Coding and code application technology is evolving. Innovation and new trends are driving production requirements, packaging changes, printing quality and accuracy per regulations, while also informing consumers.
Beverage companies are looking for ways to eliminate ink chemicals, reduce mess, improve mark appearance and reduce the cost per mark. But the printing style, or ink requirements in the case of industry-enforced MEK-free inks is only part of the coding story.
Consumers want dates, websites and two-dimensional codes to select the freshest products, detect tampering and even connect with the manufacturer to get valuable ingredient information.
“It’s becoming more and more important… and expiration dates requirements are changing coding technology,” says Mike Orcutt, director of [consumer packed goods] (CPG) business development at Matthews Marking Systems, Pittsburg, Pa. “If there is a problem with something and there isn’t a proper lot code, consumers can’t call the number to report flat soda. I see more and more regulation where consumers want to have access to product details.”
The distinct processes involved in coding, marking and labeling — and related equipment and technology choices — are directly impacted by packaging. Accommodating eco-friendly options and bioplastics as well as fiber have been a focus of coding equipment leaders.
“Eco-friendly PET bottles have much thinner walls than traditional PET bottles,” says Viktor Puzakov, vertical marketing manager for beverage at Videojet, Wood Dale, Ill. “A continuous inkjet (CIJ) printer… simply adds a layer of new material, ink, to the bottle surface.”
Laser marking technology is more involved and adjusts to the surface as a code is applied, even preventing unnecessary damage to materials such as bioplastics during printing, experts note.
“Since a laser removes a layer of substrate to create a code, the chances of burning through the [bioplastic PET bottles] increase significantly,” Puzakov explains. Lasers with smaller micron wavelengths (9.3 instead of the traditional 10.6) and non-crossover font printing prevent excessive burning, he adds.
Sustainably sourced wood fiber or paper pulp packaging also add complexity to coding solutions.
“Ink can bleed into the fibers of the substrate, making a sub-standard code, whereas laser coders could very easily burn through the fiber,” Puzakov says.
Matthews Marking Systems has been working with the craft brewing industry to develop laser coding specifically for fiber packaging. Several have adopted the company’s eSolarMark Fiber laser coding system which is designed to provide high quality, permanent marks onto aluminum cans, the company says.
Codes extend from beverage bottles to plastic seals and crates for distribution, which can all be printed on the same line, Mathews Marking’s Orcutt and Videojet’s Puzakov explain.
The challenge to stay online while going from marking to coding to labeling, for example, requires technology and data-reporting software connecting every step in the process, they highlight.
“Coding and marking equipment is an important part of the production line,” Puzakov says. “If coding equipment is down without an immediate replacement or quick repair, the entire production line could stall at a potentially great cost to the manufacturer.”
Printing predictive capabilities that help prevent ink buildup or other production pitfalls are requirements in modern coding equipment, and sensors play a big role, he adds.
For instance, more than 50 real-time sensors continuously monitor more than 150 key indicators of printer performance to provide diagnostics, analytics and guidance in the Videojet 1860. Its 45-degree slanted printhead design makes it easy to add to lines, providing closer proximity to the product, according to the company.
Software then reports results from all sensors to make business decisions or troubleshoot. Integration of marking, coding and labeling devices is available with management software such as Matthews Marking’s MPERIA automation software platform.
“We’ve created a more cost-effective way to align devices,” Matthews Marking’s Orcutt says, citing the company’s high-performance software. “We gather data from an ERP system and ask IT to take the file, push it to a shared folder and they give us the IP address. From there, we can hook up on network and retrieve the data without software or hardware.”
In addition to alleviating human error, being able to track what is happening on lines and across labelers — on a server or in the cloud —- helps locate problems faster, reducing downtime and production costs, experts note.
“Since downtime is very expensive, beverage manufacturers will benefit tremendously from knowing ahead of time what to expect from their coding equipment,” Videojet’s Puzakov says. “Driven by enhanced sensing and data processing, advancements in certain coding equipment’s predictive capabilities are now helping manufacturers take corrective action during planned line stoppages to avoid unplanned downtime events.” BI
Code in review
Continuous inkjet (CIJ)
CIJ printers tend to be more economical for the initial investment but require additional expenses such as inks. Ideal for marking on flat or curved surfaces, continuous inkjet (CIJ) technology is a non-contact printing method that can utilize a range of continuous inkjet inks to print on almost any substrate.
Thermal inkjet (TIJ)
Thermal inkjet printers, sometimes referred to as bubble jet printers, use thermal energy or electricity to heat ink and apply it to a medium. They can provide a low-cost option for high-speed printing and can print on a variety of surfaces.
Thermal transfer overprinting (TTO)
TTOs can print everything from simple date codes and batch codes to logos, product descriptions, ingredients lists, nutritional panels and fully compliant barcodes. Flexible packaging films and self-adhesive labels use this printing method.
Laser marking systems
Laser coders can be use in environments where condensation is present and on bioplastics. Systems use almost no consumables, which reduces cost of ownership and can be attractive long term.
The realization that the levels of discarded plastics making their way into the world’s oceans and landfills has reached a critical point. As a result, plastics designed to be more environmentally friendly have been developed, which fall into three different categories:
Bioplastics are made from natural materials such as corn starch. Making a bioplastic bottle requires one-third the energy needed to produce a PET bottle. Interestingly some forms of bioplastics look and feel almost identical to petroleum-based products, and despite visual similarity, this type of plastic breaks down without leaving any harmful residues.
Biodegradable plastics are traditional plastics made from petrochemicals but designed to decompose faster. Although this type of plastic does break down more quickly than traditional petrochemical versions, it leaves behind some harmful deposits, which ultimately means it is not eco-friendly.
Recycled plastics, as the name suggests, are made from recycling old plastic. Recycled plastic bottles will often not be recycled to make more plastic bottles due to the loss of properties during the recycling process. Instead they will more likely be converted into other products that require lower grade plastic, such as public “wooden” benches or playground equipment.
Source: Videojet, Wood Dale, Ill.