Packaging converters and printers choose to work with ink-jet because of its versatility. It can be used to produce short runs economically, and printing can be done immediately, because no platemaking or other cumbersome preproduction work is needed. What's more, improvements to ink-jet inks and components are bringing the technology within reach of some companies that could not find a use for it in the past.
Ink-jet printing is certainly useful for many applications, but one, in particular, is becoming increasingly interesting to end-users concerned with brand protection. With special software, an ink-jet printer can be programmed to write a different mark on every product, which is a relatively simple way to create a track-and-trace feature on a package without having to change it dramatically. This is a valuable tool for a consumer goods manufacturers looking to prevent counterfeiting and diversion.
Track-and-trace features can also be used to ease product recall, monitor product quality and track products internally, and can consist of a simple, sequential code, a nonsequential code, a covert code or a machine-readable code. They can also be two related codes—what the industry calls "matched pairs." Another type of track-and-trace code that can be applied using ink-jet is a tag containing radio frequency identification (RFID) data—a non-line-of-sight, machine-readable tag. Ink-jet can now also be used to print the antennas for RFID tags.
Track-and-trace features are especially important in the food and pharmaceutical industries, and for manufacturers of consumer electronics and automotive parts. This is because these companies need to be concerned about product tracking and tracing for the protection of both the public and their brands. For example, brand owners need to prevent counterfeit drugs and faulty machinery from infiltrating the supply chain before these products hurt anyone.
Depending on its level of complexity, an ink-jet code can be used as the main security feature of a package. However some brand owners will choose to combine a track-and-trace code with a hologram or another type of security feature, in order to have the highest level of protection.
Counterfeiting is a growing problem in the world economy, and the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down. According to the Washington-based International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (www.iacc.org), counterfeiting may account for between 6 percent and 10 percent of global trade, and cuts into brand-owner profits upwards of $250 billion.
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To fight counterfeiting, many brand owners apply security features to their product packaging. There are two main types of security features that help in the fight against counterfeiting: track-and-trace and authentication. Ink-jet can be used to print a security feature that combines both. For example, a printer can generate an encrypted, nonsequential code using an ink-jet ink that contains a taggant. The presence of the tagged ink will demonstrate that the product is authentic, while the code will allow an investigator to find out where the product has come from and where it should be.
Product diversion is another problem plaguing brand owners. Diversion occurs when a product meant for one market is diverted to another. This diversion is often initiated by a distributor or a warehouse, and it is often at the expense of the brand owner. For example, a product meant for sale in a country such as Turkey might get diverted to the U.S., where it will be sold at a much higher price. While the distributor might profit from this, the manufacturer will lose out.
Diversion is harmful on many levels. It can be harmful to a consumer because diverted product is often old, tainted, improperly labeled or damaged. It hurts retailers because their credibility is questioned, and it hurts distributors because their actions are scrutinized.
A track-and-trace code can be used to deter distributors from attempting to divert products. In addition, if the feature is printed with invisible ink, brand owners can monitor what their distributors are doing, without the distributors knowing.
Lee Metters, pharmaceutical sector development director at Domino Printing Sciences (www.domino-printing.com/uk/), a U.K.-based ink-jet and laser printer manufacturer, believes that coding is a great way to protect against counterfeiting and diverting. "The battle between the counterfeiter, the diverter and the manufacturer is never-ending," he says. "The beauty of the coding-based technique is that, as the threats change, they can be used together to upgrade security over time, all at a cost that can be justified."
Kenneth Stack, president of Jetrion (www.jetrion.com), a U.S.-based ink-jet ink and printer manufacturer, says that ink-jet is also ideal for applying machine-readable taggants to product packaging. "Ink-jet is so versatile because it is a noncontact printing solution," he explains. "From a manufacturing process point of view, that makes it a good technology for taggant application."
Stack says he often recommends a multilayered solution for customers. "This is a system with a variable security code and a date code. For added security, you should change the taggant every month," he advises.
