New Thermal Inkjet Technology Pushes Manufacturing Limits On Packaging Industries

With the increasing use of plastic and plastic-coated packaging, brands are looking for ways to better achieve a clear, quality print on these surfaces. The non-porous makeup of rigid and flexible packages, as well as pre-packaged products requiring a stock keeping unit (SKU) markup has always been a challenge for digital printing as spread patterns can often be difficult to control.

On porous substrates the primary method for drying the ink is via absorption of the fluid. However, on non-porous materials the ink must dry through either evaporation or by a curing mechanism. Since 2009, thermal inkjet printing has served multiple industries – from food and beverage to pharmaceutical – but is now seeing new developments which will help manufacturers take their brand to new heights. Casey Robertson, North American Product Manager, Videojet Technologies spoke to XX publication to explain more.

Q.How does thermal inkjet printing work and what are its benefits, including from an environmental perspective?

CR: Thermal inkjet printers function through a non-contact method of printing by using heat and surface tension to move ink onto a surface. The main parts of the printer include the controller, software, printhead and ink cartridge which houses a print mechanism and ink basin. The system is very durable, enclosed in a stainless steel cabinet to protect the technology from dusty environments and for washdown activities. In addition, many controllers hold an ingress protection (IP) rating of 65 which is the standard requirement in the food and beverage industry.

The modern cartridge-based technology produces high-resolution imaging but doesn’t require much maintenance due to the lack of moving parts, pumps, tubing and filters. The technology places smaller drops of ink more accurately on the substrate or printing surface.. In fact, the only maintenance required is the occasional wipe-down of the print head – an engineer’s dream. There is no warm-up cycle or downtime when replacing an ink cartridge and the printers require no formal training to operate.

Thermal inkjet printing also has a low total cost of ownership. This means that per unit or carton, manufacturers will end up saving time and money directly attributed to the quick changeover, reduced downtime and low parts needed to maintain a functional inventory. The technology can print at optimal resolutions up to 200 feet per minute, but can print as high as 400 feet per minute depending on the application. Manufacturers can also print directly onto a label prior to adhering it to a rigid container or package. The flexible technology supports a mixed production line and can easily change a batch code or SKU number on packaging or directly on the product. In terms of environmental benefits, the system requires a low energy output and does not run on plant air.

Q.What trends are you seeing in the thermal inkjet realm?

CR: Traditionally speaking, thermal inkjet printing is used for communicating the sell-by-date date to consumers as well as product numbering and serialization, as reflected in continuous inkjet (CIJ) printing. This tried-and-true, high-velocity method allows large line runs to be tagged with accuracy. But now there are new ways manufacturers are taking advantage of the technology’s capabilities, most focusing on an increased level of detail.

For example, given the high resolution print quality of thermal inkjet, companies are able to produce detailed graphics to make their product stand out at the point-of-purchase. Senior citizens are also able to identify key package information with more clarity. The technology is also quite flexible, so manufacturers are printing multiple runs simultaneously to meet the demands of their particular industry and bring more products to market.

Q.Given the strict regulations in many industries – particularly pharmaceutical – how is thermal inkjet printing being implemented in line operations?

CR: The challenges faced by the pharmaceutical industry have been pressed even further through supply chain, marketing and regulatory requirements – all demanding more code content without sacrificing the legibility needed to inform customers and achieve accurate traceability. Thermal inkjet printing helps the industry meet these objectives. Not only are the print jobs high resolution – which makes for accurate, visible industrial-grade coding – but pharmaceutical manufacturers can even use invisible or ultraviolet (UV) fluorescent inks to combat counterfeiting.

Thermal inkjet printing also reduces the risk of codes blurring and smearing on the package. The ability to print 2D data matrix codes at high speeds is helping manufacturers comply with the increasing pharmaceutical regulations while keeping up with product demand. Not only that, specialty fonts can now be applied to packages and containers to accurately identify a drug as authentic. Programmable cameras within the plants further bolster product security by identifying these fonts as the real-deal.

Q.What new developments can we look forward to for thermal inkjet printing?

CR: Expanding the reach of thermal inkjet printing to non-porous materials is now a reality. Traditionally, inkjet printers have not supported solvents; however, new developments in the technology have allowed original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to implement solvent-based ink into the well cartridges. Dual-line applications can now add a third line of code without negatively affecting the productivity of the packaging line.

Videojet has already completed alpha trials of a new, proprietary technology and is currently testing in Beta for industrial applications. The new technology utilizes a fast-acting shutter which is able to detect line inactivity and close off the print head to keep it inhibit ink drying in the printhead, ready to print when the line resumes without deterioration of the code. The entire ½ inch print area can be utilized without sacrificing productivity and does not require any downtime or decrease in productivity to meet this size increase. And the best part about the new solvent-based formula – it has an almost identical high resolution print quality to the ink used on porous surfaces. That means lot codes and bar codes can be printed onto a wider range of materials, bringing the benefits of thermal inkjet to a wider audience. Across all industries, manufacturers can apply solvent-based thermal inkjet to coated cartons. Some new markets exploring thermal inkjet include frozen foods, beverage, confectionery and baked goods. In the confectionery industry, brands can add variable data that confirm product quality and mark individual packaged goods after the form-fill process which promotes a clean package and ensures that the image and/or words are easy to read, consistent and recognizable.

With greater fervor, the pharmaceutical industry is looking for brand protection to combat counterfeiting. Thermal inkjet technology will help manufacturers comply with current US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) standards such as FDA’s Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA) which establishes a national track-and-trace system. To further support good manufacturing practices (GMP), lines can be outfitted with thermal inkjet technology to meet serialization standards required by the DQSA. This law will require manufacturers a unique, serialized code on each individual package to ensure product authenticity, and aid the electronic records that must be recorded with each transaction resulting in a change of ownership of a given drug to help thwart counterfeiting.

Additional hardware and software developments let manufacturers eliminate the need to compromise between line speed and content quality.

Q.What about branding? Is thermal inkjet printing a viable solution for brand marketers?

CR: Absolutely. The unique fonts and images which thermal inkjet is capable of producing will certainly give brand marketers a competitive edge on the store shelf. The possibility of having a particular font associated with the brand will increase brand awareness. In short, the font will become an extension of the company’s image in the mind of the consumer.

The reach of thermal inkjet is not limited to fonts though. Detailed logos, images, 2D barcodes and graphics will pop with this high resolution technology, with the added benefit of flexible printing solutions to expand the brand portfolio to cover limited release items for the holidays and beyond.

About the Author:
Casey Robertson started with Videojet Technologies in 2006 as a Senior Chemist, where his primary responsibility was ink & printer development. In 2011, he became the North American Product Manager for TIJ. He holds a BS & MS in Chemistry.

About Videojet:

Videojet Technologies is a world-leader in the product identification market, providing in-line printing, coding, and marking products, application specific fluids, and product life cycle services. Our goal is to partner with our customers in the consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical, and industrial goods industries to improve their productivity, to protect and grow their brands, and to stay ahead of industry trends and regulations. With our customer application experts and technology leadership in continuous ink jet (CIJ), thermal ink jet (TIJ), laser marking, thermal transfer overprinting (TTO), case coding and labeling, and wide array printing, Videojet has more than 325,000 printers installed worldwide. Our customers rely on Videojet products to print on over ten billion products daily. Customer sales, application, service, and training support is provided by direct operations with over 3,000 team member in 26 countries worldwide. In addition, Videojet’s distribution network includes more than 400 distributors and OEMs, serving 135 countries.

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