End-of-line case marking has had to become flexible as well in order to cost effectively identify secondary packaging by date, lot, quantity, barcode, and other information. Quite often each package is uniquely identified to meet traceability requirements.
This data often needs to be in both human readable and barcode form so a marking solution that can handle both and is tough enough to work 100% all day every day is essential.
Here at ID Technology, we provide several technologies for marking variable data on cases – Labeling, Inkjet Marking and Laser Marking.
Which produces the best quality?
Which is the most cost effective?
Which is the most reliable?
Since every application is different, there is no simple answer to these questions – let’s see if we can make some sense of things!
One important point is that very often, the identification marking that needs to be done is for compliance reasons. Our customers have provided marking specification that need to be adhered to and these usually involve the use of barcodes as well as text and sometimes graphics or symbols.
When barcodes are involved, it is important to be aware of any ANSI specification that must be met – this can be a determining factor in which marking technology to use.
Today’s print-and-apply label systems are faster and less expensive in terms of price/performance than ever before.
Some of these systems can print and apply one or more labels with unique identification information at rates of more than 100 cases per minute. Reliability is higher and downtime lower with today’s machines. These newer systems offer greater flexibility than in the past in terms of network communications with wired and wireless Ethernet.
The speed of the processors has improved along with the speed of communication, which means more real time status information is available for the machine and line. Information for labels can be downloaded directly to the system from a production supervisor’s office or completely automatically over the network.
Newer systems offer improved methods of applying labels that ensure greater consistency in placement and permanence.
Label Printer Applicators are able to accurately apply labels on a single face of the case or wrapped around onto two faces.
Printer Applicators can give excellent print quality which is particularly important when barcode standards have to be met. Crisp black print on a white label background gives the maximum contrast level – if the barcodes are to be verified against the standard, labeling will provide higher verification scores than the other marking methods.
The applicator modules used with Printer Applicators are engineered so that the system can still function correctly, even if product handling isn’t totally consistent.
One disadvantage of Printer Applicators is that the cost of labels and thermal ribbons is higher than the consumables used in Inkjet or Laser marking.
When the best barcode quality is important, labeling is usually the best option.
Today’s inkjet printers feature the latest Windows operating system, similar processing and communication speeds and options as printer/applicators, and, like print-and-apply label systems, a high degree of flexibility.
Many inkjet systems now feature automatic cleaning for the print head, which reduces labor and extends the service life. Systems without automatic cleaning typically require repair or refurbishing on average of once every ten months. Self-maintaining and self-cleaning models run on average for more than three years before major service is required.
Our FoxJet ProSeries® system is capable of printing high quality text, images and barcodes up to 4 inches wide. Stack two heads and an 8 inch high print area can be marked. This can allow for pre-printed cases to be completely eliminated, reducing the number of items to order and manage.
It should be noted that to obtain the best image quality, the product handling on the conveyor needs to be rather precise – a retracting mounting bracket for the print head can help with this, too, since it can ensure that the printhead is kept at the correct distance from the case as it passes.
Barcoding is becoming increasingly important for case identification and in some instances can rule out inkjet as the solution. Generally speaking, if the barcode is a simple GTIN in Interleaved Two of Five (ITF) format, the ProSeries is fine, but it (and similar products) isn’t happy printing barcode of less than about 18 mils x-dimension. This can rule out GS1 128 barcodes if a lot of data is needed.
In addition, if customer mandates specify barcodes with a “B” or better ANSI grade, this cannot be achieved with inkjet on the usual beige colored corrugated material due to the reduced contrast. Labels are the best option in this situation.
Laser marking is fast, reliable and super modern. It is a great solution for a lot of coding and marking applications and can also be used for case marking.
The corrugated case material does not react to laser light. To be able to use laser to print acceptable barcodes and data on to a case, a laser receptive coating has to be applied first. This is done at the case manufacturer’s plant.
Once the case has been assembled, packed and sealed, a conveyor carries it past a CO2 Laser which is used to activate the coating on the case. The receptive coating is normally a light color and the mark shows as a darker foreground when activated by the light generated by the laser unit.
A big advantage of Laser Marking is that there is no consumable to be replaced on the packaging line – no need to stop production as when re-filling ink jet or re-loading labels.
The capital cost of a laser system is often higher than that of inkjet or labeling equipment, and the total cost of a printed carton (including the cost of the case manufacturer supply cases with the special coating) is usually somewhere between labeling and inkjet.
Because the laser light has to be focused at a certain focal length, handling of the product is important. The case has to be kept at a consistent distance from the lens and also be fed on the conveyor at a constant speed. Fume extraction is usually needed as well to remove any particles in the air created by the laser.
Possibly the biggest challenge with laser case marking is getting the corrugated case manufacture to consistently print the laser receptive coating on the case. Any variations and the finished mark quality will vary as well. In the past, consistency was hard to achieve, but the latest laser receptive materials are more promising.
Which to Use?
Are you trying to figure out the best way to identify your cases? My suggestion would be to get your local ID Technology specialist to come and take a look at your application, discuss with you all the variables and make sure that any compliance issues are taken into account.
That way we will be able to help you decide which technology is the best for your particular job and put together the perfect solution that meets your goals.
Want to improve your labeling or product identification?
Call ID Technology Toll free: 888-438-3242 Option#3 or you can contact me directly firstname.lastname@example.org