innovation, best practice and excellent client based solutions appear to be the order of the coding and marking market place.

“We have agents across the world selling into Taiwan, Cyprus, Europe et al,” explains John Kimber of Preston Printers.

“These are essential to us, as are trade shows, where we meet our clients from individual markets like pharmaceuticals, food and bever-ages and electronics. This mix seems to work very well for us as our market is not only expanding in the UK but across the world.”

Kimber’s mention of expanding markets is always gratifying to hear and he is absolutely spot on. The global coding and labelling machinery market is currently estimated to be worth around $3.5bn and is expected to lead the pack in spread of sector growth, according to the Freedonia World Packaging Mach-inery to 2005 report.

This report also states that the world-wide demand for labelling and coding machinery is projected to grow by 5.9% annually up to 2005. This, of course, is tremendous news but it takes into account countries starting from zero market share and therefore growing faster than senior countries like the UK or North America.

It is a challenge based on serious projections. The most fundamental question, as so often happens to UK innovation attached to manufacturing, is will it all slip through our hands?

The general consensus among coding and marking companies is that innovation will lead the way – an easy answer!

Markets need to be fully exploited and they are not – electronics, the automobile industry, pharmaceutical – all these, particularly the automobile marketplace, have tremendous growth potential.

The global coding and marking competition will be firmly anchored to innovation versus cheap labour. Innovation answers questions and provides solutions. Cheap labour is cheap labour and nothing else!