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A watershed move to laser coding

When Natural Springs Water Group, L.L.C., a bottled water manufacturer located in Johnson City, TN, decided to replace an older ink coder, it really cleaned up its act. The coder had a bit of a cleanliness issue and, the company admits, wasn't as reliable as it could be. "It would break down and we'd have ink everywhere. It just wasn't very efficient," admits Danny Aviles, of quality assurance at Natural Springs. "The ink-jet codes would smudge on the bottles in the hot, humid weather and the codes didn't always come out clean. And if they weren't applied precisely, the images would come out looking curved."

That's when the company discovered laser coding and found the SmartLasew digital system from MARKEM Corp. (www.markem.com).

Formerly known as Lauré Beverage Company, which began business in 1991, Natural Springs collects the spring water it bottles from a protected, free-flowing spring source in Unicoi County, TN, that produces more than 5.5 million gal of high-purity water each day. Located in a remote county in Northeast Tennessee, within the protected Cherokee National Forest and nearly lost in the secluded evergreen trees, the water bubbles from the ground. The company processes, filters and bottles the water in container sizes from 8 oz to 1.5 L, and has a gallon jug size copacked by a proprietary supplier. The polyethylene terephthalate bottles are mainly sold in convenience stores throughout the Southeastern U.S.

Natural Springs learned about MARKEM's systems on the Internet. To be successful at the retail level, its bottling lines have to perform accurately and consistently. The fully automated plant at Natural Springs boasts a state-of-the-art, nine-step, water-purification process that utilizes microfiltration, ultraviolet light and ozonation. So the company wanted the codes on its clear plastic bottles to portray a good first impression of its bottled-water brands, Lauré Pristine Springs Water and Mountain Forest, as well as the 56 other private-label brands it bottles. But could a laser work well on PET?

About a year ago, Natural Springs decided to find out, and looked into purchasing the SmartLase(R) 100 Series digital laser coder, a compact, carbon dioxide laser system, designed for use on primary packaging such as cartons, labels and glass and plastic bottles used in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, personal care, tobacco and household-chemical industries. The system, in this case the SL 110, proved to provide a clear, concise, single-line open expiration date code on one side of the bottles. "With the laser coder, we just set it and forget it," says Aviles. "It's much cleaner, more efficient and there's no maintenance."

With the laser coder, we just set it and forget it. It's much cleaner, more efficient and there's no maintenance.

Equipped with a vapor-extraction unit from Fumex (www.fumexinc.com) that controls any plastic fumes and other airborne particulates associated with laser coding the PET bottles, the SmartLase SL 1100 can be used in harsh, wet, washdown environments, thanks to its stainless-steel enclosure and NEMA 4x and IP65 ratings. The laser system uses electrical energy to cause CO2 to emit a powerful beam of invisible infrared light. Infrared light is actually a form of heat energy, so when the beam is directed at Natural Springs' bottle labels, the heat either vaporizes or engraves the substrate's surface, creating a mark.

When the coder proved to be very efficient in its use of laser power, allowing the use of a small, air-cooled laser, Natural Springs saw the light. The system's computer-controlled mirrors bounce the laser beam onto a substrate to quickly create the desired character or image, allowing crisp, clean and highly accurate codes to be printed on moving surfaces.

The life and reliability of the 10-watt unit's laser tube depends on the number of times the laser emission is turned on and off. Natural Springs looked at competitive laser coders that turn on and off as each character is coded, but MARKEM says the SmartLase coders turn on and off for each legend, which conserves tube life. Some substrates (such as printed carton stock) require less energy to mark, so the laser coder can be controlled in terms of the amount of energy delivered to the surface. Efficient use of energy not only reduces costs, but, it also has a positive effect on equipment performance.

To bottle the water, the plant starts with tanker-trucking it in from the spring and filters and purifies it in a process that carefully protects the natural minerals in the water. Next, the water is put into holding tanks and from there, it's pumped to the bottling line on which the laser coder was installed. The line outputs about 250 bottles/min, Aviles says. He describes the packaging process thusly: After bundles of empty bottles have been depalletized, they convey toward the bottling room where they're rinsed and then filled and capped on a combination system from Sidel (www.sidel.com) before they convey single-file to a Quadrel Labeling Systems' (www.quadrel.com) pressure-sensitive labeler that applies wraparound paper labels sourced locally to the bottles. Then, the filled, capped, labeled bottles are laser-coded by the SmartLase system with the single-line, alphanumeric date code. Next, with codes in place, the bottles are case-packed and palletized, ready for shipment.

While the new laser coder hasn't increased line speeds necessarily, Aviles says that efficiencies on the line have definitely increased. "The system is much more reliable if we can pretty much set it to run and not have to worry about it. We run the line on a regular basis, so we need reliable equipment. We're getting the code accuracies we wanted, and the codes come out cleaner and neater. And we have no problems applying the laser code to the plastic bottles."

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