Coding and Printing Triumphs: How Technology is Conquering Industry Challenges

High-speed printing, in-house plate making, and custom-made inks for authentication are giving healthcare product packagers a range of custom solutions.

By Christina Elston
 

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first moveable type in the 1450s, could he have imagined the speed and flexibility available in today’s printing market? Printing individual bar codes on hundreds of labels per minute? Laser coding and vision systems? Minute codes that can trace a product from manufacturer to customer?

Looking back even 10 years, these challenges might have seemed tough. But the coding and marking industry has kept pace.

Combining the FlexPrint in-line flexographic printer and the EasyPrint in-line thermal-transfer printer, both from Bell-Mark, allows packagers to produce fixed and variable elements at production speeds.

VARIABLE TEXT AT PRODUCTION SPEED

The need for programmable printing at production speeds has driven demand for several print technologies. Among them is thermal-transfer printing, which can print lot number, expiration date, and bar codes in-line onto packaging substrates, reports Tom Pugh, vice president of sales, Bell-Mark Sales Co. (Pine Brook, NJ). “Medical and pharmaceutical packagers now might have two types of printers on their production line: the repeatable or static-data flexographic printing and the variable-data technology such as thermal transfer or ink jet,” Pugh says.

“For awhile, there was no technology that would let us print at the speeds our customers wanted,” says Joe Danyow, director of engineering– labeling, NJM/CLI (Lebanon, NH). “So they would have to go with preprinted or slow their lines down.” But now they can offer what customers want—even at 220 labels per minute, as requested by one recent pharmaceutical customer. “A few years back, I would have had to say no,” says Danyow. But using thermal printing equipment from Markem Corp., they were able to meet their customer’s needs.

Even faster than thermal-transfer printing is laser coding, with newer, steered-beam models that are less cumbersome than older machines, Danyow says. These require some adaptations on the part of the customer, specifically printing a dedicated ink block on the substrate so that the code can be burned in, but they offer top speeds and resolution. “I think we’re probably going to see more and more lasers, because of their speed,” Danyow says.

Lot codes, such as this one produced by the 1120 small-character Micro Valve ink-jet printer from Videojet Technologies, must be machine readable.

VISION-SYSTEM-COMPATIBLE RESOLUTION

Both laser and thermal transfer also offer the advantage of high resolution, which is becoming ever more important in the pharmaceutical world. “Most of our systems for pharmaceutical have vision systems,” says Danyow, “so your print quality has to be very good.” During the past five years, “the print quality bar has gone way up,” agrees Jack Walsh, market manager of brand protection solutions at Videojet (Wood Dale, IL). “We have to be able to come in and print readable copy and bar codes at production speed. Ten years ago, we couldn’t do that,” Walsh says.

He describes one pharmaceutical customer that is using overt marking to capture data about each bottle of product—through vision technology—and log it into a database. “They capture the license plate of that carton and log it into the system,” Walsh explains. “It’s not just a software solution. You’ve got to have the right printing technology.”

Also driving the need for high print resolution is the fact that bar codes are getting smaller. In response to real-estate issues on the label, the industry has been exploring stacked Reduced Space Symbology (RSS) and 2-D Datamatrix codes, which are only 7–10 mm sq, says Pugh.

AUTHENTICITY PROTECTION AND TRACKING

Companies are also creating new ways to help customers ensure product authenticity. “Protecting the authenticity of one’s product has become a large initiative for many of our customers,” says Tom Michalsen, media products manager at Weber Marking Systems Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL). “Here, we have utilized both overt and covert methods in our label products to help keep counterfeiters at bay.”

Michalsen says a standard overt device might be a two-dimensional hologram, while more complex, 3-D versions with custom patterns and copy are also available. In addition, the advent of cold-foil-transfer holographic films gives customers the ability to alter their ‘authenticity look’ on a monthly basis.

From a covert angle, Michalsen describes invisible fluorescent inks that will only be detected under infrared (IR) lamps. There are also UV-detectable thermal-transfer ribbons, taggants, or markers that can be added to the label’s ink or adhesive that can be seen only in certain light sources, and black IR inks that can hide the presence of a sublevel printed message.