With ink-jet technology getting better and cheaper, there is no obvious reason for brand owners to stay away from it. Still, the technology is not as widely used as ink-jet providers would like. Jetrion president Kenneth Stack believes that one of the major obstacles preventing printers from using ink-jet is a reluctance to change from something that is tried and tested—such as flexo printing—to something that's not familiar. Stack says that this challenge can be overcome by suppliers educating potential users about the compatibility of ink-jet with traditional printing technologies.
Track-and-trace codes using ink-jet are already being used in the commercial market, although for security reasons, most end-users will not discuss these applications. It is therefore difficult to know how widespread it is. But, one can predict that as problems with counterfeiting and diversion increase, so too will interest in the use of secure codes. Although it's not there yet, ink-jet coding may soon be the tried-and-tested model.
Presently, there are several varieties of ink-jet codes that are useful for security applications:
Sequential or nonsequential coding
The basic idea behind sequential or nonsequential coding is that each product has a unique serial number, recorded in a secure database. The product is printed with this code, and that information points to a product pedigree in a database that only legitimate users can access.
The pedigree is the product's history. Every time a product is moved in the supply chain, its movement is recorded, and that information is added to the product pedigree, making it an electronic pedigree, or "e-pedigree." Metters says that the system is an ideal track-and-trace solution. "While this system tracks every product supply-chain transaction from manufacture to consumption, other aspects of the product are also recorded to guarantee identification of the real product," he says. "The most valuable feature is that you have the pedigree securely stored somewhere, and you know where the product has been. Therefore you can differentiate between the real and the fake version, providing both traceability and security in one system."
2D datamatrix codes
2D datamatrix codes can be thought of as encrypted bar codes. While the codes are not just available using ink-jet, with ink-jet, the data can be variable. In other words, each encrypted code on each product can be different. A special reader is needed to read the codes. As the popularity of the 2D datamatrix code increases, the cost of the readers will decrease. At the moment, a commercial reader costs between $150 and $500.
Metters says that 2D datamatrix codes are becoming more popular with customers because they offer much higher data densities than do traditional bar codes. In addition, they are damage-resistant and can contain fully or partially encrypted data.
This technique puts more than one code onto a product—sometimes a mixture of visible and invisible. The two codes are related, but not directly. One may be human-readable, the other an encrypted, invisible, 2D datamatrix. When both codes are read, the authenticity of the product can be verified.
Recently, several new ink solutions have been developed specifically for the security printing market. Among them is a new edible ink with the potential to be used in track-and-trace applications for food and pharmaceutical companies. For example, pharmaceutical manufacturers could potentially print a code directly onto a pill or a capsule, so that every single pill or capsule would be traceable.
The ink under development is being designed so that it meets with U.S. Food & Drug Administration and European food-legislation guidelines, while also having the makeup to "jet" properly from an ink-jet printer. The resulting edible ink, then, should be compatible with standard ink-jet printers and be suitable for human consumption.
Ink-jet is not the only technology that can be used to print variable information. Magnetography, which uses magnetic particle transfer technology, is an example of another digital printing technology that is suitable for printing sequential or nonsequential codes.
In magnetography, a magnetic imaging head on a special, coated, magnetic cylinder is responsible for the imaging process. The magnetic parts of the coating attract particles, and the image then transfers from the cylinder onto the paper.
Magnetography press maker Nipson (www.nipson.com) has combined magnetography with cold-flash toner fusing. This process uses bursts of light instead of heat to fuse toner to the substrate. Energy is absorbed by the black toner, but is reflected by the substrate, so heat is not an issue. While magnetography may provide an advantage over digital presses that use heat, because ink-jet does not need heat either, there is no obvious advantage to using magnetography over ink-jet. Also, because it uses toner, magnetography is not as useful as ink-jet for taggant applications.
What should also be noted is that magnetography can so far only produce black-and-white imaging. But it can print high-resolution images very quickly.
