Bar Codes Step Up to the Plate

As demand for variable printing grows, vendors address printer downtime and maintenance concerns.

By David Vaczek
Senior Editor
 
Videojet Technologies' Videojet 3320 laser printer marks at a rate of 1300 characters per second.

With products requiring larger amounts of printed variable information and more label content for multiple markets, coding solutions need to address print capacity and speed. They also need to minimize downtime and printing costs. As a result, packagers are printing more human-readable information and embracing 2-D bar codes that can accommodate serialized numbers to support item-level tracking.

“We have seen demand grow for putting more human-readable and coding information for tracking purposes onto products, without sacrificing production line speeds,” says Chuck Ravetto, director of product management, Videojet Technologies Inc. (Wood Dale, IL).

Ravetto says that customers across a broad range of industries are employing the 2-D Data Matrix code for including lot and batch numbers and production line and shift data as well as serialized product codes.

European Union (EU) labeling requirements have fueled the need for more printing capacity. Ravetto notes that the human-readable requirement on primary packaging of a dietary supplement went from two lines to four lines for one pharmaceutical company shipping overseas.

“We have seen a significant increase in the use of Data Matrix codes across our product lines. The robustness of the code benefits production processes by reducing false rejects and the associated downtime. Marketing loves Data Matrix because it saves space compared with bar codes such as Code 128,” says Justin Schroeder, marketing and business development manager for Anderson Packaging (Rockford, IL).

Two-dimensional codes provide a solution for serializing item-level units, as industry faces pressing mandates for providing drug pedigree documentation. Widespread use of RFID will not be realized for some years to come, and it will initially be adopted in multilevel solutions employing RFID tags at the case and pallet level, industry leaders say.

However, California is leading the push for electronic pedigrees with a law that requires serialized item-level electronic pedigrees initiated by manufacturers, effective January 2009. In implementing the Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1988, FDA requires that some drug wholesalers provide pedigree documentation with drugs shipped starting December 1, 2006. The agency’s Counterfeit Drug Task Force has recommended that stakeholders, including drug packagers, work together “to expeditiously implement widespread use of electronic pedigrees across the drug supply chain.”

“There is a tremendous distribution center infrastructure in place worldwide for reading bar codes. I think that we will see human-readable and bar coded information coexist with developing RFID technology for many years,” Ravetto says.

EPC-CODED DATA MATRIX

The Integrated Solutions Group of Domino Amjet Inc. (Gurnee, IL) foresees the use of hybrid concepts with RFID at the case and pallet level and cost-effective 2-D coding at the unit level, the company says. The Domino Integrated Solutions Group has implemented an “RFID-free” track-and-trace solution in a pilot tagging vial boxes of medications used to treat hemophilia.

“Although it is widely believed that an EPC number has to be embedded within an electronic tag (RFID tag) that can be applied to each item, this project proves that the EPC number can be embedded in a Data Matix code rather than an RFID tag,” Domino said.

Data Matrix was until recently a proprietary “branded” code and not part of the EAN.UCC/GS1 family of global, openly accessible, and royalty- free bar codes, which restricted its widespread adoption. This situation changed when the rights were passed to GS1, it said.

“Electronic pedigrees needed to prevent counterfeiting are achievable now by using existing data carriers such as 2-D and composite bar codes, especially Data Matrix [carrying] the EPC code,” says Simon King, director, Integrated Solutions Group.

“RFID can be ideal for particular applications, but different data carriers, such as Data Matrix codes, are also highly regarded for their robust structure and the volume of data that can be encoded in a very small area. The delay in mandating RFID in the pharmaceutical industry offers manufacturers a chance to step back and evaluate their system requirements,” King says.

The Videojet 1310 continuous ink-jet printer reduces maintenance and downtime on lines that run intermittently.

The pilot is an end-to-end track-and-trace solution embedding EPC numbers in Data Matrix codes on item-level vial boxes of clotting factor concentrates (CFCs). Managed by Domino and GS1 Ireland, it tracks all CFC drugs administered to patients of St. James Hospital in Dublin.

The objective was to implement real-time identification of CFC vials to ensure immediate product recall, optimal stock management, and automatic product verification at any touch point. Uniquely coded product data are captured from the manufacturer, during cold-chain storage, and then again when delivered.

