Software-based printers raise quality and reduce labeling waste.
A medical packager thought that packaging costs for its cardiovascular devices for bypass surgery were too high. The company discovered that one source of the high costs lay in the label printing, which involved using inked printing plates. At the 1996 Pack Expo in Chicago, it began to look for solutions. "The problem is that we have over 600 different product codes," says a company packaging engineer. "Every time we did a change, we had to switch the title plate. We were spending upwards of $150,000 to $200,000 per year on print plates. We wanted to find a better way to print on the Tyvek® [brand spunbonded olefin] side of the package. We wanted something programmable."
The company had tired to switch to a different kind of printer, but it was not compatible with the Tyvek. Then it considered ink-jet printers, but those could not print small enough for the packages' needs. The type tended to bleed when the printer was set to a six-point font, the smallest type size the company uses.
The company then considered thermal-transfer printing. The printers were flexible enough to print in a variety of type sizes, they were programmable, and they did not damage the Tyvek. "With the capital investment required, we wanted to do it right," a company spokesperson says. The company looked at several suppliers and decided to go with The Bell-Mark Sales Co. (Pine Brook, NJ).
"Bell-Mark's EasyPrint was chosen because of ease of use and price," the spokesperson says. "The system had software that we felt would be the easiest[to use] for training our operators." Using the Bell-Mark Design software, the company could store in a central database the labeling information for all its products, using all the required languages. This eliminated the need to create a separate for each product. "We created a label template for each size pouch, of which we have eight," says the spokesperson. "For basic template, you pick a part number and pull the product information from an Access database into the label." Another advantage, the company spokesperson says, is that the printer has a 5-in. head, and the webs for the company's form-fill-seal lines are 13 in., so two printers can run on the web simultaneously. One prints the logo, lot number, and expiration date, the other the product code and descriptions in multiple languages.
The company has two form-fill-seal lines and runs two shifts per day. The first line received the new system in February 1998, the second in April. " We're giving this printer system the biggest workout it's ever had," the spokesperson says. The new printers have already saved the company more than $10,000 a month by eliminating the need to buy new plates, of which three per pouch were originally required. "And when we get a new product, we just type the product information into the database," he says.
Setup is cleaner and about 10% faster using the new printers. Shutdown time has been drastically reduced because cleaning the ink off the plates and printers is no longer required. Print quality has also improved. "It was very good before, but sometimes the ink would appear gray or smeared," he says. "Now, we have nice, sharp black print and greater flexibility in changing the print." And the new EasyPrint system has made it much easier for the company to comply with European regulations, which could force device labeling to contain as many as 13 languages.
"We'll soon have to update the number of languages on the packages again, and the software will make it a lot easier," a company spokesperson says.