By Lynn Petrak, special-projects editor
As information demands mount, bar-coding and labeling systems keep pace.
When bar-codes were first developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the technology was driven by retailers looking to speed the checkout process at time when the booming food manufacturing and supermarket sectors strived to meet demands from postwar consumers.
Flash forward a few decades, and it is apparent that the need for quicker, more accurate and comprehensive information continues to influence new technologies for bar-codes and labels, from more sophisticated weigh labelers to direct thermal and thermotransfer capabilities to unique identification (UID) programs. Instead of just retailers, though, many of the changes in package labeling and scanning have resulted from what manufacturers and consumers want in packages of fresh, frozen and processed meats.
The need for information — among all parties — is probably as great as it has ever been. In a tight economy, lean margins have spurred a desire for tighter controls throughout the supply chain. High-profile product recalls have elevated track-and-trace capability as a priority. Consumers worried about everything from foodborne illness to the safety of imports to nutritional composition want to have more information before their eyes at the point of sale.
Even as other traceback technologies emerge, among them radio frequency identification (RFID), the bar-code in its various forms and on-package labels is still broadly used and preferred by many retailers and processors. Although case-ready packages in films or bags with preprinted bar-codes and product information on the film are becoming more common, labels with scannable codes are still dominant in most products sold at the meat case.
Those that supply bar-code and labeling technology used for meat and poultry products say the extent — and influence — of case-ready products has varied.
Denise Hampton, practice leader, retail, for Zebra Technologies, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based global leader in specialty printing and automatic identification solutions, says that there is a place for case-ready products with preprinted films, but that place is not yet everywhere.
“When you look at the Chicago market, for example, case-ready is a growing trend, but it hasn’t penetrated the market to the extent it has in California. Even if you do get case-ready meats, some grocery stores will repackage it with their own labels,” she notes.
Chuck Saje, special projects manager for Bizerba, USA Inc., a Piscataway, N.J., producer of labelers, indicators, scales and slicers, says that case ready had the effect of allowing processors and distributors a longer time frame to distribute and present their products in modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) to trigger the start of final processing in centralized locations.
“Case ready has been growing at a good pace over the years. We had a big surge in the ’90s, and the basic idea of case ready is still there, whether it is net weight or random weight,” he says
Still, even big box stores that first asked for net-weight case-ready products from suppliers are still trying to find package formats that work best for their customers and their own operations.
“Wal-Mart made changes — it went from modified-atmosphere packaging to an overwrap to a vacuum pack and now selects between any of the systems dependent on their needs,” points out Saje, noting that packaging equipment and material suppliers have had to adjust to the ever-evolving changes driven by those who distribute and sell consumable products.
Raising the bar(-code)
Today, even basic on-package labels, including those applied at the store level, are used to gain more valuable information as the meat case grows more diverse and as margins are squeezed. According to Hampton, retailers are using bar-code technology in new ways.
“Larger retailers, and even some smaller ones, are leveraging price markdowns and bar-coding to better manage inventory,” she observes. “We’re seeing instances when a grocery may have a first price on the first day, a second price on the second day and another on the third day. You see people willing to buy a package on the second or third day at a lower price per pound.”
In addition, retailers are using different types of bar-codes on their packages.
“Depending on what their information needs are, we have number of different ones, such as data matrix [codes], that can enable them to put more information into a smaller footprint on the label,” Hampton notes.
Even with traditional straight-line bar-codes, there have been some additions.
“We’re seeing additional bar-codes coming through being RSS and 2-D barcode symbologies,” reports Joe Grove, vice president of engineering for Rocky Mount, N.C.-based Ossid Corporation, a division of Pro Mach that manufactures weigh-price-label scale systems, high-speed packaging machines and other automated systems. “So there seems to be a need for more tracking information within that package.”
Putting it in print
Flexibility doesn’t just apply to versatility. In a more literal way, the rise in flexible packaging for case-ready and convenience-oriented products has affected labeling and bar-code systems.
Videojet Technologies Inc., a Wood Dale, Ill.-based provider of product-identification equipment, offers a DataFlex Plus thermal transfer overprinter that can print bar-codes on flexible packaging like plastics and films, replacing hot-stamp or roller-coder alternatives.
“Thermo printing is big,” reports Bob Neagle, business unit manager, adding that Videojet can provide labels, inkjet and laser printers and thermo-transfer capability to meet that mix of packaging specifications. The thermo-transfer overprinter also helps reduce downtime by lowering the need to manually replace type on the packaging floor.
Other suppliers, too, increasingly offer direct-printing capability as the labeling function, from design to application on films, bags and boxes, moves back in the supply chain to the processor level. Increasingly, intelligent printers used for flexible-packaging materials offer high resolution and print speed and are designed to interface with other elements, including keyboards and scales.
Meanwhile, processors who apply and/or supply labels with or without bar-codes are keeping up with changes in packaging, whether prompted by their customers or by their own product development. To meet the demands of a diverse marketplace, much of their efforts have focused on ensuring that their bar-code and labeling systems are flexible for today’s operating environment.
For example, Saje reports that demand for versatility has impacted the development of Bizerba’s equipment, including its weigh labelers commonly used in meat-processing settings.
“We offer very modular systems so they can be integrated or mated together at whatever level the customer needs,” he explains. Recently, Bizerba has been working to improve its integrated in-line systems.
“We have a vision unit now that when used upstream can select what the product is, so you can change over a machine as product runs change. Once it is set to the product coming down the line, then everything integrated into our machine automatically changes to meet the requirements of that product,” he says.
Vision can also be used downstream to verify the integrity of a finished pack. Likewise, at Ossid, Grove says that interchangeability is increasingly important to users and is reflected in the company’s new systems, including a recent redesign of one if its models to include different configurations. According to Grove, interest in versatility has also led to smarter equipment.
“From one of the trends we have seen, we offer something called ‘chaotic mode,’ in which we can put different products though the same line and it can tell the difference in product and change bar-code and pricing information on the fly,” he says. “[It helps in] that, when they fill orders, companies want to run different products through to build a pallet.”
Finally, as software technology continues to improve, bar-code and labeling systems have become part of bigger and more integrated component of supply-chain solutions.
Videojet, for example, is moving more toward a supply-chain paradigm. According to Neagle, the company’s brand protection and track-and-trace solution unit, formed last year, has allowed the company to marry its capability with software and database management. The result, he says, is akin to a digital license plate on the individual package basis.
“What we’ve got now is a complete end-to-end system based around being able to track through the supply chain, from generating and administering unique codes to printing and verifying codes and tying that to an intended destination within the supply chain,” Neagle explains. “We now have unique codes associated with individual products for history.”
The unique on-package product identifiers, Neagle says, can be linked up with corrugated boxes and pallets downstream in the packaging and distribution process. Grove, meantime, concurs that a shift toward more total solutions is the end game — or as it may be, the end-to-end game.
“One trend we see is traceability — it is coming,” he predicts. As traceability becomes a greater objective, Ossid has expanded its offerings, including integration of a SQL server that logs information tied into each bar-code.
“They can take a bar-code and see where and when it was produced,” he notes.