Domino and VeriSign developed an automated solution for embedding EPC numbers on the Data Matrix that can be used in the EPCglobal network. The code includes the serialized number, the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), and lot and expiry data. Pilot participants included a CFC manufacturer and cold-chain-logistics provider Temperature Controlled Pharmaceuticals (Dublin).

The pilot will be introducing a handheld Web-based device, such as a mobile phone, that patients can use to scan the bar code for automatically updating patient records and preventing manual errors in patient data recording.

The trial—suitable for a future national rollout—was prompted by the reported infection of hundreds of hemophiliacs with HIV and hepatitis C as a result of receiving contaminated blood products.

“The contamination of blood products was one of the most catastrophic medical complications of the last century. Some of the infections were because of defects in the supply chain,” says Dr. Barry White, director of Ireland’s National Center for Hereditary Coagulation Disorders. “There were considerable difficulties in identifying who had received the infected CFCs and in recalling all of the contaminated products,” he adds.

The Integrated Solutions Group offers a “total systems approach” service that integrates RFID and alphanumeric and 2-D symbology data capture technologies, combined with a data management platform for controlling data flows within an enterprise.

Says King: “Having proved that full traceability can be a reality without the use of RFID but with data still being captured at each product movement, we are already developing a more-extensive pilot for the healthcare supply chain within Europe that again incorporates EPC [bar codes], but this time utilizes RFID technology.”

New entry-level SX 7 and SX 16
drop-on-demand ink-jet carton markers from Matthews Marking offer price savings from previous models.

SHORT-RUN MARKING

Anderson Packaging’s variable-data capacity supports the production of diverse marking for market requirements. “The viability of a particular SKU or overseas market is directly tied to the ability to package marginal quantities. In-house manufacturing typically isn’t set up for this. Our business is tailored for the quick runs and multiple changeovers required to support rest-of-world product launches, where we have seen significant growth,” says Schroeder.

Firms are moving away from customized packaging for different markets, which can make packaging cost-prohibitive. Standardized packaging with country-specific copy defrays product-launch tooling and validation costs, he says. “You gain efficiencies in producing printed components and spreading print costs across multiple programs. We have seen substantial improvement in digital print technologies that help make smaller runs affordable where they previously might not have been realistic,” he says.

Anderson typically applies variable printing to printed components sourced from a core group of vendors. “Customers are asking for five or six lines of variable data to be printed in one area. This has required stringent vision-inspection solutions to ensure both the presence and the integrity of the coding. We are continually pushing the envelope for in-line printing both with our UV printers for primary packaging and laser coding units for secondary packaging on cartons and heat-seal cards,” he says.

Stora Enso Global Specialty Papers (Stevens Point, WI) is offering OptiLabel Digital, a digital label paper for use on the HP Indigo ws4050 digital label press. Using ElectroInk, in which micron-sized particles are electrically charged, Indigo printers produce offset-quality printing with the flexibility of digital printing. Make-ready costs are virtually eliminated, supporting cost-effective shorter runs.

The paper has been certified for use on the printers by the Rochester Institute of Technology School of Print Media. Addressing appearance, OptiLabel Digital paper features a smooth semigloss finish, premium brightness, and an enhanced blue-white shade. Its high strength promotes easy die-cutting and matrix stripping. The paper is designed to perform with the Indigo printer inks and has a reverse-side coating compatible with pressure-sensitive adhesives, says Joseph Briganti, business innovations manager, technical papers.

“We have an entire line of papers designed for use with the Indigo printers. Opti-Label Digital is the first paper we have designed for pressure-sensitive label printing on an Indigo printer,” says Briganti.

“The print-on-demand market for premium self-adhesive labels is experiencing unprecedented growth, and we identified a strong need for a premium digital label paper that could perform well in the demanding requirements of short- to medium-sized label production runs,” says Ed Buehler, vice president of technical papers, Stora Enso Global Specialty Papers.

Videojet Technologies addresses the need to put more information on packaging with the new Excel DN. The continuous ink-jet printer supports high-speed printing of multiple lines of variable codes from a single print head. The unit prints two lines at speeds of up to 916 ft/min and up to eight lines of information, handling text, logos, and bar codes.

