Hitting the Mark

Finding a reliable coding and marking system that produces high-quality print is getting easier.

Erik Swain, Senior Editor

For pharmaceutical and medical firms, choosing a coding and marking technology that best fits their requirements has never been of greater importance.

Excellent print quality is essential, as more and more machines throughout the packaging and distribution lines are being employed to read codes. Machine reliability is crucial, as firms cannot afford to have an entire packaging operation halted and valuable production time lost because of faulty coding equipment. Ease of operation is also imperative, so that workers can devote attention to more-complex machines on the line. Finally, cost of ownership needs to be as low as possible in these budget-conscious times.

Text messages and lot codes can be printed on unit-of-use medical device packaging by using the Videojet IPro ink-jet system from Marconi Data Systems.

Luckily, firms have an increasing number of technologies to choose from.

"End-users are seeking out more economical and flexible ways to do coding, lot dating, and in-line printing," says Tom Pugh, vice president of sales and marketing for Bell-Mark Sales Co. (Pine Brook, NJ). "Just a few years ago, you essentially had two options: a platen printer or a rotary flexographic printer. Now there are many more options, including thermal transfer, ink jet, and laser."


Each technology offers certain benefits, but, regardless of which technology the user is considering, print quality will be of extraordinary importance, says John F. Krotzer, business development manager for Markem Corp. (Keene, NH). "In the pharmaceutical and medical industries, often the customer will be using a vision system to verify the mark, and so print quality becomes key," he says. "Issues of repeatability also come into play, and with no ink to 'throw,' laser and thermal transfer are very repeatable."

Bruce Dickinson, technical sales specialist, MultiScan products, for Rofin-Baasel Inc. (Boxborough, MA), agrees. "For example, the vector slab–based CO2 laser works with a continuous pulsed beam, codes a package as if it were printing human- or machine-readable characters, and has higher mark quality than dot-matrix CO2 lasers," he says. "In addition to having a high print quality, they are very low maintenance, and once they are [installed], they can run and run."

Lasers can also run at high speeds and still produce high-resolution codes. For instance, Domino Amjet Inc.'s (Gurnee, IL) new scribing laser, the DSL1, can mark clearly and consistently at speeds up to 1300 ft/min.

The tradeoff, says John Derzy, sales manager for Rofin-Baasel, is that "because laser coding is a nonadditive process, contrast and legibility are a result of what the material affords you when the beam and material interact. Other technologies are additive and might offer more control over contrast but can also result in mess and higher operating costs."

Caroline Jourdan, marketing manager for Imaje USA (Kennesaw, GA), notes that laser "is best when you need a code to be close to indelible, while ink jet is best if you need to print something sophisticated but need to be flexible and versatile at the same time. For example, it can do a logo, a bar code, and text on a single pass."

Expiration dates, lot codes, and other variable information can be printed in-line or off-line. Shown are codes printed by Markem's 8000-series continuous ink-jet system (left) and by Markem's SmartDate thermal-transfer system (right).


Ink jet offers versatility, flexibility, and programmability, notes Alan Shipman, director of sales of ID Technology (Fort Worth, TX). "Ink-jet systems with higher and higher resolution are being offered, so there are more and more applications for that technology," he says. "It is also growing in popularity because it is competitive in price. And when firms move to tray-and-shrink-wrap systems, ink jet is the only solution if they want bar codes on the outside of the tray."

While some end-users may associate inks with toxicity, today's more- advanced inks help put those concerns to rest, says Scott Liniger, strategic marketing manager–pharmaceutical for Marconi Data Systems Inc. (Wood Dale, IL). "Some end-users are concerned about volatile organic compounds associated with ink and fluid. Recent and ongoing ink developments, using different solvent bases, address those issues by reducing or eliminating hazardous emissions," he says.


Thermal-transfer technology, which uses heat applied to a ribbon to transfer the print onto a substrate, is a good choice if a user demands high repeatability, consistency, and permanence to achieve the desired print quality, says Matt Ream, senior product manager, RFID systems, for Zebra Technologies Corp. (Vernon Hills, IL). "If you need a durable label that lasts for a while, thermal transfer is the way to go," Ream says. "The longevity and durability of thermal transfer is getting better and better. Sometimes the ribbons are coated with a wax mixture, but sometimes it's with a resin, which is more durable, or a wax-resin mixture."

