Upgrades in Printing Technology Get High Marks
Equipment suppliers are aiding packagers with process improvements to meet demanding product coding and marking needs.
Justifying a machine upgrade for in-line coding and marking is getting easier. Coding and marking systems are providing packagers with increasingly higher quality at affordable prices. The rationale for machine upgrades ranges from cost reduction, by replacing a preprinted top web, to an improved ability to verify product marking.
This small-character ink-jet machine from Willett America is housed in a stainless-steel case and is suited for pharmaceutical use.
Combined with these trends, pharmaceutical and medical product manufacturers continue to segment their product offerings to design short runs and unique packaging, thus creating the need for highly flexible machines capable of quick changeover.
While their motivations for upgrading equipment vary, healthcare packagers seem to agree that bettering in-line coding and marking equipment is easier to justify today than it has ever been and well worth the investment, as the following examination of coding and marking processes demonstrates.
In the world of flexographic printing, new developments are making in-line color coding more precise, according to Bob Batesko, sales manager for Bell-Mark Sales Co. (Pine Brook, NJ), a manufacturer of flexographic, ink-jet, and thermal-transfer in-line and stand-alone machines. The company recently outfitted packaging equipment supplier Multivac (Kansas City, MO) with a two-color in-line flexographic printer. The printer "is an extension of our established FlexPrint line," says Batesko, "but it's unique because it has two-color printing capability and is installed on a horizontal form-fill-seal machine."
Bell-Mark's FlexPrint II replaces the single-color in-line printer Multivac's customer had been using for a medical device application that calls for manufacturing in a variety of designs, including dosage variations. "With the additional requirement for bar coding, a two-color preprinted top web would have been required. This would have been way too costly," says Tom Pugh, vice president of Bell-Mark.
The two-color flexographic printer, which incorporates precise print capability, achieving color-to-color registration of 1/64 in., is designed with a central impression cylinder and two servo-driven motors, one on each print cylinder. One Axima unit controls both motors and ensures exact color registration along with precise package registration.
"Justifying the installation of this new two-color [printer] was really based on the inventory reduction of preprinted top web," says Wil Caraballo, technical manager of the medical division at Multivac. "Because the customer required a bar code and a logo, the amount of preinventoried top web was extremely high. This made it very difficult to make any further packaging changes on demand, because a large quantity of preprinted web would have been made obsolete by any print change. In addition, the lead time for preprinted top web is often several months. This requires even more inventory." By contrast, he says, using the two-color system from Bell-Mark allows the packager to hold unprinted paper/poly top web, significantly reducing the investment in inventory. Multivac's customer spent nearly $100,000 to outfit its form-fill-seal machine with the two-color in-line printer, and, according to Caraballo, the money was well spent.
"From our perspective," he says, "manufacturers of medical devices [would benefit from] this type of print technology" being installed on packaging machines. When it comes to short runs and changeovers occurring as many as three to four times per day, he says, the demand for precise print registration is high.
In addition, says Glenn Breslauer, director of marketing and Internet for Bell-Mark, makers of such products as syringes, catheters, and latex gloves have a need for a two-color process due to sizing requirements. "ISO standards that exist for certain products call out exact color codes for a corresponding size of a needle, for example," Breslauer says. "Two-color in-line printing allows the user to color code at one station of the printer, and print the corresponding information with the other station using another color."
Many medical devices need to have certain international symbols printed directly onto their packaging, adds Breslauer. "Two-color printing can be utilized to differentiate the contents of the package from the required symbols. One plate can be designed and printed in one color, and a different variable plate can be removed or replaced when either a company logo or the contents of a package might need to be changed."
The potential for gaining market share by offering a cleaner, less-confusing package, says Breslauer, is perhaps the greatest benefit that two-color in-line printing can offer medical device and drug companies. "Pharmaceutical and medical packagers can offer more-attractive packages that are more easily identifiable by their customers."
There is value in upgrading the coding and marking process for blister packs, according to Richard Macklin, product sales and marketing manager for Industrial Dynamics (Torrance, CA), a company that manufactures and supports laser coding systems for a wide range of packaging applications.
"Roll coders and hot-stamp coders are the marking systems [most commonly used] on blister packs," says Macklin, "[but] this is old technology. The parts wear out, and there are messy inks to deal with." Laser coding and marking, he says, offers reliability and overall compatibility with automated manufacturing that makes for an easy upgrade.
Adds Macklin, "There is a new set of challenges with blister packs. We're seeing an increasing demand for the marking of ethical pharmaceuticals in arrays—[arrangements of] three by four, for example, rather than just a single row. This requires the system to mark each dose and to do it in a shorter period of time on the production line."
One particular upgrade, Macklin recalls, which involved assisting Bayer in the improvement of the marking system on a pouch form-fill-seal line, required the same capability to mark more units more quickly. The project involved upgrading a contact ink coder on a production line that ran pouches in six parallel lines.
