Even for packaging veterans, coding and marking can be tricky. The equipment is high-tech and high maintenance. It requires an extra dose of operator training, advanced cleaning techniques, and the willingness to periodically update capabilities and analyze their effectiveness. The following practices are recommended to those specifying new or upgraded coding and marking equipment for primary packaging:
1. Know your operation.
Careful analysis can make the difference between a successful coding installation and one that experiences needless downtime, resulting in unhappy customers. Once you know these factors, it will be easier to choose which marking and coding technology is best for your application. Key factors to consider include:
- Types of materials or substrates you’ll be marking
- Desired speed of application or throughput
- Print quality: permanence and readability
- Up-front investment your company is willing to make
- Whether variable data, graphics, and bar codes are needed
- The distribution cycle characteristics for your packaging
2. Find room on the package.
Make certain the packaging graphic design includes an area of “real estate” which is available and accessible to coding and marking equipment.
3. Find room on the packaging the line, too.
Often, package coding is an afterthought in the line layout. Good quality printing requires the package to move at a constant rate past the coder. Packages that slip on the conveyor or even stop in front of the print head will result in a code which is missed, difficult to read, or a large blob of ink.
4. Value versatility.
How versatile is the coding system? Are you choosing a flexible solution that enables quick response to new packaging substrates or configurations? Brand owners understand that new and “fresh” packaging has a direct and positive impact on sales. New packaging configurations are changing faster than ever. Can your coding system adapt?
5. Realize that no machine is an island.
Can the coding system you’re considering be integrated for improved efficiency? Historically, coding and marking printers have been purchased and installed as stand-alone devices. Today, automation and integration is increasingly important for improving efficiencies and as a means of reducing errors. For example, packagers are networking coding equipment in their plants, both horizontally and vertically. In other words, they are creating a central command post that manages information not only among production lines, but also among primary, secondary, and tertiary coding systems. The ability to enter a product code one time and have it quickly download from product to pallet printing stations can save significant time and reduce message entry errors. There are solutions available today that offer a coding automation platform that provides a modular approach, allowing entry-level investment that can grow into fully automated integrated systems.
6. Find a coding partner.
Consider investing some time up front to find a coding and marking partner and simplify your life. Most plants have multiple brands of printers. This makes managing your printer fleet and coding supplier relationships complex. Large suppliers that can install and service one brand of printers that serves all coding needs (up and down the production line) can make your life easier with coding user interfaces, technical training, and service programs—not to mention one phone number to call for your coding requirements. Obviously this increases sales for the big vendors, but it provides cost and time benefits for packagers as well.
7. Understanding the costs.
Code dating technologies can have very different initial costs and ongoing expenses. Ink jet coding units have a lower equipment cost, but require purchase of “consumable” materials, ink, make-up fluids, and cleaners. The amount of printing as well as the size and density of the ink dot can significantly affect the cost of printing. Alternatively Laser printing has a higher purchase price but does not require any consumables. Cleaning can be as simple as wiping off the lens. You need to consider all of the operating costs: energy, consumables materials, cleaning and maintenance requirements (including parts replacement and service). Make sure you gather all the costs when evaluating different technologies and suppliers.
8. Prepare for future legislation.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will impose new requirements for machines used in food packaging. You should expect, and require, your machinery vendors to help you meet those requirements. Understanding how your coding supplier is preparing and positioned to meet these requirements can reveal a lot about their seriousness about building long-term partners versus short-term sales.
9. Invest in training.
The real barrier to effective coding is knowledge. Make sure all your maintenance personnel have knowledge of the equipment—not just one or two people on each shift. See that the vendor-trained personnel, those with really detailed knowledge of the equipment, spread that knowledge to all maintenance and production people on every shift. This investment will pay off in reduced downtime.
10. Take the precautions equipment demands.
When dealing with lasers, product must be well-guarded and people must be protected. You must have a fume-extraction process in place, so whatever you’re burning off doesn’t stay in the environment. With ink-jet printers, consider self-cleaning options to eliminate problems associated with clogging. System design should be hygienic, preventing foreign materials from adulterating the ink.
11. Understand the substrate.
Consider making minor packaging graphics changes to improve your chances for printing success. Most water-based inks will not adhere to glossy cartons or cases. They require a window where there is no over-lacquer. Laser printing requires contrast, typically white, to be seen. Have proactive conversations with both the packaging component supplier and your packaging graphics partners about how and where you plan to print a code.