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Coded up right

01 June 2015

Can savings be made with new labelling technology, and should manufacturers be looking to increase their automation in this vital but often overlooked area of the processing line?

The amount of information legally required to appear on food labels in the UK is increasing, thanks to the recent EU FIC 1169/2011. Labels must include the name of the product; all ingredients within the product, and the 14 EU allergens should be declared explicitly in the ingredients declaration; nutritional information; medicinal or nutritional claims; use-by dates or best-before dates; storage conditions; business name and address; place of origin; instruction for use; batch identifier; food additives and standard specification. In addition, the label must be legible and easy to read as well as written in English, while the product name, date mark, estimated net weight or quantity and alcohol strength (if applicable) must all be in the same field of vision. 

And of course, the label must be suitable for the product it’s placed upon, as well as reflecting the brand name and look attractive to consumers on the shelf. 

For food suppliers looking to improve their cost savings, there are ways to become both more flexible and save money when it comes to their labelling technology. With an increasing need for product variety such as pack sizes, multi-functional and flexible equipment is hotly in demand, especially if it can be reconfigured easily and quickly. 

“Single use systems built for a specific application to perform a set task are becoming increasingly redundant, while coding and labelling equipment that can easily be reprogrammed and redeployed to do a variety of jobs is becoming a prerequisite,” says Martin Bailey, UK Operations Manager at Markem-Image, manufacturer of product identification and traceability solutions. “In the long-term, this will negate the need for purchasing more, or replacing outmoded printers and reduce costs for processors.”

While some areas of food manufacturing processes are well automated, such as palletising, other stages of the manufacturing process are not. “Updating coders and labellers as part of a drive to create automated and integrated packing plants can help food producers and contract packers to improve their efficiency,” explains Bailey. “Introducing networked software and barcode validation and verification systems can link print messages to a centrally managed database, giving processors and packers the ability to design, store and easily retrieve large volumes of data, removing the need to reset coding equipment manually.”

Fewer manual complaints
Reducing the labour-intensive processes involved in labelling is a key drive for labelling companies like Advanced Dynamics. “Traditionally, food and beverage manufacturers have been reluctant converts to automated production processes for fear of impacting on their artisan status or the perception that it would take a significant hit on the capital budget,” says Malcolm Little, Managing Director, Advanced Dynamics, a supplier of fully integrated and bespoke feeding systems, labelling equipment and wrapping machinery. “This means manual resources are being used for repetitive and time-consuming processes such as screwing on bottle tops or caps, labelling products and filling lines with tubs and pots.” Such repetitive actions of course leave companies wide open to employees who suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), which costs British businesses around £300 million a year in lost working hours, sick pay and administration. 

Capping machines, for example, can reduce the strain on the operator, boost production by capping bottles at speeds of around 40 per minute, and guarantee accurate tightness levels, allowing staff to be deployed for more productive tasks. Pot dippers are another innovative piece of innovative technology that allow containers to be accurately placed in a line, thereby minimising any interruption to production that can be caused by pots being damaged or out of position.

And of course, adhesive labels must be applied correctly so as to not compromise the presentation quality and critical message to consumers, while keeping up a high level of speed to enhance market presence. “Label applicators anticipate and avoid adhesive issues such as wrinkling, skewing and frayed edges,” says Little. “These faults can delay production, cost money and ultimately lead to waste for the manufacturer. They can also lead to presentation issues that could harm a brand’s integrity. There are exceptionally accurate and robust, fully automated label applicators on the market for a variety of container sizes, cartons and bottle shapes, whether glass or plastic, that can reliably label the full range of package configurations to suit individual budgets, operating conditions and product characteristics. Almost anyone can dispense a label on a carton or bottle shape, but applying adhesive labels in exactly the same position on each container during a production run involving thousands of products requires specialised equipment.”

Total cost of ownership
Reducing the total cost of ownership is one area where food and drink companies can look to improve their coding and labelling equipment. “It’s not solely about getting a good deal on the initial purchase,” says Bailey. “Investing in equipment that integrates with the automation process, reduces downtime while increasing line speeds and makes more efficient use of consumables such as inks and ribbons are also important.”

In addition to reducing costs, automating the manufacturing, packing and filling processes improves quality, prevents waste and optimises not just energy but also water and ink use. “In a relatively high cost UK economy, this kind of automation will reduce the cost of making a product and consequently increase a food manufacturer’s margins,” adds Bailey. “For processors concerned with initial capital expenditure, finance options are an alternative option and should be explored to help secure increased automation and desired level of efficiency, while managing total cost of ownership.”

Lean coding
Increasing automation in all areas of production can help companies to achieve Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and thus make a valuable contribution to lean manufacturing. “Lean manufacturing is about maximising value and minimising waste,” says Charles Randon, Senior Product Manager at Linx Printing Technologies, a supplier of coding, marking and industrial printing solutions. “A lean company constantly focuses on the value of what it does for its customers, mapping its processes across its business to incorporate everything from the initial order to the final delivery of a product. Using this method, companies are able to identify and minimise the things that do not add value to their operation.”