For high-speed production, the new Videojet 3320 laser printer marks variable data on substrates including glass, plastic, and cardboard. The 3320 prints an “unlimited variety of fonts, symbols, logos, and characters” at a rate of 1300 characters per second, or line speeds of up to 15 product marks per second, says Ravetto.

UPTIME ISSUES

In trying to stay abreast of the demand for efficient variable printing, manufacturers are addressing downtime and maintenance.

“The single largest potential cost to the customer is unscheduled downtime when the printer isn’t working. This has been our single most important area of focus. For the pharmacy environment, we have focused on cleaner ink handling,” says Ravetto.

The Videojet 1310 continuous ink-jet printer reduces maintenance and minimizes downtime on lines that run intermittently. Videojet has added the Excel user interface to the 1310. The interface cuts operator training time and is easier to program, say Ravetto. The 1310 features an automated backflushing nozzle that automatically cleans itself at startup and shutdown. Specially designed ink and makeup-fluid bottles address mess and waste. Filters perform for 5000 hours.

With the PXR series, Hitachi America Ltd. (Tarrytown, NY) has enhanced its small-character continuous ink-jet printers with features for cost reduction and easier maintenance. PXR printers use an ink-circulation system that reduces solvent evaporation during printing. The system pulses the ink return, reducing the vacuum required to recapture the ink from the nozzle, says Lynn Deiro, senior sales manager.

Nozzle and gutter are automatically cleaned before shutdown so that printheads are clean at start-up, reducing system downtime. The PXR provides viscosity and density control for stable ink-drop formation. “The PXR is checking not only the viscosity and adding solvent, but also adding ink to get the optimal ink/solvent balance for maintaining high print quality,” says Deiro.

Hitachi says the PXR meets the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive that took effect July 1, 2006. RoHS bans electronic equipment that contains more than agreed-upon levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and polybrominated biphenyl and diphenyl. “We have decided to make all of our printers RoHS compliant. As of July 1, the PXR is the only continuous ink-jet printer we are selling into the European market,” Diero says.

Domino Printing Sciences plans to announce at PackExpo International a companywide initiative with new products and services across the range of its coding and marking solutions. The new “plus” program introduces “greater functionality and productivity enhancements to our proven technologies to meet the growing demands of our customer base,” says Gilles Buisson, president, Domino Amjet Inc.

The plus program confronts “the most common causes of reduced manufacturing efficiencies”—downtime, speed losses, and defects—supporting lean manufacturing practice, the company said.

Products include a new A-Series Plus continuous ink-jet printer, the S-Series Plus scribing laser printer, and a C-Series Plus printer for case coding. Solutions support enhanced networking and communications, remote diagnostics, and open-systems platforms for delivering high print quality, equipment efficiency, and cost predictability.

A TotalCare Plus support program provides aftermarket services. Manufacturers can choose support models for services in areas such as technical support, training, consumables, and after-sales products.

Bell-Mark Corp. (Pine Brook, NJ) focuses on packaging-line space constraints with the new FlexPrint Mini, which is half the size and weight of competing flexographic equipment. At 200 lb, it has an 11.5 × 11.5-in. frame. Like other models in the FlexPrint line, it handles substrate widths of up to 600 mm at speeds of up to 50 cycles per minute.

The printer addresses the need for more working area on a horizontal packaging machine. “With the incorporation of integrated robotic systems and variable data printers, there is an overall need for more space in a limited area. The FlexPrint Mini is the smallest full-featured flexographic printer available today,” says Glenn Breslauer, director of marketing and IT.

For instances where variable data printing is desired, the FlexPrint Mini could be paired with other printers on a packaging line, such as a Bell-Mark EasyPrint thermal-transfer printer and the Bell-Mark InteliJet thermal ink-jet coder, to create a complete package, he adds.

Matthews Marking Systems (Pittsburgh) has unveiled the IP 7000 ink-jet printer for marking on paper and cardboard that can eliminate the need for labels. The unit features a maximum print height of 100 mm, or 3.94 in. per printhead. “The IP 7000 enables high-resolution printing—up to 300 dpi—of bar codes, text, and logos that is equal to that of many label printers,” says Michelle Spaulding, Marcom manager, Matthews Marking.

A recirculating auto prime (RAP) feature supports 35% less ink consumption than in competing printers, and eliminates daily maintenance.

 

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