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January 6, 2008

Traceability: Giving Every Product a Unique Identity



Traceability creates a value-adding and differentiating opportunity for package printers who are willing to invest in the necessary capabilities.

Counterfeiting, diversion, and contamination of products are big, "burning platform" problems. The results of a recent Purchasing Magazine survey show that 42 percent of buyers consider counterfeiting a "serious problem," and 44 percent report falling victim to counterfeiting. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates counterfeiting costs brand owners $200 billion annually.

The food industry was hit hard by a series of recent contamination issues. The U.S. spinach market was down about 40 percent a year after E. coli killed three and sickened 200. A recent survey of U.S. households found that 88 percent of consumers would buy a traceable product in preference to one that wasn't-and 55 percent would pay a premium for the feature.

Traceability is the capacity to determine the specific source of a particular product at the lowest practical level of packaging, and to provide visibility to specific information (e.g., lot, date, origin, harvest crew, ingredients, safety, or recall status). Why is this useful? The information can quickly tell the person querying the package or product what it is, where it came from, whether it is subject to a recall or other security issue, when it was packed or manufactured and, in some cases, where the product was supposed to be shipped to (and therefore, whether it's in the correct location).

Traceability is now a hot topic in industries that are mainstays of the package and label printing business. Guidelines are being drawn up to determine the source of origin, as well as safety information for a wide range of fresh produce, fish, and meat. Additionally, the ability to quickly and easily determine authenticity and origin is increasingly important for pharmaceuticals, toys, electronic components, automotive, tobacco and alcohol products, health and beauty products, and consumer packaged goods.

Traceability differs from other brand protection technologies in important ways. Overt and covert technologies such as holograms, taggants, intaglio print, microtext, invisible images, and digital watermarks offer excellent solutions for authentication, but cannot distinguish individual items at a unit level and cannot carry or point to item-level data-something that is required for traceability. Examples include the ability to securely discriminate between a toner cartridge made on shift 1 versus shift 2; a melon picked by a specific crew; or where an individual package was intended to be shipped. In fact, traceability and authentication are complementary: a traceability code can benefit from being printed with copy-resistant technology, and the response to querying the code online or by cell phone can also guide the user on what authentication Traceability: Giving every product an authentic identity, Package Printing, June 2008 technology to look for. Another benefit of traceability is the opportunity to collect information from the market-and correlate that with production data. For example, how long did a product take to get to market? What condition was a product in when it reached the shelf?

Certain traceability information will continue to be printed, debossed, or embossed at the point of packaging (for example, lot and date codes), but there is a wide range of applications where traceability can be most effectively implemented upstream at the packaging or label printer. In this case, traceability is implemented by pre-coding the packaging or label with a secure serial number-and using that serial number as a pointer to traceability information.

Traceable produce labels

RFID has a critical role to play in supply chains and has been widely tested as a means for tracking and tracing pharmaceuticals at the item level. RFID is actually a code-carrying technology, and can be used in place of a bar code to enable non-line-of-sight reading. Currently, however, RFID has a number of limitations that mean that bar codes still have a role to play. Specifically these include: tag cost, tag readability, and privacy issues. The cost of RFID tags (and thorough quality control requirements) currently limits their economic justification for itemlevel coding. Reading RFID tags requires specialized equipment, limiting their usefulness for consumers. Product orientation, packing density, and materials can have a significantly detrimental effect on read reliability. Finally, the widespread use of RFID tags on consumer goods is anticipated to be contentious until privacy concerns can be satisfied.

So although RFID technology continues to improve-bringing down costs and improving performance-item-level traceability is required today, creating an opportunity for printed codes.

Where do I start?

The key to implementing traceability is the ability to put variable data on a package or label-in a bar code, or in a numeric or alphanumeric code (or both). Because this code varies with each impression, variable data printing (VDP) technology is required.

Packaging converters have a choice of three different classes of technology:

  • Inkjet-Inkjet (thermal or continuous) systems are capable of printing high resolution (300 dpi or higher for thermal) images at high speed (up to 300 fpm). These solutions can be deployed either on-press or off-line. Companies such as EFI/Jetrion, Domino, and MARKEM provide these technologies. Inks can also be loaded with security taggants for added covert security.
  • Laser-Laser marking can be employed to ablate a coating or to cause a color change in certain materials. The advantages of laser are fine detail and high speed for character printing and no consumables. Not all substrates accept a laser mark, and certain colors (e.g., red) are not suitable for bar code reading.
  • Thermal transfer-For lower speed off-press applications, thermal transfer printers are ideal for printing variable data on labels or bags. Thermal transfer ribbon can also contain security Traceability: Giving every product an authentic identity, Package Printing, June 2008 features (such as fluorescing additives).

Like any print technology, VDP is subject to print quality variability. Good process control and feedback loops for code quality validation are essential. Bar codes, for example, must meet standard quality specifications to ensure downstream readability (e.g., ISO/IEC 15415). A clogged printhead, dirty laser lens, or crumpled thermal ribbon can lead to unreadable codes. Scrapped labels with codes may need to be reprinted or digitally scrapped out. Splicing techniques need to preserve sequences and continuity of codes.

Traceability codes that are pre-printed on labels or packaging need to be securely managed and communicated to the customer. The printer may have its own system, or rely on a third party, such as HarvestMark, to generate, store, and manage large quantities of secure serial numbers. There also needs to be a system for querying codes-such as through a Web site, SMS, or cell phone -and for analyzing authentication patterns to detect problems and alert brand owners.

Sounds complicated. . .why bother?

Adding the ability to supply traceable packaging and labels is not aligned with every printer's business strategy. VDP equipment is an additional capital investment adding cost to labels in absorption, consumables, scrap, and handling. However, the demand for traceability is exploding in multiple sectors-and those printers with the capability will be able to capture new business and secure existing business with a highly differentiated offering. Traceable labels are not commodities. They command a stronger margin and give the printer the opportunity to offer customers a value-added service beyond delivery and price.

Key Points

  • Traceability and product authentication are disruptive new requirements
  • A wide range of industries are looking to their packaging converter for advice, solutions, and support
  • Packaging converters with Variable Data Printing capability have an opportunity to differentiate and capture new, higher margin business
  • Innovative software solution providers, such as HarvestMark, are emerging to provide packaging converters and brand owners with the tools they need to create, store, manage and track billions of security codes.