Lasers are another technology that can be used to print sequential or nonsequential codes and 2D datamatrix codes. Because ink is not often used when marking with lasers, the solution nearly always produces accurate codes. With lasers, manufacturers don't have to worry about smudging, messy printheads or food-contact issues. However, lasers are more expensive than ink-jet printers and can be more difficult to maintain. Also, because they mark, rather than print, lasers cannot be used for taggant application.
In the pharmaceutical market, a New York-based brand security company has developed a system that applies track-and-trace features to pharmaceuticals using ink-jet or laser printing equipment. Secure Symbology, Inc. (www.securesymbology.com) and the Pharmaceutical Technologies and Services arm of Cardinal Health will work on a pilot that will see SSI's sequential code technology used in the pharmaceutical market.
Cardinal Health, a leading supplier of medical services to drug companies, launched an anti-counterfeiting packaging line for pharmaceuticals late last year. They offer a variety of overt and covert packaging solutions, as well as RFID tags and the track-and-trace solutions offered through their partnership with SSI. At presstime, however, SSI could not report on the start date of its pilot program with Cardinal.
SSI has a patent-pending method it is calling its eTangent System, which can provide a drug company with a way to mark products at the item level with a serialized bar code. The company can combine a European Article Number/Universal Product Code (EAN/UPC), a lot number, an expiration date and a National Drug Code (NDC) into one area. The company can also use electronic product codes (EPCs), which allows their customers to bridge the gap between bar codes and RFID. The codes can be printed at high speeds using ink-jet or laser printing methods.
SSI director of technical sales and marketing Ron Barenburg says that until now, no company has been able to offer a solution that prints serialized codes, verifies them and captures the data in a database without slowing down production lines.
The eTangent system also provides authorized supply chain members, such as pharmacists, with access to the database, which is located on a secure, Internet-based platform. Just by scanning the codes with a regular EAN/UPC scanner, pharmacists can access the product's electronic pedigree.
The database has been designed to contain a pedigree of each drug shipment for all packaging levels, including unit-dose, case, pallet and container. The information in the code will include the product's packaging history. Barenburg says that the pedigree can be traced from the pharmacy to the original manufacturer, whether it is a direct or repackaged shipment. "The important part is that it can be used anywhere in the world, with no need for extra equipment," Barenburg says. "No new software or hardware is needed."
Barenburg also points out that customers can add another layer of security to their product by adding a covert or forensic feature. The codes can be made with UV or infrared ink, or ink containing a security taggant.
In the battle to deliver genuine goods to the marketplace, security is vital. Ink-jet coding offers a simple, upgradeable and relatively low-cost way of securing a supply chain.
Ink-jet can be used to print a variety of track-and-trace features. Not only can the codes help fight counterfeiting and diversion, but they can also be used to ease product recall, monitor product quality and internally track products. These ink-jet codes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be both overt and covert. What's more, a code can be used as the main security feature of a package. However, some brand owners will choose to combine a track-and-trace code with a hologram or another type of security feature, in order to have the highest level of protection.
The author, Rebecca Roberts, wrote this article for Pira's Brand Protection News, a bimonthly technical journal published by Pira International (www.piranet.com) that publishes in-depth assessments of revolutionary technologies and innovations for brand owners and packagers. In particular, Brand focuses on brand protection devices such as RFID, security inks/taggants and holograms; intelligent packaging, such as time-temperature labels, oxygen sensors and printed electronics; innovative packaging materials, such as nanocomposites and smart film; and disruptive production methods, such as digital printing for packaging. Each article is a consultancy-style report that analyzes how the technologies work, costs, future and current applications and case studies of users, plus five-year forecasts of technology development and market size. The article was reprinted with permission from the November/December 2005 issue (Volume 5 Issue 1).
To order a free trial copy (worth $120), e-mail [email protected] with your address details.
Pictures were provided courtesy of Domino Printing Sciences.