Laser Coding For Beverages

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Coding is essential for all fast moving consumer goods, including beverages. Laser systems are one way for beverage manufacturers to code their products reliably and efficiently to meet growing consumer demands. By Sascha Ammesdörfer, business unit manager for laser, Videojet Technologies

The global beverage packaging market is expected to grow from an estimated US$97.2 billion in 2012 to US$125.7 billion by 2018, as a direct result of increasing consumer demand for Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), such as beverages. This means that manufacturers are under increased pressure to improve their production line speeds and labelling systems capabilities.

With several coding and marking systems available in the manufacturing industry, knowing which one will best address production requirements is essential. Amongst all the options available, laser systems are well-known and trusted by beverage and canning manufacturers to increase production output and uptime, meeting growing consumer demands.

What advances have there been to laser systems to date, and how do they support the beverage industry?

A variety of different wavelengths have been introduced over the years, in order to suit the varying substrates used within the beverage industry. It is a high demand production environment and therefore coding and marking solutions need to be able to keep up with production speeds, in addition to accommodating the increased amount of information required—from batch codes and use by dates to nutritional information.

Laser coders have the ability to address these needs with no reduction in line speed, enabling manufacturers to meet demand schedules without concern for the quality of the coded information produced.

Industry Trends

Looking at the long term, there are a couple of trends emerging. The first one is product proliferation. Large and small companies alike are starting to expand their portfolios to incorporate additional brands and create diversity in their product offerings. This enables them to target new consumers in their market of choice.

Coca-Cola is a typical example of one of the many companies growing their portfolio, with brand variants such as Cherry Coke or Vanilla Coke, designed to adapt to changing consumer demands for additional flavours and composition.

We also see a growing number of larger companies acquiring smaller brands to add to their portfolios. Product proliferation thus leads to production line speed increases to cope with the added demand, and a greater need for labelling and coding systems which have the capability of keeping up with faster production lines, but still perform effectively with the best delivery of quality possible.

The second trend is what we refer to in the industry as ‘late stage customisation’, which is the production and supply of products for multiple markets where the variable information is not printed onto the product or the packaging until the later stages of production.

This enables the goods to be customised for each market and in the quantity required, maximising efficiency. Typically, companies using this production method are either large or mid-size and serve multiple markets. For example, if a food manufacturer based in the US wanted to export its products to the European Union, the information on the packaging would have to appear in multiple languages for each of the different markets.

In addition, regulatory guidelines and requirements vary from market to market. For example, the list of ingredients may have to be disclosed in some markets, but not in others. Manufacturers may also need to add specific data, such as duty information, or insert a geographical tracking code for product traceability. The ability to include data at the last minute therefore helps manufacturers be more flexible in their production. The added advantage of late stage customisation is that it requires less packaging changeover time and less packaging material to use.

A Developing Marketplace

In order to grow market share, retain and gain new customers, companies need to satisfy customer demands for diversity. Therefore, there is increased pressure on the industry to offer new variants.

In the past, the same type of product would be produced 24/7, but because of the diversification of the product range, this has changed into the need for efficient and more rapid product changeovers. The production of one type of product may take place in a morning slot, with a different product— which may also differ in size—entering the production line later in the day. Demands for faster changeovers will continue to increase, in parallel to the need for labelling and coding systems to meet time requirements.

More and more, coding is being used by manufacturers and retailers alike for marketing and brand promotions. Quick response (QR) codes, for example, are two-dimensional barcodes which can be used to record information about a product: consumers scan the code with their smartphone and get instant access to the relevant website where they can find out about current or forthcoming competitions, brand events and special offers. This is a great method for brand owners to capture information about the consumer and their preferential buying habits.

As code content increases, it is essential to optimise time and this increases pressure on daily operations. Manufacturing facilities now have to take into account the ability for coders to adapt to product changes, which include the selection of different codes and different code positioning on the product and processing line. Although this is an existing need, it is a challenge which was not there in the past. Thankfully, new technology such as coding hardware and software set-up tools are now available to make changeovers simpler.

Increased Demand Has Its Challenges

Manufacturers need to increase lines speeds (or even add more lines) to meet growing production demand for FMCG products and maximise their outputs. High end manufacturers cannot increase the capacity of their lines significantly as too many things can go wrong with the numerous changes that may be required. Therefore, they increase line speed and may add a second line if necessary.

Cost, as always, is a big factor and it is important to consider what type of coding technology is being used. Inkjet printers and Thermal Transfer Overprinters (TTO), for example, require consumables such as fluids and ribbons. Laser is the only coding technology which doesn’t consume anything—apart from power of course. As more products go through the lines, laser coding is an option that cost conscious manufacturers might consider.

Manufacturers are also concerned with legal issues around product quality, brand management and other reputational issues which may arise and lead to a recall and destruction of products—a potentially costly outcome. From a coding perspective, traceability is crucial and so is having the correct information on the products.

However, retailers are more concerned with their logistics chain, wanting it to be as simple as possible with products being fully traceable but still in line with their own stock labelling system. Manufacturers and retailers have their own systems to define what constitutes a variable code.

Therefore, it is important for manufacturers of coding and labelling systems to fulfil requirements by understanding what customers want, whether they need high-quality QR code printers or an efficient system which will facilitate traceability. Consumers are primarily concerned about product quality and integrity, therefore the legibility of information on the product must provide information such as best by, or use by date.

An increase in more coding content also means that the laser coder has to have enough capacity, in terms of head room, to cope with the demand. Time optimisation is therefore prioritised over other requirements as more characters have to be marked. A coder with a higher throughput and one that is able to incorporate more content would be ideal.

Beverage Trends

A couple of years ago, there was a marked decrease in the use of cans in the beverage industry; now though it now seems that this packaging type has regained its popularity. Marking on aluminium is therefore becoming more common again.

Aluminium cans are very easy to transport due to their light weight, and coding onto them is much easier than coding on other types of packaging. The fact that the ‘best before’ date lasts longer on this type of material in comparison to glass is a likely factor of its regained popularity.

The introduction of the ultra-thin polyethylene terephthalate (PET) by bottled water and soft drinks producers has caused problems for laser coding systems. There is a risk that traditional lasers could burn a hole or create weak points in the PET that may result in bottles bursting or leaking. Nevertheless, the industry has adapted to these lighter materials and have modified existing laser coders accordingly to reduce the depth of the laser marking, thus preserving the structural integrity of the PET.

A laser code is always permanent, which is perfect for traceability as well as the prevention of counterfeiting. This printing method is a better option for beverage packaging, compared to other coding solutions which may prove less efficient. For instance, applications such as stickers can be easily removed and ink printed labels can easily be smudged and therefore become unreadable.

Laser marking is of the highest quality, the outcome being a nice solid line. Although the purchase price of laser marking systems is higher than the initial cost of an inkjet system, minimal operating costs lead to a lower total cost of ownership over time.