Halwyn Lewis, factory manager at the Bayer solid-dosage plant in Meyerstown, PA, which manufacturers over-the-counter analgesics, notes that the two major projects the company has undertaken in the past year have both involved replacing older hot-stamp units with laser marking systems.
"Our justification for [upgrading] really relates to efficiency on the line and to the integrity of verification," says Lewis. "We wanted the flexibility to mark in both the x and y planes. This allows us significantly greater flexibility in designing unique promotional packaging that is cost effective."
Two Lasetec marking heads supplied by Industrial Dynamics provided this flexibility across the six parallel lines for Bayer. "There were some real challenges on the project," says Lewis. "But we were able to produce a consistent mark, even if the web had slight side-to-side movement."
But, as with any manufacturing change, there are several things to keep in mind when upgrading to laser marking. "Maintenance of package integrity is important to avoid possible leakage or contamination when upgrading to a laser for form-fill-seal applications and blister packs," says Ken Stephenson, communications manager for Domino Amjet (Gurnee, IL).
"The laser coder should allow precise digital metering of laser energy to optimize the mark without perforation or meltdown of the material used. This not only maintains package integrity, but also enhances the aesthetics of the mark by providing a consistently clear, unblemished code." When different materials are being coded and a coder is moving from line to line, digital metering ensures universal compatibility with a quick, simple keystroke adjustment, Stephenson says.
"We see thermal transfer coming into its own. Thermal transfer is now a real competitor in in-line coding and marking applications," says Michael Delligatti, general manager of Dalemark Industries Inc. (Lakewood, NJ), a company that markets thermal-transfer, ink-jet, hot-stamp, and reciprocating coders.
There are several important reasons for upgrading a coding and marking process, says Delligatti. "We see the desire for near-perfect code quality, particularly in [the] pharmaceutical [industry]. And, by replacing an outdated hot-stamp or flexographic system, pharmaceutical companies can demonstrate minimal manual intervention" that must be done by humans. "This intervention—changing plates and changing inks, particularly on short-run products—adds to a lack of control and to the cost of the packaging process." This, Delligatti says, is what is driving the upgrades that industry is seeing now.
The speed of thermal transfer, however, can be a drawback, according to Delligatti. "I tell people to amortize the amount of downtime caused by old marking systems. For short-run packaging, such as kits and medical solutions at quantities of 15,000 to 20,000 pieces per week, downtime is extremely costly."
But given its slowness, thermal transfer is still the right option for certain applications, Delligatti says. "We are upgrading machines around the world for a manufacturer of surgical suture kits. The application demands high-quality copy with runs of 5000 to 7000 pieces. In this case, thermal transfer is the right choice."
The increasing opportunity in upgrading ink-jet applications, says Stephenson of Domino Amjet, is with data-intensive 2-D matrix codes, primarily in process and production operations utilizing machine-readable information, rather than human-readable information.
"We have users that code 2-D lot and expiration data on vials with 'nude' ink visible only under UV light, and there's no other labeling," says Stephenson. The vials can then be shipped to other plants or to other countries for local labeling with no danger of mix-up.
And with such innovations come higher expectations for better reliability and higher-quality codes. "The old daily cleanup and make-ready routine is now a thing of the past, with new autoflushing printheads and with extended maintenance intervals being recommended," says Stephenson. New near-graphic-arts–quality fonts enhance the look of packages and are now preferred over informational-quality codes that were acceptable in the past, he says.
Charlie Hathaway, sales representative for Diagraph Corp. (Earth City, MO), a supplier of ink-jet coding equipment, label application systems, and labels, notes another trend in coding and marking upgrades. "A couple of years ago, the process [of justifying an upgrade] centered on improving verification procedures and complying with regulations. While that is still a given, we've noticed small, frequent upgrades are getting [much] easier to justify. The labor market is just too tight to [have to] rely on [being able] to find qualified replacement labor for operating older coding equipment and processes." A more-automated solution, he says, eliminates this risk.
One of the main trends that Tom Phillips, product manager for Willett America Inc. (Fort Worth, TX), sees is the need to integrate the marking system with the warehouse and manufacturing system. And that means integrating hardware, software, marking, and networking into one complete system.
As a supplier of ink-jet, thermal-transfer, and labeling equipment, as well as integration software, says Phillips, "we help customers justify an upgrade by taking responsibility for the entire systems integration. We find upgrades are relatively easy for companies to justify, because they've already invested a tremendous amount in their manufacturing system." Coding, he says, is now seen as an integral component of any proposal.
Across the technologies the justifications for making upgrades vary. But there is no question, says Dalemark's Delligatti, that right now there are tremendous opportunities for pharmaceutical and medical companies to get help replacing outdated in-line systems.