The coding and marking industry needs to deliver increasingly sophisticated solutions to meet the challenges of the European market.
but as Simon Powell, Marketing Manager of Linx Printing Technologies explains, this need not come at the expense of keeping things simple
Coding and marking has never had such a high profile, and nor have the challenges facing those manufacturers who need to code their goods. Few products – whether FMCG brands or industrial components – can be manufactured without codes, whilst the amount of information that must be coded is increasing all the time as legislators drive the need for traceability. At the same time, the threat of competition from rising industrial powers around the world, notably China, means that manufacturers must be able to deliver accurate codes quickly and efficiently.
All of this means that choosing the right machine is essential but, given the variety of factors that must be considered, this is no easy task. No two applications are exactly the same – code content, the substrate being coded onto, line speed, factory environment and available budget all play a part in determining what machine to go with. Not least is the essential decision as to what technology to opt for. Both main types – laser and continuous inkjet (CIJ) – have their advantages, but listing them all would take an article in itself!
Nonetheless, there are other, more fundamental principles to guide purchasers even before it comes to making these choices. The most noticeable trend is a call for simplicity. Whether you see coding as a necessary evil or something that adds value to supply chain management, nobody wants it to be complicated. Simplicity – in installation, use and ownership – takes the hassle out of coding operations, allowing manufacturers to concentrate on other aspects of their business.
The philosophy of keeping things simple starts as soon as the machine is purchased. Installation should be fuss-free, enabling the model to be up and running as quickly as possible. This has never been more important than in today’s environment where, for example, food manufacturers are responsible for larger and larger product portfolios. With shorter production runs and frequent changeovers, the ability to quickly move a printer between lines is a definite bonus. Linx, for example, uses simple plug and play connections that enable start-up at the touch of a button.
Similarly, with CIJ technology, trouble-free start-ups depend on controlling the movement of ink and solvent within the printer. Ink and solvent usage must be easy and mess-free, with clear on-screen information to help avoid mistakes. It is also worth considering models that come with full printhead autoflush on every shutdown (a standard feature on Linx CIJ printers), which cleanses the system in readiness for the next shift. With autoflush, you are likely to need to conduct a full printhead clean only once a month, whereas other models may need cleaning daily.
Historically, CIJ has had a definite advantage in terms of ease of installation, as the equipment does not require the specialist guarding and extraction equipment essential when using a laser coder. Nonetheless, current laser development also has an eye on ease of installation, by building models to fit the production line rather than demanding that existing set-ups are changed to make way for the laser. Nowadays, a range of lenses and beam delivery options are available to enable manoeuvring into tight or hard to reach spaces.
Once installed, the next factor is to ensure simplicity of operation. Ease of use remains an important concern: as workforces become ever more flexible, new operators must be able to get to grips with coding equipment as soon as possible. In the European marketplace, this need for immediacy is exacerbated by freedom of movement between countries, which means that a factory may employ a large number of workers for whom the native language isn’t their first language.
To overcome these factors, one solution favoured by some is for automation. The use of an integrated network, in which coders are linked via a PC-based system to ensure that codes are taken out of the hands of operators all together. Such solutions, such as Linx’s own Line Manager, work by storing product information in a database, linked to the barcode on-pack. The operator reads the barcode using a handheld scanner; the Line Manager software looks up the appropriate message and downloads it to the printer to code it.
A networked solution might be ideal for larger manufacturers, but its complexity does not suit all – and in our experience of talking to customers, automation is not a universal desire. Around two thirds of the market’s food and beverage customers in Europe are SMEs (small to medium enterprises), ensuring that there remain prospects for both networked coders and also less sophisticated standalone installations. This is why Linx’s most recent launch for the CIJ market, the Linx 6900, has been developed for maximum flexibility, in that it has Ethernet and I/O connections for those who want them, but is also easy to set up as a standalone machine.
In such circumstances, the user interface must be straightforward and intuitive to remove needless complexity, allowing users to create, change and set up codes at the touch of a button. Linx coders use clear WYSIWYG displays and a navigable menu system for ease of message set-up and preview, thus minimising coding errors.
It is worth noting, of course, that the decision to network is not a black and white choice, as solutions can be scaleable to suit specific production requirements. For one Linx customer, who specified a variable offset for products with shorter/longer shelf life, we provided multi-lane software that enables the operator to switch printers on all lines to the required offset simultaneously.
All of these things should ensure short-term effectiveness, but the need for simplicity remains over time. A coding solution that is obsolete within a few years is obviously a flawed solution, so purchasers should ensure that what they are buying provides long-term value.
Cost of ownership is a critical factor. Coders and, in the case of CIJ, consumables must be able to perform to consistently high standards. One rejected batch of product that has not been coded properly due to printer failure can cost more than the printer itself in terms of waste and repackaging - and that’s before one takes into account potential retailer fines for incorrectly coded product, which can now reach as much as £40,000 per batch. Similarly, a machine that regularly breaks down will cause a lot of unwanted downtime, further denting plant efficiency and profitability.
It is worth investing in a machine that places a premium on looking after the machine, whether through regularly scheduled maintenance or through encouraging everyday routines such as the autoflush on CIJ printers mentioned above. Be careful if suppliers claim that their equipment does not need ‘scheduled maintenance’. All coders require regular checks, just as cars do, to maintain reliable performance.
Future-proofing is also essential for long-term simplicity. It may be that more lines of print are required to deal with new information demanded by law, or different alphabets needed for exports to new countries. One fast emerging trend is a move towards including machine readable coding onto primary packaging. Partly this is governed by the need to meet forthcoming or potential legislation – such as the recent Animal Health Medicines Identification Standard, which identified the 2D Datamatrix code as the most suitable medium for enforcing effective traceability of veterinary medicinal products. Partly, it comes from manufacturers wishing to reinforce the efficiency of their supply chain by adding an extra level of on-pack data.
Developments in coding and marking technologies are providing users with a broad range of options as well as a selection of products tailored to specific operating environments, so finding a suitable machine is – on paper – easy enough. Yet, in practice, asking the right questions first will minimise headaches later on. Given the complexity of issues in today’s world when it comes to coding and marking, there is no better question to ask than “how can I keep it simple?”
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