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Innovations to improve speed, quality, cost-effectiveness, impact and compliance have all been introduced to the labelling sector in recent months, as Andrew Smith discovered

While there are many nuances in the labelling demands of end product manufacturers, speed, cost, and the necessity of including increasing amounts of information in varying formats are front runners across most sectors, which is where ‘Project Lightspeed’, an initiative from Harland Machine Systems, comes in.

Harland Machine Systems believes the ground-breaking Lightspeed LaserSoft combined die-cutting/pressure-sensitive labelling system may be the answer for brand owners requiring high speeds, coupled with lower material costs and the ability to apply variable digital information to every label.

Five years in development, each standard Lightspeed line combines a compact laser die-cutting station – supplied on an exclusive basis by US company LasX – together with microliner and waste removal modules and patented continuous feed Pulsar pressure-sensitive high speed label applicators, married to either the rotary or linear product handling systems Enterprise or Titan.

It is envisaged that, on its full-scale launch later this year, each system will also include a digital print station at the infeed and, should the customer specify it, there will also be an RFID tag placement unit available at a later date.

Alan Nuttall, Harland Machine Systems technical manager, who has headed the project from its inception, takes up the story: “Lightspeed evolved because of the desire to drive down customers’ label material costs right across the pressure-sensitive labelling substrate – liner, adhesive coat weight and facestock.

“We have long recognised liner and facestock as the most significant financial element of pressure-sensitive labelling, since the PP or BOPP face material has to be supported on a smooth, efficient carrier liner, typically PET. Anything that cuts the costs of either benefits the customer provided, of course, that the label material still has sufficient tensile strength not to overstretch or snap on a fast-moving web.”

Project Lightspeed has seen Nuttall’s team use a variety of subtle machine and substrate tweaks to reduce the thickness of both liner and facing material which helps to pare customers’ costs, both in terms of the volumes of label material required and the resulting cost of liner disposal. Simultaneously, ongoing enhancements to the firm’s labelling machinery technology have seen Harland Machine Systems able to offer customers ever higher application speeds.

“For instance, the key to the ultra-fast speeds achievable using our Pulsar PS label applicator is the elimination of indexing label feed,” says Nuttall. This eliminates the stop-start action and feeds the web continuously.

To further optimise and speed operation and downgauge liner thicknesses Harland Machine Systems decided to incorporate an in-line die-cutting station during the project’s early stages. This pre-cuts each label prior to application, in contrast to more conventional systems that require die cutting to be undertaken on press.

The die cutter’s inclusion enabled the company to switch from a fairly thin PET carrier liner – typically 30-40 microns thick – to the current combination of 18-30 micron facestock and 12 micron microliner.

Nuttall explains: “We almost no longer need a liner in the conventional sense.” Lightspeed labels entering the infeed now immediately have the microliner removed. The face material is then supported and presented to the die cutter on stainless steel belts. After die-cutting, the line strips off the remaining matrix, accelerates the cut labels to product pitch and applies them using Pulsar.

“Using the current Class 1 laser we can die cut around 750 labels/min. However the Pulsar can apply anything up to 2800 labels/min so our next project, working with LasX, will be to make the die-cutter faster.”

Meanwhile, the growing number of circumstances where large amounts of written information are demanded has led to a boom in the leaflet label sector and one of the key players in this market, Kent-based Inprint, has taken an unusual route to develop its latest product, the Magic Morpher – an innovative sales promotion tool formed from a single printed card which the company will also introduce in leaflet label form.

The Ashford firm has exclusively licensed a series of formulae vital to producing the folds and creases of the morphing product from retired mathematician Robert Byrnes, a former academic whose recent projects include authoring educational books on shapes and sizes.

&#8220We plan both to produce Magic Morphers ourselves and to sub-license specific formulae to other packaging companies and brand owners

Leaflet labels enter the equation

The equations form the basis of a design template adaptable to a many different shapes and styles. By applying graphics users can create a transformable set of images. Further variations allow for one of the folded images to stand up alone, enabling it to be used as a branding element on bottle neck, carton or other container.

“The Magic Morpher has many potential direct mail and promotional applications but can also form the basis of an eye-catching leaflet-style or other label for anything from luxury cosmetics to an upmarket whisky,” explains Inprint business development director Andrew Walker. “We can also produce it as a card element applicable to cartons or other packs or as a loose promotional insert but we are currently perfecting its use as a leaflet label.”

Inprint will typically print the graphics sheet-fed litho in one pass before die-cutting the folds and cuts. Shapes available include squares, rectangles, circles and hexagons. “We plan both to produce Magic Morphers ourselves and to sub-license specific formulae to other packaging companies and brand owners,” Walker adds.

A more conventional leaflet label has been introduced by Sessions of York, which it says minimises the increased costs for extra pages.

