Coding and Printing: Getting Up to Speed

New technologies mean faster, more-efficient coding and printing for pharmaceutical and medical companies.


Ben Van Houten
Managing Editor

Pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers have certainly had their hands full with new printing requirements over the past few years. FDA’s bar coding rules, new drug warnings, and the increasing need to accommodate multiple languages on packages have given companies more issues to think about than ever before. The new bar coding requirements in particular make the need to print variable data increasingly important.

But manufacturers are discovering that technological advances in in-house printing capabilities give them the ability to stay on top of things. Printing at faster speeds in higher resolutions is now more possible than ever, thanks to updated flexographic machinery, better thermal-transfer technology, and newer digital printers. As a result, companies have more-flexible and more-efficient coding and printing options at their disposal.

CSAT’s digital in-line printer can print variable data and other information digitally.

Bar Coding Requirements

FDA’s bar code rule in particular, which requires companies to print linear or composite codes using symbology approved by the Uniform Code Council (UCC; Lawrenceville, NJ), means that the ability to print clearly and quickly is essential. The complex Reduced-Space Symbology/Composite codes, developed by UCC as linear-scannable symbologies compatible with the EAN/UCC 14-digit Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) structure, are increasingly becoming industry standards. Because producing and printing such complex codes in-line at typical line speeds is increasingly being called for, the ability to maintain registration while printing human-readable information and bar codes in minuscule areas is important.

To accomplish that, many suppliers are offering in-line options such as flexographic platen printing or high-speed ink-jet printing. For example, Adolph Gottscho Inc. (Union, NJ) provides flexographic printers, paired with ink-jet printers, to help companies print variable information. The combination uses the flexographic platen printer to print nonvariable information, while the ink-jet printer can be used to print variable 2-D codes.

Likewise, Griffin-Rutgers (Ronkonkoma, NY) recently introduced TRUflexUV, a rotary-flexographic UV web printer designed to provide in-line text, bar code, and graphic printing for blister packs and pouches. “Bar code symbologies are especially easy to print with this machine,” says Pete Umbdenstock, the company’s vice president of sales. “It also has a registration control feature that allows additional information to be printed onto preprinted webs.”

A Trident-powered printhead from Diagraph can drive high-resolution impulse printheads.

Another company, Diagraph (St. Charles, MO), has developed a new Trident-powered printhead, the IJ/384, designed for use in tandem with the company’s IJ/3000 Impulse Jet large-character ink-jet system. “This system has been engineered to drive high-resolution impulse printheads,” says Bill Myers, the company’s marketing manager. “It’s really ideal for UPC and SCC-14 bar codes, because it uses a special pigmented ink that minimizes the ink bleed for small text and bar codes.” He adds that the IJ/3000 offers touch screen controls and automatic cleaning. In addition, it uses a built-in high-speed Ethernet connection that permits networking with another printer on the other side of a factory floor.

Domino Amjet Inc. (Gurnee, IL) offers its relatively new C-series printers, which were specifically designed to handle high-quality bar codes, text, and graphics. “It’s capable of printing codes directly onto cartons, which takes away the need for labels,” says Dave Mardon, Domino’s vice president of marketing and business development. “That can provide companies with big cost savings.” Domino also offers the Bitjet+, which can produce fast binary printing with high-definition output so companies can print variable information in multiple formats using detailed graphics and bar codes.

Others are turning to laser coding systems, such as the Focus S60 laser coding system from Videojet Technologies Inc. (Wood Dale, IL). This new system provides high-quality print resolution for 100%-verification system read rates and can print mixed fonts, logos, and Reduced-Space Symbology (RSS) codes. “It’s designed to save money and increase throughput, because it reduces rejects,” says Ian Carver, Videojet’s product manager. Videojet also offers a variety of coding and marking products, including continuous ink-jet printers that are suitable for high-speed applications.

Bell-Mark Corp. (Pine Brook, NJ) is another firm offering ink-jet printers with bar code–printing capabilities. The company’s InteliJet R small-character ink-jet printer provides high-resolution printing on Tyvek and medical paper, and is designed to print dynamic and fixed text. It is also designed to provide integrated bar code support for Code 128, Data Matrix, RSS, HIBC, and UPC A and B codes, according to the company.

Better Resolution

CSAT’s digital printers give companies the ability to print high-quality data on blister packs.

Due to the increasing coding and printing requirements, pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers are also turning to suppliers that can help them print smaller and clearer, which in turn gives them more package real estate for bar codes and multiple languages. A good example is a recent partnership between PRP Flexo (Indianapolis) and Morin Automation (Bristol, CT). The two companies recently finished a series of print tests on Tyvek, which resulted in a clear and legible 2-point font size, according to Chris Green, PRP’s business development manager. “This gives companies more space, and helps them comply with FDA unit-dose bar code labeling regulations,” he says. “Previously, companies had to redo their labels because of difficulty printing legible small type. Now, they can utilize their existing label footprint by reducing the font size of existing copy to help make room for the required bar code.”

