Accurate coding is essential to product quality, safety and traceability. The logistics industry is on a continual quest for tighter inventory control, increased traceability and productivity. Rodney Abbott reports
Barcoded labels form the intelligence in today’s fast-moving supply chains – attached to packaged goods they propel them from the manufacturing facility to the retailer’s shelf. In every industry, from automotive to pharmaceutical, barcoded labels are the key to efficiency. A poor barcode can result in product recalls, non-compliance fines, production hold-ups, lost sales and customers, and increased manufacturing costs.
Under pressure from the larger retailers, the packaging industry has spurred equipment manufacturers to higher and higher levels in a bid to nip the problem at its source and coding and marking manufacturers have responded with due diligence.
“The ubiquitous barcode – still the passport for most products in any supply chain – can be reproduced faithfully and consistently, and at a print standard suitable for all downstream barcode scanners,” says Linx Printing Technologies product sales manager Mike Utley. “The Linx IJ600 impulse jet printer is supplied with options for on-line verification and validation of barcodes for those that require it.
“e-centre guidelines Ink jet printing UCC/EAN128 and ITF-14 barcodes on to fibreboard cases, currently applied principally by Tesco and Sainsbury’s, dictate that suppliers should check/validate outer case barcodes immediately after printing and verify according to ISO 15416 at least every eight hours. We are working with our customers to provide solutions to meet those requirements.”
Perhaps there is a need for complementary equipment to optimise the disciplines involved?
Two very different systems are currently available. The first involves package coding management software and the second uses online data validation.
Removing human error
Claricom supplies package coding management software that removes the human error and maximises efficiency in date and traceability coding operations. It has been designed to remove manual operations, eliminate risk, ensure accuracy, flexibility and efficiency, and pay for itself within 12 months.
New to Claricom’s software suite is the CLARiFY package, which is reputed to be particularly useful for operations where product life is determined by factors other than the date of packaging. These could include the ‘wash date’ or ‘cook date’, or where coding rules frequently vary for factors such as concessions or promotions.
“Because of the complexities of product coding, manufacturers often survive on a mix of know-how, intuition and a variety of verbal or written instructions,” says Claricom’s managing director James Butcher. “If the operator is required to work out the life based on, say, the cook date or to make sure they have the right number of days in the month, human error is almost inevitable.”
CLARiFY eliminates human error by providing an intuitive tool for setting coding rules, including nominal date offsets and allowable date code ranges for each product. Additional date rules can be set, such as avoidance dates and day-of-week rules.
It can be used to print out an easy-to-follow visual digest of what the coding information should look like, with an explanation of any variations made by the planning department, and other related instructions, such as the requirement for promotional flash labelling.
A space is also provided for the supervisor to sign-off the production run once the information can be verified, making this an integral part of the quality assurance system.
“Using the same process day-in, day-out, also brings familiarity. It is often the exceptions that cause problems,” explains Butcher. “For example, promotions may account for less than 10% of production but account for over 30% of coding/packaging errors. CLARiFY brings management control to these exceptions and thereby eliminates human error.”
It can also be used in conjunction with a CLARiNET network to provide automatic communication of coding information to the leading brands of coding and labelling equipment, and integrated packaging inspection and barcode validation.
Meanwhile, Printronix has developed a device that makes it possible to verify data on-line, rather than rely on intermittent off-line sampling, subject to the supermarkets accepting the device as being adequate for the purpose of verification.
The thermal bar-coding solution includes a data manager and closed-loop quality control system to monitor the bar coding process. The data manager has been designed to minimise costs associated with barcode scanning and data accuracy failures.
Online data validation ensures scanners can properly read a barcode by validating the print quality of linear and PDF417 barcodes. It features read-after-print technology that carefully analyses every printed barcode to ensure that it meets stringent compliance standards. If a label does not pass the validation check, it is fed back into the printer, voided and then reprinted and revalidated.
The justification for such systems will only be realised with their mass adoption by the supermarkets and large retailers. James Butcher confirms that CLARiFY was developed in consultation with leading retailers and a number of them are actively working with Claricom to promote the software to suppliers.
Meanwhile, marketing communications manager of Prontronix Anne Sharp says: “ODV has a proven track record in improving bar code scan rates; one major retailer reported a 48% improvement over an eight month period, greatly reducing label, maintenance and labour costs.”
APPLYING THE FARM CODE
“There is less than three months to go before new egg legislation becomes a legal requirement,” says Domino UK marketing manager Sandra Cousins, who has taken a close look at the new egg legislation and the effect it will have on UK farmers.
On 1 January 2004 new legislation was brought into practice that will facilitate the traceability of all eggs marketed for human consumption. All production sites must register by the end of May this year and will be allocated an identifying number. The farming method falls into four categories – organic, coded as ; free range, coded as à; barn, coded as á; and cage, coded as â. A country of origin code and the producer identification number also have to be printed. An explanation of the codes has to be printed somewhere on the egg box too.
A number of meetings organised by the National Farmers’ Union took place in the autumn of last year where several ink jet printer manufacturers were invited to share their views and opinions on the best way forward for producers.
Following these meetings the NFU chose two partners – Domino was chosen to support producers with 10 000 birds or more and Rational Labelling was selected to provide for the smaller sized operations.
Domino advises larger concerns that the fully integrated A200 coder is the best candidate to provide seamless integration with current systems. Designed to become a ‘slave’ to the machinery already used in egg production, the systems are compliant with most egg graders. This includes self-cleaning print heads and a nozzle-sealing feature that offers reliability for stop/start operations.
The A200 egg coder print head also accommodates up to four lines of print, more than enough to cope with the new requirements and the existing best before dates and Lion mark. Domino also manufactures inks that are specifically designed for egg coding. Its 445RD ink has a two second drying time and will stay on even when eggs are boiled.
Other CIJ printers, such as the new Linx 6800EC, have been specifically designed with egg producers and packers in mind. The equipment was developed out of Linx’s experience as the leading CIJ printer supplier to the Dutch egg trade which already prints identification codes onto eggs destined for export. It was designed to tolerate short runs and varying egg shell textures, and can cope with variations in temperature and humidity. Up to three lines of text or logos are also options.
Easy integration is a theme Linx also extols. “Producers of all sizes see the significant advantages offered by the Linx 6800EC because it can be easily installed onto all existing grading lines that we have seen to date – Moba, Staalkatt and older Ben Nevis graders,” says product manager Roger James.
Videojet is able to offer high-end solutions, too, and again dedicated software enables Videojet printers to be integrated into all the major grading systems including Moba, Staalkat, Diamond and Ben Nevis.
The company is able to interface its equipment with reading, verification and camera-based systems and the recent acquisition of Accu-Sort by Videojet’s parent company, the Danaher Corporation, is said to herald a new era in on-line product coding and identification.
Accu-Sort makes fixed-position line and omni-directional laser barcode and 2D scanning equipment which offers high quality barcode scanning, OCR, dimensioning and image capture.