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Finding the right fit: Coding & marking for craft breweries

What does a craft brewer need to keep in mind where marking and coding are concerned? It’s an important question for both primary and secondary packaging.

Figure 1—Source: Diagraph Marking & Coding
Figure 1—Source: Diagraph Marking & Coding

As the craft brewing industry continues to capture increased market share, the pressure for increased production volume creates the envious complication of navigating new coding and marking challenges. Though there is a logistical need to meet lot and batch tracing requirements (and often to comply with Brewer Association recommendations for packaging or “best by” date labeling), craft brewers are eager to keep their time and financial resources focused on the delicious brews they are passionate about. This means ideal marking and coding solutions need to be cost-effective, reliable, and low-maintenance.

Given the wide range of available technologies, how can craft brewers identify coding and marking technology best suited to meet their unique needs? Here is a list of key considerations for craft brewers to keep in mind when considering available options.

Supplier considerations
Craft brewers are often eager to grow at a pace that is aggressive but allows them to maintain top quality. A key component in this is to identify a coding and marking supplier well-equipped to meet their unique coding and marking needs. When starting out, craft brewers do not need massive systems designed for more industrial, ultra-high volume beverage corporations. But neither do they want to be boxed in or limited by basic technologies that will not grow alongside their business. Instead, they need highly scalable technologies that can adapt and grow as production expands. To find just the right fit, craft brewers need to identify a supplier that offers the following characteristics.

Wide technology offering—Identifying a supplier with a wide technology offering including CIJ (continuous ink-jet), laser, carton coding, and labeling solutions can help ensure that craft brewers find the best possible system for their unique needs. A supplier familiar with all of these technologies can speak honestly about the pros and cons of each with a focus on finding the best technology for each unique brewer. Also, a supplier that can provide quality coding and marking solutions for both primary and secondary packaging can simplify operations by providing a single point of contact.

Price tag transparency—To avoid costly surprises, don’t be seduced by low sticker prices. A little extra time invested up front in studying features included and excluded can save a great deal of time and expense down the road. Key performance features to look for are presented in more detail below. However, “hidden” costs often include sensors for labeling technologies and print heads for ink-jet systems. Labeling technologies often require sensors that indicate when labels are running low, when a label is present, and what height a package is for proper operation. Each of these three sensors can easily add $300 to $500 to a price tag, raising the actual cost by as much as $1,500. When comparing ink-jet systems for carton coding, the lifespan of an ink-jet print head can vary from three months to 10 years. Making sure you select an ink-jet system with a durable, repairable print head can lead to significant cost savings.

Automation & integration support—As a craft brewer grows, increased production requires a shift to automated filling and packaging lines. In addition to selecting coding and marking equipment, the craft brewer will need to install and integrate various material handling technologies such as conveyor belts and unscrambling tables. In order to keep precious time and resources focused on quality beer, it is extremely helpful to find a coding system supplier that can cost-effectively serve as project manager in getting your automated lines up and running. Such a supplier can provide you with a number of technology options within your budget range and take care of installation, integration, and training to leave you with a fully automated line.

Strong service support—For many growing craft brewers, a coding and marking system is the first industrial printer they have purchased. Unlike common desktop printers that users are familiar with, these printers will require regular maintenance to avoid costly downtime. When comparing technology options look for technologies that offer market-leading durability and reliability as well as suppliers that offer cost-effective national service support. Check to see if the technology is designed to allow you to quickly and easily do regular maintenance yourself to save time and money. Also make sure your supplier is available to provide regular (typically every 18 months) product service and emergency support to avoid downtime in case you have any production issues.

Primary packaging considerations
Different printers are needed for printing on your primary package (bottle or can) compared to your secondary package (outer carton or case). Continuous ink-jet (CIJ) and laser are the most common options for printing text, graphics, barcodes, QR codes and other codes onto primary beverage packages. The points below can help a craft brewer identify the technology that best suits its unique needs.

Package type—When selecting a coding system for your primary packaging, the first step is to consider what type of material you will be printing on. Keeping in mind that you can reasonably expect the printer to last five to seven years, what types of packages are you using now and do you plan to use in the years ahead? Bottles can be coded with either laser or CIJ systems. Cans are coded with CIJ technology. This means that a craft brewer who wants to be able to code on both cans and bottles will need a CIJ system.

Production volume—At what volume of production does automated coding become more cost effective than manual coding of beverage packages? Assuming that manual application involves table-top printing directly onto a label before applying and that automated costs include up-front capital as well as daily consumables and parts/service, the answer is when daily production reaches roughly 4,500 units for CIJ and approximately 6,000 units for laser. (Figure 1.)