Using a new flexographic printer designed for small and fine print, the companies have attracted the attention of one prominent pharmaceutical company that is downsizing its labels for bar coding and to fit four additional languages. Such capabilities are increasingly important in light of the recent European Union expansion that added 11 countries. “The machine uses a stepper motor to pulse the print drum,” says Phil Morin, owner of Morin Automation. “It’s designed to be an integral part of a form-fill-seal machine.” PRP is also using the recently-developed ExSpect flexographic plate development process that provides greater print clarity on corrugated, preprinted linerboard, and flexible packaging. According to Green, this process enables corrugated converters to direct-print onto corrugate to achieve comparable results to preprint. In addition, he says, ExSpect enables flexible-packaging printers to have a reduced setup time, because the dot gain received from the new plates is far less than from either digital or conventional flexographic plates.

Improvements in Ink

Along with technological advancements in printing capabilities, today’s pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers also have more options in terms of ink-jet printing techniques. Companies like InkJet Inc. (Willis, TX) and Griffin-Rutgers, for example, offer high-performance inks designed to help companies achieve the best printing results. InkJet Ink has just introduced two new cost-effective inks, says Bob Tarragano, director of sales and marketing for the company. “These inks are specially-formulated to provide excellent application performance and quality print operation,” he says. “And manufacturers today are looking for lower-cost inks to help them achieve higher-quality printing.” The company’s new 25 ink is a white ketone-based pigmented ink that provides a bright, high-contrast mark on dark, nonporous materials, according to Tarragano. Another ink, dubbed the U ink, is a black ketone-based large-character ink that has been formulated to provide a dark, high-contrast mark on porous and semiporous cartons.

UV-curable inks, meanwhile, are also more in demand, since they use ink formulations cured by a UV lamp — a step that makes such inks good for bar code printing. Griffin-Rutgers features the TRUEUVSolvent-free UV ink line, which reportedly does not require cleanup during a production run.

Similarly, RSI Print Systems (Gaithersburg, MD) offers the Industrial Manifold System (IMS), which is a clean bulk-ink-delivery system built around a 350-ml ink supply that extends running time. The company reports that the system creates a clean ink delivery that is reliable and helps reduce printing costs.

Another company, Squid Ink Manufacturing Inc. (Minneapolis), recently introduced a modular ink-jet system called the Vector XII ink jet printing system. The system reportedly gives manufacturers and contract packagers the ability to print up to 12 lines of code utilizing an ink-delivery system that draws solvent or water-based ink from a 5-gallon pail or a 17-gallon returnable pail. The system then allows the user to choose from a standard dot matrix character printhead or a high-definition character printhead. “It’s ideal for companies wanting to lower costs,” says Ben Ransom, Squid Ink’s marketing coordinator. “Production and maintenance costs are kept down through the system’s microchanneling technology, which eliminates the need for fluid valves.”

Going Digital

These two new ink products from Inkjet Inc. have been formulated to provide high-contrast marks.

The need for variable printing capabilities is also leading some to turn to digital solutions. One company, CSAT America (Louisville, CO), currently offers a complete digital in-line printing system that simplifies in-line requirements. It has the ability to print variable data, sequential numbers, and scannable bar codes digitally, says Natalie Gilbert, CSAT’s business manager. “Using a Windows-based program called CSAT TASC, print layouts can be created, stored, modified, and easily accessed, allowing quick format changeovers,” she says. “Our systems print variable data, sequential numbers, and reliably scanned bar codes on a variety of packaging materials and labels. A compensating module known as ASC automatically compensates for foil shrinkage and allows precision printing of the image.” Gilbert says the company also offers a UV system that combines the flexibility of digital printing with the enhanced resistivity of a duroplastic print media. “Fixation is immediate, with no curing time that is resistant to print offset due to higher sealing temperatures,” she remarks.

Digital printing also allows manufacturers to make changes more easily, an important point when considering all the changes of variable printing. “Being able to print in real time, while printing lot and expiration dates and other variable information, will continue to increase in importance,” says Chris Anderson, director of sales and marketing for Gottscho. Gottscho currently offers a line of digital printers based on Hewlett-Packard ink-jet technology. The line uses a graphical user interface that can control the printing of PDF files, bitmaps, real-time date and time, databases, and bar codes with up to 600-dpi resolution, he says.

Whatever the future of package printing holds, there’s no question that ever changing printing requirements will continue to develop and add to the challenges companies already face. However, judging from the technological developments of the past several years, both pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers will likely continue to have a wide variety of equipment options to choose from.


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