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SPECIAL REPORT: Coding and marking packaging

The choice of coding and marking solutions is being driven by four major stakeholders.

While Europe was gripped by football fever in the build up to the Euro 2012 tournament, major drinks brands were devising innovative campaigns aimed at tapping into the excitement. One leading soft drinks manufacturer put QR codes on millions of its cans and bottles in Spain, which, when scanned took users to exclusive tournament videos and the brand’s social networking app.

This digital marketing campaign is just one example of how the many uses of coding, marking and labelling technology by key stakeholders – including brand owners, manufacturers, retailers and consumers – have evolved over the past decade.

Whereas product coding was once primarily about printing ’sell by‘ dates on foodstuffs, it is now an essential element of supply chain management for retailers. Furthermore, it is swiftly becoming - via the use of QR codes and smartphone scanners - a tool for brands to interact, both with and for consumers to find out more information on the products they buy.

Coding and marking technology
A wide variety of coding and marking solutions are available today, including ink jet printers and scribing lasers which are used to code bottles, cans or pouches with track-and-trace data, product information or marketing promotions. The right choice of technology for drinks manufacturers will depend on the expectations and needs of all key stakeholders.

The brand owner
A brand owner who wants to use packaging as a brand differentiator might opt for a particular substrate, or demand a specific type or size font for the labelling. A special substrate may require different inks, while a non-standard font may need coding adjustments to maintain the highest quality legible codes. 

Packaging is, of course, a vital vehicle for brand differentiation, with personalisation a current trend for many brands that aim to offer their customers something unique.

Over recent years we have seen major brands explore packaging personalisation: One beer manufacturer offered consumers the chance to customise bottles by adding a picture and text to a six-pack, while another global food brand offered people who ’liked‘ its Facebook page the chance to send personalised cans of soup to their sick friends.

These types of personalisation applications are enabled via the use of short-run digital printing, which also offers marketers the capability to run competition and gaming-based campaigns or target specific demographic ‘splits’ of consumers — with different sizes or formats, for example.  Furthermore, variable data capabilities enable brand managers to gain greater understanding of their end customers while improving product traceability.

The drinks producer
The top priorities for drinks producers are maximising uptime and reducing errors. They want coding and marking solutions that minimise — or, better still, eliminate — planned downtime, and feature the simple user interfaces that make employees more productive through multi-skilling.

In response to this demand, coding equipment has become more sophisticated in its ability to optimise output while minimising downtime; using for example smart features or ‘intelligent technology’ that eliminate preventative maintenance downtime and boost output, helping to maximise overall equipment effectiveness.

The integration of these smart features by Domino has enabled conventional servicing to be eliminated; instead a simple consumables replacement can be undertaken by production staff and carried out in less than ten minutes.

With large-scale production operations there is a need for integrated coding solutions in which different technologies used for primary, secondary and tertiary coding are networked and managed centrally. For example, via a single coding user interface that integrates with the ink jet, laser, thermal transfer and print-and-apply technologies, to provide centralised management and control of coding and marking operations.

The retailer
High-quality, 100% machine-readable codes are key to retailers’ automated warehousing operations, and the supply chain in general, so retailers need coding and marking solutions that can produce GS1-compliant barcodes.  But while retailers want everything as consistent as possible in the warehouse, out on the aisles they increasingly demand something unique.  Hence retailers’ growing exploitation of secondary packaging to differentiate themselves from their competitors.  Shelf-ready trays aren’t just a way of getting products onto the shelves faster; they often differ from one retailer to another, either in size, format or even substrate.

To meet this demand, brand owners and producers need flexible coding and marking systems that can handle different types of secondary packaging while maintaining all-important brand identity.  As a supplier, Domino is responding to this by offering printing technology for every substrate, while our research and development team has developed specialist inks to provide excellent adhesion and contrast on paper, cardboard, plastics, films and foils.

The consumer
The needs of brand owners, manufacturers and retailers are all driven by the link in the supply chain that wields the most influence – the consumer.

For example, it was not so many years ago that the barcode was functional and of no interest to the average shopper; however, the advent of smartphone technology and QR codes has led to increasing demand from consumers for more information on a particular product. One beer producer attempted to ride this wave last year when it launched a QR code campaign on its beverage containers enabling consumers to track the product back to one of its 12 US breweries. This ties into a growing trend among consumers to want more insight into the provenance of their food and drink.

Supermarket shoppers can now choose from numerous ‘apps’ that turn their smartphones into a barcode scanner.  According to its website, one of these – Barcoo – can tell the consumer everything they need to know about the scanned product – price comparison, test reports, health and sustainability information.

Future trends
We expect the demand for more detailed product coding to continue to grow from a range of industry stakeholders.  Consumers will continue to apply pressure for data that can help them make more informed choices about what they eat and drink, while retailers will want greater control and traceability over their supply chains. Meanwhile, brand owners look set to continue exploring personalisation and QR codes – along with other cross-media devices -as a means of driving consumer engagement.

With these industry trends, it is more important than ever for producers to be up to speed with the latest developments in coding, to ensure that their equipment is helping them to maximise efficiency while meeting the changing needs of brand owners, retailers and consumers.

The right coding equipment partner will understand and anticipate the demands of a complex network of key stakeholders, offering solutions that optimise production output and sustainability, and consultative guidance on their implementation.

1 April 2013 - Doug Thompson, Domino Printing Sciences