Coding & Marking For Beverages: CIJ Or Laser?

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Chirag Sheth, global marketing manager at Videojet technologies, discusses about continuous ink jet (cij) and laser technologies and how beverage manufacturers can decide which will truly benefit their businesses.

Beverage manufacturers have options when looking at coding and marking solutions. Which is best for their individual operations will depend on a number of factors—from substrate to line speed—and it is important to work closely with an expert provider to determine the appropriate technology.

Understanding Today’s Trends

There are several trends driving the industry and shaping its future, and it is equally important to understand these elements.

The first identifiable trend is SKU proliferation, particularly with respect to different flavours in terms of changing consumer taste patterns, behaviours and geographic regions. Manufacturers have to be able to manage these different SKUs, and where that really influences coding and marking is product changeovers.

Lines are expensive to install and it’s not easy to expand in certain geographic regions, so often manufacturers are using the same lines to make multiple products.

Currently, many manufacturers are effecting changeovers manually. When you depend upon line operators to ensure the correct codes are placed on the corresponding products, you are depending on human touch points. And whenever you have increasing human touch points, you have a higher probability of error.

Ensuring the right information is coded onto products is vital. Incorrect coding could lead to costly product recalls, which in turn can cause damage to brand reputation.

Different packaging types have also come to the forefront and there are now many different sizes of packaging for the same product, depending on which channel you purchase them from. A soft drink, for example, may be found in any number of aluminium can sizes, as well as PET bottles.

In addition to that, there is a move in the beverage industry towards pouches, as they offer great flexibility—particularly for on-the-go consumers. They are relatively cheap in terms of cost of goods for the manufacturer, very flexible in terms of what you can print on them, and are easy to transport, with literally thousands able to be placed in a single box.

In certain beverage sub segments—particularly fruit juices and alcoholic drinks—they are becoming more popular, but we don’t see this so much in carbonated drinks as cans and bottles tend to hold the carbonation better. Still, pouches are certainly gaining market share.

Finally, from a ‘green’ perspective, it is no longer sufficient to have a tag line ’no added preservatives,’ or its derivatives, in fine print on the back of a package. It is important to have natural claims clear and at the fore-front of a product’s package.

Certain manufacturers have gone further and even moved to eco-friendly packaging. The concept of sustainable packaging is one that resonates well with a population that is increasingly conscientious of their impact on the environment. Coding and marking systems need to be flexible in order to service the different substrates and colour schemes used by manufacturers in their efforts to go natural and green.

Advantages With Coding & Marking

Outside of providing the usual best by information, coding and marking can help meet increasing requirements for traceability. In the EU, wine manufacturers are required to be able to provide information as far back as where the grapes to make the wine were sourced. This is becoming increasingly important, particularly in sub-segments such as juices.

Nestlé, for example, has a self-initiated program where they are looking to provide traceability from farm-to-fork for their consumers. There are regulatory requirements, and then there are self-initiated goals that certain manufacturers are imposing on themselves in order to ensure that their consumers have better visibility into their supply chains. This way they know they are getting the freshest of the fresh and where their ingredients are coming from.

This is very important to the new generation of consumers—millennials. Manufacturers are trying to figure out how to market to millennials and health is a key factor.

Coding and marking can also prevent counterfeiting and diversion, which really applies more to spirits, liquors and high value, high priced beverages. Preventing counterfeiting and diversion are areas where coding and marking can provide manufacturers added value that stretches way beyond best by dates.

If you have the correct software and printer setup you are able to create and mark unique, specialised codes onto your products. By sharing this information with your distribution chain partners, you ensure that your product is not diverted to unintended retail outlets. Additionally, you can avoid your brand being associated with a substandard product sold on grey markets.

A multi-layered approach can be taken towards defeating these issues. First is through the generation of the code, followed by the technology used to generate the code. Finally is the software that encompasses everything.

One example of this approach is through smart coding, i.e. a code that is a series of numbers and letters with certain ones that are printed differently on purpose.

For example, we may remove the centre dot of ink from the letter ‘X’. This is smart coding and is done intentionally in order to identify counterfeit products. The ‘X’ has to have the middle dot missing in order to pass the test as it were.

Another example is overt coding, where a user can see the code—which may be used in conjunction with smart coding—and covert coding, which is an invisible code generated using infrared or UV ink.

