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Nine coding and markingconsiderations for serialization

While the long arm of serialization reaches deep across multiple silos in the organization, one could say it starts with the physical code applied to the package. There are several things to consider.

1. Define where on the package you want to print. As in real estate, the three most important factors here are location, location, location. Whether it’s on a top flap, one end flap, or both end flaps, the physical location of the code will make a huge difference in cost, whether you need to make a label change, and even whether you need to change the size of your shipping case. It can also have huge implications for aggregation. (As an example, one pharma manufacturer was printing a 2D code for a temperature-sensitive product on the side of a folding carton, which was causing a lot of aggregation issues, so they moved it to the end flap. But that required a slightly bigger carton, which in turn required a slightly bigger shipping case, which in turn required the revalidation of the entire cold chain.) Some aggregation schemes call for printing a separate 2D code on the top or bottom of each bottle in order for a camera to capture an entire tier of bottles as they are being put into a case (or through a clear-film shrink bundle) for a higher degree of aggregation integrity.

2. Specify exactly what’s going to be on the label. Prepare a label schema document for your coding/marking vendor that specifies exactly what elements are to be printed. You should also endeavor to have a drawing or rendering of what the finished, printed label should look like, including size of the 2D DataMatrix code, font size for human-readable text, and so forth.

3. Printing on round bottles is problematic. Printing on a flat, true surface is always better than printing on a curved surface. A flat surface, such as found on square containers, provides a consistent throw distance for ink-jet coding systems. Since round bottles are more common than square, most companies avoid this altogether by printing the serialization code directly onto the label while it is still on the label web, rather than onto the bottle itself.  This typically allows for excellent web control and consistency, leading to a more reliable and consistent code—regardless of whether the coding technology is ink-jet or laser ablation.  Other options are printing on the top or bottom of bottles, though real estate can be trickier here.

4. Assess whether your existing coding equipment is serialization-ready.  The trick here is not in the printing of a 2D code, as even printers upwards of eight years old can do that. To be truly serialization-ready, a printer must have two-way communications built in—to be able to receive as well as transmit information, all without impacting existing line speeds. As a general rule of thumb, printers five years old or newer are more likely to be serialization-ready. Some newer laser systems are serialization-ready as well. One gotcha: Continuous ink-jet technology (CIJ) is typically not serialization-capable due to print quality limitations.

5. Pick your coding technology.  Your choices are typically going to be thermal ink-jet (TIJ), laser ablation coding, or some form of print-and-apply. If you are switching away from CIJ, this means you may need to alter some internal processes and factor in some additional training of operational teams. Considerations will include substrate, line speed, material handling, and printer mounting. For TIJ, dry time differences across similar carton stocks can be meaningful. Line speed constraints for laser are a function of substrate, lens size, code size and complexity, product pitch, code orientation, and power requirement. Line speed constraints for TIJ are dependent largely on the chosen resolution. For example, 600x600 codes may limit line speeds to 100 fpm; 300x600 codes may allow a line speed of 200 fpm. Finally, always factor maintenance of the coding system into your decision, as it could have an impact on downtime.

6. Vibration on the line can impact printing (and scanning).  When choosing conveyor components for the transport of bottles across areas of the production line where coding takes place, be on the lookout for potential vibration.

7. Consider cost and maintenance when selecting a coding system. Ask about systems that prevent clogging of nozzles, cleaning off the head, etc.

8. Pick your data carriers.  While pilots with RIFD were popular four to five years ago, the price of the tags never came down to make this data carrier take off at the item level. Many companies are standardizing on 2D DataMatrix codes at the item and case level, and 1D codes at the pallet level.

9. Grade yourself. Failure to grade the barcodes may mean that your goods cannot be read later in the supply chain using traditional scanners.  High-resolution cameras in packaging can often read symbols that will be rejected by hand scanners.  This may not be uncovered until later in the supply chain, resulting in returned goods and the potential for product shortages.

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