Features to look for in a CIJ printer—There are a number of quality CIJ technologies available that offer reliable, high-quality printing onto both bottles and cans. When comparing systems, it’s helpful for a craft brewer to look for these features:

Downtime Figures—To quickly grasp which CIJ systems are truly the most durable, compare how frequently the print heads (the part of the printer with the most wear and tear) need to be cleaned. Some systems feature print heads that need to be cleaned as often as once or twice a week. Other more durable technologies can be cleaned as little as once per quarter. A system with a more robust print head can generate as much as $900 in annual savings in labor costs alone in addition to saving precious production time.

Warning Window—Systems that provide only one-hour notice when ink is running low require an operator to check the supply at least once an hour or risk running out of ink and losing valuable time to recode. Quality systems should provide as much as eight hours notice before the fluids need to be replaced. Even one hour of a coder running with no ink could cost roughly $375 in lost production.

Service & Maintenance Costs—In addition to finding a provider with quality national technical support, finding a technology designed for easy self-maintenance can generate significant time and cost savings. Make sure that all of the system´s critical service parts are in one place and that there is a simple digital guide to walk the operator through an easy update of this self-service module.

Features to look for in a laser printer—Craft brewers who plan to code exclusively onto glass bottles can consider laser technology to print onto the bottle or label. Though these systems require a larger upfront investment, the elimination of a need for inks and solvents does generate savings. Maintenance is often simpler than that of a CIJ system. When comparing systems, be sure to consider:

Durability—Laser tubes are the component of a laser system that have the greatest impact on durability. Tubes that can operate at lower intensity will have a longer life. A quality system should offer a laser tube life of at least five years. Another key durability factor to consider is the tube enclosure. Enclosures made out of stainless steel will be significantly more durable than those made of plastic.

User Interface—As breweries grow, they often face a need to more frequently change and edit messages and laser settings. Make sure the user interface is well-designed to make this a simple process.

Secondary packaging considerations
Standard corrugated or white cases are the most typical secondary packaging options. Ink-jet can be used to print readable barcodes, graphics, and text directly onto a case at about eight to ten times less cost than labels. Labels are more expensive but require less daily maintenance than ink-jet and provide a nice white background for crisp printing contrast. To select the best technology for your brewery, consider the following points.

Package typeFigure 3 illustrates the cost difference between plain brown kraft cases and white cases printed with either ink-jet or automated labels. Pre-printed cases are also an option, but given the significant storage space they require and the lack of flexibility they provide a growing brewery, they are not often a good long-term solution.

Production volumeFigure 2 compares the cost per day of manually applied labels, print-and-apply label application, and piezo ink-jet printing for secondary packaging. At roughly 3,000 cases per day, ink-jet printing becomes more cost effective than manual label application. At roughly 6,000 cases per day, print-and-apply label application becomes more cost effective than manual label application (though still more costly than ink-jet).

Features to look for in print-and-apply labelers—There are significant differences between pneumatic and electric print-and-apply systems. Be sure to consider the following:

Reduced chance for damage—Electric systems use up to 80% less force than traditional pneumatic technologies and are therefore less likely to tip or to damage packages. Look for systems where both the impact and continuous force measurements are between 2 and 3 kilograms and where “contact time” is no higher than 30 milliseconds.

Consistent label application—Print-and-apply labelers fail in situations where no label is applied, when the label is applied in the wrong location, or when labels are applied out of sequence. To ensure these errors do not occur, look for systems that have sensors to detect label presence and location. In general, the way labels are applied via an electric print-and-apply ensures 30% greater label transferability compared to pneumatic systems.

Less downtime and simplified maintenance—Selecting an electric rather than pneumatic print-and-apply eliminates the need for shop air, reducing cost by as much as 50% and downtime by as much as 20%.

Features to look for in piezo ink-jet printer—Ink-jet is the most cost-effective option for secondary package coding. When comparing systems it is essential to consider:

Low Maintenance & Durability—Identify a system with stainless steel construction, shock-resistance, and automatic maintenance modules to maintain the quality of print automatically while minimizing the need for manual intervention. These features can allow a print head to work for as long as 10 years (compared to systems where the print head needs to be replaced every three months). Maintenance can be further simplified if the selected system has a single-point ink supply that can drive multiple print heads. This greatly reduces downtime and simplifies the fluid refill process as it is not necessary to monitor and maintain individual ink supplies.

Ease of Use—Quality ink-jet systems will allow for on-floor or in-office editing capabilities to simplify production updates. Operation can be done on a touch screen or personal PC. The latter eliminates the need for a separate controller and generates cost savings.

It’s an exciting time when a brewer gains traction with a carefully crafted product. Finding the right marking and coding supplier and paying attention to key performance characteristics for primary and secondary package printing technologies can smooth the transition to automated production and allow a craft brewer to keep time and resources focused on making the best beer. ●

This story was adapted from a White Paper developed by Diagraph Marking & Coding (www.diagraph.com).

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