The Multi-Layer Extra self-adhesive labels provide four printed pages with page four attached to a clear filmic wrap. Apart from the providing extra space, the Multi-Layer Extra label offers more printed colours than its existing Multi Layer products – pages one and three can be printed using six colours and pages two and four in two colours.

The new labels can be applied using standard, semi- and automatic systems and can be manufactured in filmic or paper materials, supplied as clear, white or silver

Another twist to the information challenge can be found in the pharmaceutical domain, where new guidelines issued by the FDA could make things problematical for those printing labels for products destined for the US market. Where the FDA goes others tend to follow. The guidelines indicate that it will become mandatory for each unit dose of pharmaceutical products administered by health professionals to be coded in a bid to reduce medication errors. Given the physical size of the vast majority of unit doses, it is likely that standard code symbologies may not be practical for this application.

One solution to this is this involves the use of Reduced Space Symbology codes and Romaco Hapa says it has been working in close co-operation with a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers on the implementation of these codes on unit dose blisters. This compact code technology includes fields for both fixed and variable data such as lot and expiry date.

Using the Hapa 730 Digiprint – which is suitable for use with a variety of reel-fed substrates including aluminium foil and paper as well as labels – codes are generated automatically and imported into the relevant artwork immediately prior to the production run using Hapa’s Place-It software. The company says this method is totally secure and allows users complete autonomy in the production of instant, high-quality print.

The printing technology is based on a process similar to screen-printing and uses a high-resolution master-foil system proven in operation worldwide for several years. It is compatible with both intermittent and continuous motion machines or, alternatively, an optional dock-in rewind unit can be used to convert the machine into a reel-to-reel system capable of serving numerous packaging lines.

Lenticular on a reel

Alongside producing custom and bespoke plastic packs, Burall, which has factories in Wisbech and offices in Peterborough, prints multi-colour labels on a stable of reel-fed U/V flexo label presses from Nilpeter, Mark Andy, Impressionist and Comco. “We are always looking to offer something new,” explains sales and marketing director Paul Hogan. “A good example is our recent introduction of lenticular labels on the reel, possibly an industry first.”

&#8220We are always looking to offer something new. A good example is our recent introduction of lenticular labels on the reel – possibly an industry first”

To reduce the cost of such labels to users and broaden the application range, Burall has worked for the past 18 months with a US lens supplier that has developed thinner than standard – around 200 microns thick compared with the more conventional 400 micron – lens materials. “The lens, which provides a changing image via a prism which gives one view when looked at through one side and a different one from the other, is a major contributor to the overall cost,” explains Hogan. “Generally, the thicker the material, the more expensive.”

Burall has collaborated both with the US firm and long-term partner Manchester-based repro house Qualitech to make available the broadest possible range of effects. These currently include 3D, zooms, ‘flips’ and animation. “We’ve already shown mock-ups to numerous customers, receiving an enthusiastic response,” adds Hogan.

Turning to matters of quality SIG Alfa says using its PacDrive software system to guide the servomotors on its new rotary labeller has overcome the traditional limits of current technologies by guaranteeing controlled rotation and very high precision.

The company states that, in general, rotary labelling machines use either mechanical or electronic technology for rotating the container during the labelling process but believes that both of these solutions are limited in a number of ways. “The mechanical technology is by definition fixed and, therefore, not flexible. In fact, when designed for cylindrical containers, it is unable to work with moulded containers and vice-versa. Moreover, in time the mechanisms may even become less precise due to wear.

“Electronic technology, on the other hand, is much more flexible but also has a number of limits due to the kind of movement called ‘stepping’. The stepper motors rotate by clicks at a fixed speed and are not dependent on the rotation speed of the main machine. This feature entails a number of drawbacks. For example, the machine can’t work with specially moulded containers or with wrap-around labels.”

Now, in collaboration with the company Elau, it has applied PacDrive automation software for controlling brushless servomotors to labelling. When the brushless motors are mounted directly on the container platform, it says very precise control of rotation is obtained.

All the container formats are memorised in the system and new formats can be added, while existing data can be modified quickly and simply, even with the machine in operation. The first labeller made with this technology is applying self-adhesive labels on plastic vials at Alberto Culver’s Chicago plant where other SIG Alfa machines have been operating for some time.

On the design front, Sato has introduced its first proprietary software label gallery, which it describes as a comprehensive and flexible software solution for label deign and printing.

“The Sato label gallery will open many doors of opportunities for us,” say T Waki, managing director, Barcode Sato International. “In addition, it provides four versions for the end-users to choose from: Free, Easy, Plus and TruePro. Each of these versions has a wide range of modules, which makes it suitable for basic label design, enterprise label printing and even specific environments where integration, connectivity and custom screen design possibilities are easily recognised.”

The gallery supports a wide variety of languages and local Sato sales offices and distributors will be able to provide assistance if required. It can also be fully integrated with conventional office software such as Word.