Proper Planning Yields Successful Digital Coding Installation, Operation

By Chris Riley
Business Unit Manager,
Pharmaceutical Group
and Randall Kemmerer
Global Life Sciences Strategic Account Manager
Videojet Technologies Inc.

Despite significant advancements in digital coding solutions— including increased uptime, improved code quality, ease of use and simplified maintenance—many packaging lines continue to use static, outdated coding solutions like embossers, hot stamp machines, and roll coders. Today, many digital coding solutions offer highly reliable operation and intuitive interfaces that make them easy to use. Increased demands for variable data coding are driven by the need for higher production line throughput, greater production flexibility, increased traceability, adherence to current and pending regulatory requirements, and a host of other factors. These factors are compelling packaging line engineers to revisit their coding and marking solutions and consider switching to digital coding.

A range of digital coding solutions are available to meet marking and coding needs, including continuous ink jet printers, laser coders, thermal transfer overprinters and thermal ink-jet printers. Developing a plan for making the switch to a digital coding solution s critical to the successful integration of that system into production processes.

Image shows a thermal ink-jet printer coding on a production line. Image courtesy Videojet Technologies.

There are several steps to follow to ensure a successful installation:

1. Understand objectives and set goals. It may seem obvious, but understanding the objective for digital coding and aligning that objective with overall company or project goals is key to the successful implementation of a variable data coding system. Consider what needs to be accomplished today, as well as any planned short- and long-term changes. Take into account what information needs to be coded, why and on what material it will be printed.

Products that require date and lot codes today may require unique package identifiers in the near future. These identifiers could include bar code symbology and industry standard serialization formats. Considering future requirements will help minimize future upgrades and extra capital expenditures.

2. Evaluate the application. A detailed understanding of the application helps clarify the nuances of the production process, which may impact the technology ultimately selected. The substrate on which the code will be applied is a critical factor in determining which coding technology to use. The packaging material currently in use and future materials that may be used should be considered. In addition, this evaluation should include a consideration of the conditions before, after and at the point of coding. For example, line speed, number of products per minute, first point of physical contact with the substrate, and facility temperature and humidity are all factors that may impact printer selection and implementation.

3. Gather recommendations on coding options. Contact a preferred coding technology provider to understand available options. Each type of marking and coding solution has its own advantages and is designed to perform best in specific applications. It is often more valuable to work with providers who offer a range of coding options and are knowledgeable about the benefits of each. Supplying information about objectives, goals and applications better enables a coding equipment provider to recommend solutions that will integrate well with existing processes and future changes.

4. Request samples. Samples demonstrate how well a coding system may work for the required application. Companies evaluating marking and coding solutions should share samples of the product or packaging they plan to code and request an example of how the code will appear. This helps ensure satisfaction with code appearance on the product and set expectations as the line engineer works to select an option to meet coding requirements.

5. Validate the impact on existing production lines. Confirm the fit and functionality of coding options with existing line equipment and processes. Work with the coding technology provider to check that the coders’ specifications meet requirements, and whether any modifications are required to the coding equipment or to the production lines.

6. Make a decision and perform installation. Based on the criteria established to meet goals, objectives and process requirements, select the best available option(s). Remember to consider run-time requirements and the availability of maintenance service or support when making the selection. The provider should be available to assist in installation and training requirements.

Image shows a 2-D bar code and lot code and expiration date printed by a laser marking system. Image courtesy Videojet Technologies.

7. Monitor performance. Ongoing monitoring helps verify the new coding system is providing the required solution. It also serves as a front-line check to ensure the system meets quality expectations and that any anticipated cost-savings are being realized. Many pharmaceutical packaging lines employ machine vision systems to perform functions such as optical character and bar code verification. Machine vision systems can provide excellent feedback on print quality.

8. Review other production lines for additional upgrades or explore additional value-added functionality. Once the variable data coding solution is installed and meeting expectations, line engineers can leverage knowledge about the new solution to determine if other lines may require digital coding. They also can evaluate whether existing solutions can be upgraded with additional functionality, such as networked communications or service agreements. First evaluate similar production lines within the facility or at other locations. Consider expanding to other applications, possibly ones more challenging than the initial installation. By following the process established for the initial printer selection and installation, line engineers can address new opportunities with greater confidence.

Preparation for the future
Switching to digital coding and marking can provide a number of benefits to an organization when the right solution is identified and selected. Developing a plan will lead to successful implementation and set a path for future expansion and improvements. With a little advanced planning, companies will meet their objectives, improve code quality and establish the flexibility to help address changing future requirements.


Image shows lot code and best-before date printed on foil by a laser marking system. Image courtesy of Videojet Technologies.

About the Authors
Chris Riley is the business unit manager of Videojet Technologies’ Pharmaceuticals group. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern University.

Randall Kemmerer is the global life sciences strategic account manager for Videojet Technologies. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Penn State University and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Cincinnati.


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