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Case coding is on a roll

Lauren R. Hartman

January 30, 2014

6 Min Read
Case coding is on a roll

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Cases of cheesesteak convey past one of four large-character coders.

To some, especially those in the Eastern part of the U.S., a Philly cheesesteak sandwich is a real culinary treat. Originating in Philadelphia, the sandwich includes savory, thin slices of beef, chicken or pork, usually piled high on a roll with onions and melted cheese, and has gained so much popularity, that it now can be found in sandwich shops all over the world.

Many of those establishments are owned by Philadelphia natives who relocated but couldn't find an authentic cheesesteak sandwich in their transplanted city and thus decided to set up their own sandwich-making shop. If they stay authentic when creating the sandwiches, chances are they use tender, thin slices of meat supplied to them by The Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co., a niche manufacturer of the Philly-style sandwich steak product. With two processing facilities located in the heart of the City of Brotherly Love, the company has for years used a two-step process to code its corrugated shipping cases of product, printing date and lot codes directly on the cases with a dot-matrix ink jet printer. A Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code was applied to one corner of each case using a print-and-apply labeler.

In 2007, the company consolidated the somewhat laborious, two-step case-coding/labeling process with a move to four Model 2330 large-character continuous ink-jet printers from Videojet Technologies Inc. (www.videojet.com), with tasty results. The new printers have virtually eliminated coding-related downtime, and the cost of using labels. And the printheads' self-cleaning system keeps them free of dust and other debris, resulting in consistently clear codes, a welcome benefit, says Jim Trivelis, president of The Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co. The systems' patented micropurging process maintains the printhead with every print without affecting production speed or throughput.

“Crisp, clear codes are important to us and to our distributors with regard to tracking and tracing, warehousing and inventory, reordering, billing and order fulfillment, which are all inter-related,” Trivelis notes. “If we keep up with preventative maintenance and cleaning, our uptime is about ninety-five percent. We're also seeing a UPC bar-code label-stock savings of approximately $40,000 per year. The [case] codes help companies identify the product, store it, track inventory, pick and verify orders and ship and bill. Clear codes set the tone for the entire supply-chain process.”

Products sold through different channels

The Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co. manufactures two raw, frozen and fully-cooked sandwich steak meats, sold through several channels, including through national and regional distributors that sell to sandwich shops, mom-and-pop delicatessens and foodservice companies that accommodate stadiums and college campuses.

Production takes place in the two processing plants—one, a 40,000-sq-ft facility that manufactures the fully-cooked version and a second 80,000-sq-ft counterpart facility that processes the raw meat, which also houses the company's headquarters and the Model 2330 ink-jet printers.

Boneless boxed beef, boneless/skinless white-meat chicken and boneless boxed pork are sourced through major contract meat packers. The company then seasons and/or marinates the meat before packing, freezing and tempering it.

The raw processing facility portion-packs the meat after slicing it while the other plant cooks the product prior to packaging. Orders are prepared and shipped from either plant.

But shipping had been concerning the company, as the earlier two-step case-coding method proved to be somewhat inefficient, according to Trivelis. The former case codes were often blurry or the codes could bleed, while the print-and-apply labelers experienced extensive downtime, which required workers to hand-apply labels, which took them away from other tasks.

“All of our customers were requesting higher quality UPC bar codes and product information, which was one reason we were using print-and-apply labeling,” Trivelis recalls. “More and more distributors are moving to automated scanning systems, and there are monetary penalties and the potential to lose business when codes are unreadable, so we needed to address that.”

Merging coding, labeling

Realizing that it would be efficient and cost-effective to combine the two processes into one, Trevelis and his manufacturing and engineering staff began to search for large-character ink-jet case printers that are reliable, offer high resolution, can handle frequent code changes and are consistent and speedy. They chose the four Videojet 2330 systems, which are designed for generic carton coding at preprinted quality levels and have a 180-dpi resolution.

Installed in the raw-processing facility, they generated positive results immediately. Three of the printers can each receive product from three separate sliced-meat lines all producing the same product—or nine lines total—while the fourth machine is mounted on a single sliced-meat line that's used for small batches of product. Currently, the printers are each mounted on a custom-designed and fabricated four-wheel cart that slides from line to line, allowing them to be moved easily, providing an added measure of convenience.

All of the printers provide variable data such as dates, lot codes, product codes and UPC bar codes on up to 30 cases/min, or 12,000 cases/8-hr shift or 60,000 cases/week.

“Our former labelers and printers just couldn't keep up with those speed requirements,” adds Trivelis. “The older dot-matrix systems had less sophisticated technology and didn't possess the software needed to generate UPC bar codes. The labelers took time to set up and several minutes to execute a code change. When we began to consider consolidating coding and labeling, we knew that the variable data on the cases had to be legible, particularly the UPC bar code, and printing had to be fully automated.”

The Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co. has nearly 200 stockkeeping units, and often changes case codes as much as 10 times a day. The cases measure either 15 x 9.l x 3.5 in. or 15 x 9 x 7 in. The printers produce one line of print from ¼- to 1 in. high, including a UPC product code date, a month and year, a batch/lot number and a case count. All of the SKU data is loaded from a laptop computer that maintains the company's global database of SKUs onto the four 2330 printers.

A new SKU can be added via the laptop and be transferred via USB memory drive to the printers. From there, an operator may select a desired case code from the printer's color touchscreen with LCD touch-panel CLARiTY interface.

But it was the printers' self-cleaning/self-maintenance system that most impressed the company, as it eliminates ink waste and downtime. Production speeds have improved on the lines because operators no longer have to stop a line in order to prime, purge and clean a printhead.

All of the ink used during the self-maintenance process is automatically recycled for re-use without creating waste or spillage. Trivelis says he expects the fleet of printers should pay for itself in about a year and this year, plans to add the printers to two lines at the “fully-cooked” plant.


More information is available:

Videojet Technologies, Inc., 800/843-3610. www.videojet.com.

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