Any company focusing on OEE embraces lean principles. “OEE aims to reduce or eliminate the six big losses that cause inefficiency in manufacturing,” continues Randon. “These are breakdowns; setup and adjustment; small stops; reduced speed; start-up rejects and production rejects. And these are the sort of wastes that lean manufacturing seeks to minimise.

So what does this have to do with coding and labelling? Because coding of products is usually a legislative requirement - for batch traceability, best-before and use-by dates and companies’ own tracking system – coding is seen as a necessity rather than something that adds value to the production process. And over the years, coding solutions providers have changed, adapted and enhanced their equipment to support lean principles and improve OEE. 

“For example, there have been coding equipment innovations to reduce waiting time,” says Randon. “These include longer intervals between scheduled maintenance and easier maintenance procedures such as self-servicing, mistake-proof consumables changes and simple washdown designs. Product changeovers therefore have been made quicker and there are fewer mistakes, thanks to more companies embracing variable digital coding, and to suppliers who are continually innovating to produce more effective coding technologies; for example coders that can store multiple line settings, have increased memory storage and allow changes at the touch of a button.”

Touchscreen user interfaces and on-screen help have helped code creation to become more intuitive and mistake-proof, while differing editing capabilities can be set for different users and setup can be both accessed and controlled remotely. And flexible modern coding equipment improvements including minimal start-up procedures, coders that can be available for more than one type of application and coders that can be easily transported to where they are needed mean that there is less of a need to fit processes around the coders.

“Beyond the benefits of integrating coders and labellers in a wider automated process, investing in the latest advanced equipment will reduce line downtime and support higher processing speeds, which is a worthwhile endeavour in itself if a processor is not capable of full equipment integration,” explains Bailey. “Improving OEE, lowering the cost of ownership and generally improving operating practices are all easily achievable with the right equipment. The added value is a lower number of product recalls and improved customer relationships brought about by better reliability. Investing in new printers presents a significant opportunity for food and drink businesses and should be a continuing consideration as they develop business strategies over the coming years.”

And according to Randon, these developments are already generating results: “From our own customer base, for example, the move from labelling to digital coding at a fruit and vegetable packaging operation increased their throughput from 300 to 1,000 units per day. And a pet food manufacturer doubled their output by using coding to apply more data to the pack, which speeded up product changeovers, reduced pack inventory and enabled the company to run on-pack promotions for even greater added value.”

From legislation to consumer information, containers and packaging must carry a wealth of information, as well of course as marketing and sometimes promotional considerations. And this information is often greatly dependent on the container and its contents.

As an example, a can of baked beans will normally have a full wraparound paper label, which is applied to the can using a single strip of hot-melt adhesive to glue the leading and trailing edge of the label together. This type of label leads itself particularly well to marketing campaigns such as back-of-the-label promotions with special offers or competitions, as the label is wrapped tightly around the can. This type of labelling system would similarly be appropriate for plastic soft drinks bottles containing either still or carbonated liquids. In some cases, the labelling material would differ depending on both the brand and product, with either the previously mentioned paper label which is normally produced in a pre-cut form traditionally known as ‘cut-and-stack’ or alternatively it could be, and more often is, a plastic label especially for carbonated products which is supplied from the converter in a reel form. 

“It would be unthinkable to purchase a brand-leading bottle of spirits in an expensive glass container with a full wraparound plastic label,” says Mark Heath, Sales Director at Krones UK, a manufacturer of machines and complete lines for process, filling and packaging technology. “Labelling is really important to marketing and product innovation departments, who are constantly evaluating their competition and endeavouring to stay one step ahead by ensuring that their product labelling meets certain criteria.”

That criteria includes consumer information; brand awareness; on-shelf appeal; product identification; suitable for rebranding and marketing campaigns; product differentiation and the latest legislative requirements. Continuing with the example of the spirits bottle, it would usually be dressed with paper ‘patch’ labels that are applied with either wet glue when the labels are supplied in a pre-cut form, or self-adhesive types with the labels supplied on a silicon-based web to facilitate the transfer from the reel to the bottle with a suitable labelling unit.

“Food and drink producers must consider all these options when redesigning their brands, or introducing new products to the market,” says Heath. “They should also take into consideration the suitability of their existing labelling equipment. These branding redesign exercises often inevitably result in the requirement to purchase completely new labelling machinery which has the necessary capability, flexibility and future-proofing to fulfil the current, immediate and longer-term future of the company’s brand and image.”

Improving quality
“By tapping into the latest technologies, production processes and methods related to automation, food manufacturers can reduce the risk of injury to staff, boost productivity and maximise profits to ensure their future sustainability in an increasingly discerning marketplace,” says Little.

Heath agrees. “Increasing the level of automation within any labelling machinery capabilities will lead to improvements in quality, fewer defects, faster processing speeds, increased productivity and a higher consistency of target output speeds, with the result being reduced operating costs. Investment into new machinery will also give rise to higher overall efficiencies, an increase in quality and a highly favourable impact on environmental issues such as air consumption and energy savings. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there will be improvements in the overall working environment, health and safety, ergonomics, accessibility and operator friendliness.”

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