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Digital case printer takes the helm

When it comes to trying new packaging technologies, Kinpak, Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, FL, can attest that it never hurts to test the waters. Having struggled for years with the packaging waste and consumer complaints resulting from unreadable bar codes on its ink-jet-printed corrugated cases?used to hold maintenance and care products for boats, RVs, automobiles and other vehicles?the company was able to navigate into calmer waters through the use of an off-line digital case printer from Iconotech (www.iconotech.com).

Kinpak operates from a 180,00-sq-ft manufacturing plant in Montgomery, AL, that, before being purchased by Ft. Lauderdale-based Ocean Bio-Chem, Inc. in 1996, was used to manufacture and package antifreeze for Shell Oil Co. The state-of-the-art facility boasts chemical blending and plastic-bottle blow-molding capabilities, along with extensive warehouse and storage space.

Ocean Bio-Chem, which was founded in 1973 to market the Star brite(tm) brand of auto polish, says that the purchase of Kinpak allowed it to reduce the cost levels associated with subcontracting the manufacturing and packaging of its product line. By the time of the acquisition, the Star brite line had grown to include hundreds of cleaning and care products for boats, RVs and more. Now, in addition to Ocean Bio-Chem's product line, Kinpak also processes and packs private-label chemical solutions for automotive, industrial, agricultural, household and personal care use.

Between its own brand and its private-label business, Kinpak works with more than 400 stockkeeping units. Everything from washer fluids, motor oils and waxes to epoxies and lubricants are packaged on the company's seven packaging lines, which include custom blow-molding and filling capabilities. Products are then packed in corrugated cases that range in size from 6 x 12 x 6 to 12 x 18 x 14 in. for distribution to small retail outlets, as well as to a number of large U.S. and Canadian retail chains, including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Home Depot, West Marine, Boater's World and Boat America.

Until 2002, Kinpak had relied on the use of off-line-printed labels and in-line ink-jet printers to add vital information, including the company logo, the product declaration, batch codes, bar codes and legal copy, to its outbound cases. But these methods, fraught with labor, readability and cost issues, took the wind out of Kinpak's sails. Explains plant manager Larry Pressnell, "We were stopping between runs and hand-applying labels. With the ink-jet lines, it didn't matter about the labor because we weren't getting a readable print anyway. On a high-speed filler, we were probably getting fifteen to twenty percent readability on bar codes and the rest of our print."

With the Optimizer, we have no rework, where we have to throw away cartons that are illegible and repack them.

To resolve these issues, Kinpak investigated numerous in-line options such as ink-jet printers from other suppliers and print-and-apply equipment, but felt these solutions also missed the boat. "We were just spinning our wheels," says Pressnell. "because everything we looked at was ink jet, and only one company that I know of makes the heads for all the ink jets, so no matter which one you buy, you are actually buying the same heads with little modification."

Cost was another drawback. To effectively use in-line print-and-apply methods, Kinpak would have had to equip all seven of its packaging lines with the units. And, with labels priced at 2 to 2.5 cents apiece, consumables costs would have been considerable.

According to Pressnell, preprinted cases have never been an option for Kinpak, due to its just-in-time requirements and large number of skus.

Although Kinpak was reluctant to dip its toes in the waters of off-line case printing, Iconotech presented a strong case with its Optimizer digital printer. An off-line, standalone system, the Optimizer prints on flat RSCs, one side per pass, in one color at 200 dpi. The system employs computer-generated imaging film to enable exacting placement of high-resolution print, including text in any Windows font, fine-line graphics and logos, and consistently verifiable bar codes in a variety of symbologies, anywhere within an 11 x 32-in. area.

The Optimizer was installed in September 2002, along with a restacker. After two years with the system, Pressnell says he would never go back to in-line printing. "We went to the Optimizer basically for the reasons they sell them: the clarity and readability of the print," he says.

With the Optimizer, Kinpak creates the label information and graphics on a Windows-based computer and then outputs plates, or stencils, using a thermal printer. Loaded on the digital case printer in a matter of minutes, the plates can be used for up to 5,000 impressions. And, as the registration is set during the image-creation process, no machine adjustments are required.

Ideal for Kinpak's just-in-time requirements, the off-line printer typically prints from three to four different case sizes per day, which can be delivered directly to the appropriate packing lines for use. The printer can print up to 60 cases/min, and requires just five to 10 minutes for changeover to a different case size. In total, the company is now printing between 2 million to 2.5 million cases per year. "We have seen a great increase in production in recent years," says Pressnell. "With the Optimizer, we have no rework, where we have to throw away cartons that are illegible and repack them."

In terms of maintenance, Pressnell says that it can be completed in about one-hour's time each week. This includes weekly lubrication, checking the ink for dirt or ink residue and adding ink to the system as needed. And, because it's off-line, the system can be shut down for maintenance anytime, without affecting the production lines.

The Optimizer provides Kinpak with another flexibility benefit, as well. With in-line printing, unless the company used high-quality corrugated, its chances of getting a readable bar code were nil. Iconotech's digital case printer, however, can be used to print on virtually any type of case material. "We have no problems with the system, no matter what paperboard we use," relates Pressnell.

For the end user, the increase in graphics quality on the cases is a big advantage too, as it gives them a box that is suitable for floor display, which Pressnell says is huge in the automotive and marine retail marketplace.

As for bar-code readability, previously an enormous issue, Kinpak is currently achieving 100-percent scannability, which has put the company on course for greater productivity and profitability.

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