Improvements In Carton Feeding And Coding

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Traditionally, lot Numbers and expiry codes or dates that appear on cartons have been considered as an add-on to the cartoning process rather than an essential element in their own right.

Traditionally, lot Numbers (containing details of when manufactured etc) and expiry codes or dates (time by which the product has to be used) that appear on cartons have been considered as an add-on to the cartoning process rather than an essential element in their own right. This is because coding was previously a separate function that took place after the carton was filled. Today, increasing regulation has placed more emphasis on codes being right in order to provide accurate traceability. This can be better achieved if they are part of a continuous process.

Harry Thomason. Managing Director, Travtec Group.Today, the need for effective traceability throughout the supply chain, driven by regulatory changes and the increasing prevalence of counterfeit products, has created a demand for real-time printing of serialised information. This need has changed how the product is presented to the coding equipment because cartons need to be more carefully controlled to ensure that printing is legible and readable (particularly for the scanning of barcodes). As such, the coding station integrated into the line must be able to control the product’s transit for printing, vision inspection and rejection of any print faults.

In today’s competitive market, budgets are always being stretched so manufacturers have to consider new investments very carefully. One of the major factors when selecting new coding and feeding equipment is ease of integration into packaging lines. In particular, equipment must have the ability to be installed quickly and validated off-line to ensure minimum downtime during installation. Size is another important consideration because factory space is always at a premium, particularly for existing lines, which has led to the design of compact units. Other factors to consider when investing in new equipment include:

  • Printers need to be of a suitably high resolution for the types of codes required (often 2D Data Matrix) and should have serialisation capability.
  • Feeding equipment must provide total control of the product to ensure a smooth transit during the printing and inspection process.
  • Equipment must have the ability to be validated off-line to ensure minimum downtime during installation.
  • Full integration with networks, vision systems and mechanical handling systems is essential.

The coding process must form part of a fully integrated system.

Track and trace

Track and trace requirements have led to the development and introduction of more sophisticated code types. 2D Data Matrix codes can contain much more information compared with conventional EAN 128 versions, and can also be more easily included on primary packs or labels, as well as outer cases. In many instances, different information is required at different points during distribution; for instance, the transport company will need to ensure that they have the correct number of packs for delivery, while the pharmacist will want to know that they have the correct drugs. For storage purposes, the date of manufacture and use-by date are also important. The growing prevalence of 2D Data Matrix codes means that equipment must be capable of high resolution printing to ensure that the codes can be successfully scanned. Equipment must also allow full integration into networks.

2D Data Matix codes need to be produced with a print resolution of at least 600dpi.Today, there is less focus on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) as a track and trace solution, even though it was initially seen as a breakthrough technology in this area. While RFID does have many advantages, the high cost (when compared with other track and trace solutions such as 2D Datamatrix), lack of standards and unaddressed privacy concerns mean that it is not yet ready for use. However, any 2D system based on the GS1 standard should allow upgrade to RFID in the future once these issues have been addressed.

One of the major drivers for future innovations is the need to develop ever-more sophisticated systems to beat the counterfeiters. The number of counterfeit drugs being sold through the internet and, more worryingly, in traditional supply chains, is increasing. Pharma companies now use all types of covert and overt anti-counterfeit technologies on their packaging, including holograms and serialised codes, as well as innovations in ink types, such as DNA taggants and colour shifting inks. All of these solutions, however, present new challenges for equipment manufacturers, who must ensure that their systems can cope with the latest innovations and ever-evolving global standards.