Other Voices: Mark it up

Forward thinking suppliers are saving time, space and costs by adopting more efficient ways to mark and code packing cases

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Editor’s Note: The following column by Scott Prochaskais, business unit manager, large character marking for Videojet Technologies , is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series, published on Wednesdays, features ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

In to*day’s fast moving production environment, one thing that has remained constant is the need for manufacturers and distributors to case their goods and to have the appropriate markings and labels on those cases. In the past, using pre-printed boxes and labels have pretty much satisfied that need.

In recent years many companies have dramatically expanded their SKUs, meeting regional requirements, or product specialization. As a result, marking requirements on cases for identification and tracking have increased. Many firms are now implementing more flexible strategies and solutions that help reduce costs and maximize space utilization by reducing or eliminating the proliferation of pre-printed boxes and labels.

One such strategy is the adoption of in-line variable printing on cases at their factories, using high resolution case coders.  These industry-proven solutions can reduce stored inventory by a factor of ten, while providing greater flexibility and reducing operational and planning complexity.

Traditional marking and coding is inefficient

Pre-printed cases using flexographic and offset printing technologies have been widely used for many years.  These are typically printed in large batches with each case in the batch containing the same fixed information, such as brand, logo and product name, for example.  Variable data, which might include the production date, lot number and sometimes a list of ingredients, must be added at the end of the packaging line using self-adhesive labels, case coders, hot stamps or a combination of these options.

With increasing SKUs, the true cost for handling and storing various types of pre-printed cases, plus keeping them organized, monitoring usage and adding the variable information downstream can be surprisingly high in terms of time, labor and space. And, if a product is discontinued or a shipping code or ingredient should change, there can also be waste if obsolete cartons are discarded.

Using pre-printed and on-demand printed labels to identify and track shipping cases is similarly inefficient and time-consuming.  With pre-printed labels, each SKU is assigned a self-adhesive label printed with whatever fixed information is required. The labels are then applied to cases manually or with a label applicator. Any variable information needed, such as a date or lot number, is applied later using a stamp.  Firms using on-demand label printing systems can print labels offline via a stored label file assigned to each SKU, or can print and apply them in a single step using an automated in-line labeling system. 

While adequately meeting the case identification requirements, the use of pre-printed cartons and pre-printed or on-demand labels require multiple steps and can be cumbersome, time-consuming and costly to maintain. Both methods also involve maintaining and storing of inventories, and labeling systems involve the purchase and maintenance of hardware and the added cost of keeping supplies of self-adhesive labels in stock.

There is, however, an attractive option for companies looking to reduce costs, increase uptime, and add flexibility to their shipping processes?and that is direct in-line printing of corrugated cases and cartons.

Direct case coding makes business sense
Today’s high resolution, in-line ink jet carton and case coders are designed to streamline and simplify compliance with marking and coding requirements. These compact units can print high quality information?including logos, bar codes and text?reliably, at production line speeds and with variable information on each case.

A typical system consists of two to six high resolution (150 dpi or more) case coders, networked together. The number of coders depends on the height of the information printed and whether the box is printed on one or two sides. For most systems, a common height is 50-70mm (2.0-2.8 inches).

Because they are digital printers, the fixed and variable data can be printed at the same time.  In-line coding provides enormous flexibility, because data and messages can be quickly created, changed and stored for immediate or future use, so product changeovers on the production line are fast and easy.

For manufacturers and suppliers, the benefits of in-line ink jet case coding include dramatic reductions in case and label inventories, elimination of waste, reduced need for storage space, improved productivity and increased flexibility and uptime. 

Companies today are constantly challenged by changing regulations and the need to cut costs and increase agility. Migrating to a direct coding methodology for product identification and tracking is one effective way to cope with these challenges.  One company having 40 types of pre-printed corrugated cases (SKUs) and two different case sizes adopted direct in-line coding and calculated a direct savings of almost $40,000 per year?a nice return on investment on any company’s balance sheet.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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