Top Tips for Better Print and Apply Coding

By Mike Kirk, Print and Apply Product Marketing Manager at Markem-Imaje

Print and apply (P&A) coding is extremely popular for two reasons. First, it accommodates the widest range of materials and shapes, since the product surface is largely inconsequential when using labels. In fact, apart from offline label tag solutions, where you put a printed card on the pallet strap, P&A is the only other reliable method for coding pallets. Second, it provides the highest and most reliable quality printing of all available technologies, including “A” grade compliant barcodes.

This is because, in P&A, the print itself can be tightly controlled. By melting a coating of a ribbon, the desired content is transferred onto a label of a known size, quality and orientation. The label is then applied to the packaging.

So, what can manufacturers do to ensure that they get the most out of this technology?

Maximizing efficiency and throughput

While the widely adopted standard length for labels and ribbons is 450 meters (1,476 feet), sizes vary. Selecting ones of 660 m (2,165 ft) has been shown to reduce stoppages by 45 percent. They are also a good compromise of size versus safety in terms of operators lifting the rolls.

In direct thermal P&A, using a lighter thermal transfer label enables companies to deploy 800 m (2, 625 ft) rolls, for even greater benefits, while still being safe to use.

Adopting matched length rolls also cut downtime, as only one stop, per pair of consumables, is needed for replenishment.

Roll length aside, feeding labels via the wide edge will deliver more labels for a given roll length. For example, consider a 2 x 4-inch label. A narrow-leading label provides one label every four inches (101.6 mm), plus the small gap between labels. Wide-edge leading labels give you almost twice as many labels – one label every two inches – resulting in fewer changeovers as lines can run twice as long before the consumables need changing.

Even 100 percent coding-related uptime is achievable, assuming system linkage is possible. When one printer undergoes any media change, corrective action or basic maintenance activity, the other steps in. However, there must be an intelligent link between the two printers so that the handover happens seamlessly, without a third-party controller, PLC or complex wiring. If the latter are needed, the extra hardware or installation costs could outweigh the benefits.

A watch-out when dealing with shrink-wrapped items.

Such products, e.g. beverage six-packs, often come out of packaging machinery with the short edge of the tray to the side. This edge has what is known as a ‘bullseye’: an area insufficiently covered by the wrap. If manufacturers apply a label to the side as it comes down the line, they risk putting it through the bullseye and onto the inner product. To prevent this, manufacturers have needed to find the space, and the funds, to turn the trays as they come down the line. Modern, flexible applicators, however, can adjust to put the label on the front. This avoids the bullseye without turning the trays, and avoids lowering throughput, since re-orientating the cases is no longer required.

Meeting increased demand for GS1-128 barcodes

A rise in pallet-splitting, greater automation and high-profile recalls is driving demand from grocery, foodservice and healthcare companies for GS1-128 barcodes. These barcodes streamline traceability given the extra information they can encode. GS1-128 advises providing the barcode on more than one side to ensure there is at least one readable label, should one become damaged.

Until recently, a barrier to GS1-128 barcode adoption had been that applying labels to more than one side of a case at high speed meant rotating the cases and a gap of over 400mm (16 inches) between each. This required costly pack-turning devices, product separators, line speed reductions and/or lengthening of existing lines.  Equipment that pushes cases into different positions can lead to case or content damage, while line lengthening typically costs US$ 20,000 – 40,000 per line. It is often not feasible for small to medium companies, whose capital resources cannot stretch that far, and/or in space-constrained areas.

Technology in the form of flexible applicators now exists where labels can now be put onto the front and/or side of a case without turning the pack.

Improving sustainability

Given the label backing and ribbon waste generated by P&A, some have questioned its future given increased sensitivity to the environmental aspects of production and distribution.

Growth in P&A remains healthy. Indeed, independent reports continue to predict global growth of 3-5 percent including in the western, ‘more environmentally-aware markets.’

In our experience, companies are happy to discuss reduction of consumption and waste, but not at any cost.  So, while it may be true that P&A growth is being reined in by environmental concerns, there is a noticeable shift to more sustainable variants of the technology.

In the past manufacturers thought little of using unmatched rolls and ribbons and, rather than stopping their lines twice to replace each consumable, would throw away the excess. Increasingly, they see the value of using rolls and ribbons of a matched length to eliminate such waste, as well as to enjoy the uptime-enhancing benefits mentioned earlier.

Additionally, they are turning to ribbons with back coatings that increase the life of printheads and cut rework, by reducing spotting and streaking, versus non-coated base layers. Coated ribbons deliver these benefits by reducing the build-up of electrostatic which damages components, and by preventing dust from migrating onto the ribbon. This means less hardware goes to landfill, and waste from scrapped, poor quality prints is minimized.

Manufacturers are also turning towards recyclable label liners and, before purchase, are asking about the recyclability of the hardware at the end of its lifecycle. It is possible to find equipment which is over 95% recyclable.

Another way to be more sustainable is to look for machines that are efficient in terms of power and air usage, but which don’t sacrifice performance.

Conclusion

P&A is a fundamental staple of package coding but, even with a technology as prevalent as this one, there are still many ways to improve efficiency and sustainability.

About the Author

Mike Kirk is the print and apply product marketing manager at Markem-Imaje. With over 30 years’ experience in the industry, in various technical commercial and marketing roles, he specializes in developing GS1 compliant case and pallet labelling solutions for manufacturers who want to reduce downtime and increase production capacity.