Videojet has been focusing on the area of brand protection for about a year, says Walsh, who explains that customers are beginning to ask for truly unique codes that only they can read as well as custom inks and custom fonts. One Videojet customer who has a bottled product packed in cartons is covertly marking every carton with a unique signature only viewable with special equipment, printed with an ink made exclusively for that customer.

Tracking products is also part of the picture. “Five years ago, coding and marking companies were basically providing the ability to manage your product by lots or batches,” says Walsh. “Today, we’re offering the ability to manage at the item level.” Individual codes mean customers can track individual items from the plant, to the distribution center, to the store, to the consumer.

FLEXOGRAPHIC PRINTING KEEPS UP

Though programmability has made technologies such as thermal-transfer printing increasingly popular, tried-and-true flexographic printing has found a way to keep up. “We now supply the printer with your own plate-making machine,” says Greg Rochon, president of Greydon (York, PA). For companies that are changing codes just a few times a day, this can be an attractive option.

The plate-making machine offers some degree of variability in the bar coding and saves the expense of adding a variable printer to the line. “The two-color flexographic printer allows you to put the bar code down and then print whatever else you want in a second color,” says Rochon.

Hospira, part of Abbott Labs, had been using flexographic printing at its Costa Rica facility, but had been ordering its plates from Chicago. Switching to a system with in-house plate making gave them increased flexibility, with decreased turnaround time—eliminating the wait for plates to arrive from the United States. “This eliminated the need for the ink-jet that they were going to buy,” Rochon says.

Ten years ago, Rochon says plate-making equipment was large and required a darkroom. Now the machines are compact, use no hazardous fluids, and require no darkroom. “It makes it less of a hassle to make plates,” says Rochon, adding that approximately 30% of the market is now using in-house plate making. “The trend is going toward flexo printers with plate making,” he says.

THERMAL INK-JET ENTERS THE MARKET

Meanwhile, there’s a new kid on the block, one with whom you might be familiar—just have a look at your desktop printer. Thermal ink-jet (TIJ) technology is moving in fast, says Dan Kuehler, package coding market segment manager for Hewlett-Packard Co. HP jumped into the market about five years ago on an OEM basis and can print on all available secondary substrates as well as an increasing number of primary substrates. “We can’t print on every substrate today,” says Kuehler, “but we’re working hard on that with our partners.”

For customers running high-volume, high-speed production lines, “the number-one concern is downtime,” says Kuehler. Because replacing an HP cartridge replaces both the printhead and the ink supply, it eliminates some of the maintenance issues associated with other printing technologies. “If you had to use the same printhead for two years, you’ve got an inherent maintenance issue.” For customers running mid-speed lines, downtime is less of an issue than clean-up. HP technology means no drips, no solvents, or harsh chemicals to deal with, no clean-up time. For customers running low-speed lines and smaller jobs, the issues are convenience and price. “For very little money, you can put a high-resolution HP printer on your line,” Kuehler says.

The drivers moving companies toward TIJ are maintenance, cleanliness, uptime, and print quality, says Mike Shaw, vice president of sales at Nutec Inc. (Lawrenceville, NJ). One major company using hundreds of continuous ink-jet printers decided to move to TIJ because of several factors. The switch eliminated the need to install hooding evacuation systems to protect workers from exposure to volatile organic compounds released by the CIJ printers, plus a $2500-permonth hazardous waste disposal bill.

It also eliminated the need to maintain a full department dedicated to upkeep of CIJ printers. With TIJ, line operators were simply able to change HP cartridges. In addition, TIJ allowed the company to begin printing at higher resolution—up to 600 dpi × 600 dpi—and use true type fonts so that they could use vision inspection systems, Shaw says.

As ever-faster production speeds drive the need for printing systems that are even more nimble and flexible, and coding technologies become even more minute and complex, who can imagine the challenges ahead? Faster, smaller, cleaner, safer. The technology is just around the corner.

 

 
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