Electrophotographic printing can also produce high print quality. For instance, the CSAT digital printing process from CSAT America (Longmont, CO) works by creating a latent image on a photoconductive drum, then developing the image by electrostatically transferring dry-powder toner particles. The image is then transferred from the photoconductive surface electrostatically to the substrate material. The process is known as "discharge area development." Fixing dry-powder toner immediately to the substrate with flash fusing eliminates downtime for the curing or drying needed with current technologies.

Joseph Buono, sales manager of CSAT America, explains more about the technology. "Our system has a higher print quality than ink jet or thermal transfer—up to 600 dpi. Using CSAT software, you can design and print, on the fly, any layout of text and graphics. In addition, you can print up to two colors simultaneously."


End-users must also make sure that, regardless of which technology they opt for, they are getting the most reliable system possible, Krotzer says.

"The cost differences in coding machines are rounding errors compared with the costs of having the machine down," he says. "Pharmaceutical companies should ask for a system's mean time between failures and mean time to repair. They should also ask whether their suppliers have a reliable education program for operators. The key is to find something you can install and forget about. I have never met a packaging manager who says his primary day-to-day concern is coding. Coding equipment has to be designed for absolute minimal [monitoring] by an operator."

Derzy agrees that "the cost of ownership, both long-term and short-term, is important. For example, laser has extremely low operating costs, just a few hundred dollars a year. The gas charge that the laser holds is good for thousands of hours. You may see higher up-front capital costs, but an increasingly lower cost of ownership as time goes on."

Another thing end-users should do is obtain objective expert input about all applicable technologies so they are not forced to make a choice between products that are not optimal for their needs, Krotzer says. "If a supplier provides a full line of solutions, they can recommend the best value that meets a customer's print quality needs, and not just push a particular technology," he says.


An attentive supplier will go to great lengths to discern what other factors will determine the best system for the customer's requirements.

One of the main considerations, says Jim Umbdenstock, president of Griffin-Rutgers Company, Inc. (Ronkonkoma, NY), is to figure out whether the customer needs an intelligent or nonintelligent printer. Intelligent printers may be required when variable text is to be used, or when complicated bar code technologies are being employed. Nonintelligent printers may suffice for simple lot- and date-coding applications in which the same information is printed repeatedly.

Powered by a sealed CO2 laser, Domino Amjet's DSL1 marks crisp, clear, and permanent codes on paper, cartons, plastics, glass, and painted metals at speeds up to 1300 feet per minute.

"That can be determined by asking what they need to print—bar codes, or just lot and expiration dates," Umbdenstock says. "If it is a nonintelligent application, a high-speed hot stamper might be the right thing. But if it is an intelligent, high-speed application, a small-character ink jet might be the way to go."

Even nonintelligent applications have more options these days, and suppliers and end-users must be aware of them and how they might be applicable, says John Wilson, sales engineer for Adolph Gottscho Inc. (Union, NJ). "Our first question has always been whether it is a continuous or intermittent process," he says. "If intermittent, we recommended a platen printer, and if continuous, a roll printer. But now we are developing a platen printer, which tends to be easier to operate, for continuous applications. And we are finding ways to piggyback a platen printer with another printer, whether ink jet, thermal transfer, or laser, that can do variable data."

Another factor, Pugh says, is how many different SKUs (stock keeping units) are required. "If there are limited SKUs, we often recommend flexographic in-line printing with a thermal-transfer printer to print variable data," he says. "If it is a contract packager with 250 different SKUs, printing plates are impractical and we often recommend a programmable thermal-transfer printer that allows them to create a label for a particular job and print it in-line. A lot of applications call for a combination of printers."

The substrate being printed on is also an important factor. As noted before, lasers can print only on certain types of surfaces. But the success of an ink-jet application, for example, also depends on compatibility with the substrate. Jourdan notes that the first thing her firm tries to learn is "the exact nature of the substrate on which the printing will occur. If they have a plastic coating on a carton, we need to determine which ink will adhere to it."


Finding the right equipment to meet current needs is crucial. But what about future needs? For instance, the day may not be far off where coding systems become as networked as vision systems.

"A growing number of firms are networking all their coding solutions so that they interact in a single place," Krotzer says. "The more progressive pharmaceutical companies are interested in doing whatever they can to eliminate operator error, making sure all printing is in sync and better controlling print quality."

As a result, it will become even more important for end-users to be aware of all the different technologies available, and for suppliers to be well versed in as many as possible.

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