You can also use smart coding in conjunction with covert inks for an extra level of protection. Only retail suppliers would be able to locate and check such codes if needed; to the naked eye, these cannot be seen so a person who doesn’t know that it exists will be unable to pinpoint its location. If counterfeiters try to replicate this type of product it will be very difficult—close to impossible. Covert and overt codes can be utilised on the same product if desired.

Controlling all of this would require software to track the codes created and store those codes in a database. For example, Videojet has a software suite that has the ability to generate, import and administer unique codes for the tracking and lifecycle management for these sorts of high end products (spirits, wines, etc.).

Continuous Ink Jet (Cij) Technologies

When we think of CIJ, there is a very diverse product portfolio depending on what areas are important to the customer— from line speed and code complexity to maintenance schedules and wash down capabilities. For example, Videojet has an ultra-high speed offering which can handle line speeds of over 500 m per minute and high resolution printers that can apply three lines of print.

Given the environment that beverage manufacturers operate in, wash downs are very important. Here we have printers that can withstand jets of water, minimising the amount of maintenance required as they do not need to be covered for wash down procedures. Further, there is no need for external plant air connected to the printer. Certain applications require coloured inks—dark coloured bottles for example—and pigmented inks can achieve a high contrast.

One of the challenges a lot of manufacturers run into when they have CIJ printers is that the printhead tends to clog up over time. Clogged printheads typically result in either a missed code or a poor quality code. As such there is a need for products that can help keep printheads clean, or self-cleaning printheads, in order to enable higher uptime—a quality critical for the beverage industry.

Manufacturers are typically operating around the clock. Unplanned downtime affects their production quotas and it is virtually impossible to make time up once lost. Anything that coding and marking manufacturers can do to help with uptime is a bonus.

A smart cartridge technology would also help beverage manufacturers be more efficient with their operations. For such a technology, when the ink or solvent is finished, all that is needed is to take that single cartridge out and replace it, and the system is ready to operate.

There would be no mess, no waste and no mistakes made when it comes to the fluids since the actual inks cannot be mixed with the makeup solvent; the system will not allow you to put an ink cartridge into the solvent tunnel.

Laser Technologies

From a laser perspective, there are CO2 lasers which are available in a variety of different wavelengths. In the bottled water industry, for example, manufacturers want to maintain a clean image of the water and would not want a black ink mark on the bottle.

With laser, however, you would typically be burning off material from the substrate—it is therefore important that the wavelength has to be perfectly set to the packaging material in order to avoid punctures, particularly since many companies are looking to lighter weight, thinner materials.

Various solution providers have recognised the need to use lasers on ultra-thin substrates, such as PET bottles, and reacted accordingly to what its customers were asking for with lasers that allow for this. For spirits and liquor, which are mainly packaged in glass bottles, laser is the primary means of coding and marking due to the clean, crisp finish it provides.

Choosing Between Cij And Laser

Before deciding on a technology, first you have to consider the substrate you are working with and the way in which different technologies operate in conjunction. CIJ printers code by adding material—or ink—to a substrate, while laser coders operate by removing material. So it is very important that you understand what substrate you are using and the colour of that substrate.

Even when it comes to ink, you want to be able to provide high contrast. If you are using a dark amber, green or black bottle, a black ink is not going to provide this—you will need pigmented or coloured inks.

For laser, tweaking the wavelength would provide a different looking code. You can get a frosted effect at one wavelength, a clear, crisp code at another, and at a third wavelength you may be able to achieve a black code. It depends very much on the substrate and how the laser reacts with it.

Certain manufacturers, when they have their packaging products made, specify certain additives in order to enable the laser printer to create the code quality and colour they require.

In developing countries, most carbonated drinks are sold in returnable glass bottles, and in that case one would want an ink based solution which can be placed onto the bottle itself. When the bottle is returned, it will be put through a caustic wash in order to remove the code and will then be recoded once refilled.

Finally, one must look at the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Up front, lasers are more expensive no doubt, but they do not have the ongoing costs associated with CIJ printers, such as inks and solvents. However, the list of substrates you can use in conjunction with a laser is narrower than that of CIJ—which can be used to print on virtually any substrate.

What is important to remember is that testing/sampling is vital. It would always be good to ask for samples of the product, and better even if the samples could suit a manufacturer’s production line requirements. Considerations that could be addressed when asking for a sample could be the speed of line and the distance between the printer and the product.

Beverage remains an exciting industry, where product and packaging innovation drive change within the coding and marking industry. All beverage manufacturers should consider their requirements carefully when choosing which coding and marking solution to use—CIJ or laser—in order to fully benefit their operations and increase operation efficiency.