Coding and marking in the beverage industry: How to decide between CIJ and laser

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Picture credit: Videojet. Coding and marking systems need to be flexible to service different substrates and color schemes.
Picture credit: Videojet. Coding and marking systems need to be flexible to service different substrates and color schemes.

Related tags Beverage industry Inkjet printer

As part of our ‘5 Minutes With…’ interview series BeverageDaily speaks to Chirag Sheth, global marketing manager, Videojet Technologies, about what beverage manufacturers’ look at when buying coding and marking technology and if laser is more suitable than continuous inkjet (CIJ).

BD: Are there any identifiable trends in the beverage industry that influence coding and marking?
CS​: 1) SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) proliferation continues to be a trend with respect to flavors.

Chirag Sheth

The first identifiable trend is SKU proliferation, particularly with respect to different flavors in terms of changing consumer taste patterns, behaviors and geographic regions. Manufacturers have to be able to manage these different SKUs, and where that really influences coding and marking is product changeovers.

Lines are expensive to install and it’s not easy to expand in certain geographic regions, so often manufacturers are using the same lines to make multiple products. Currently, many manufacturers are affecting changeovers manually. When you depend upon line operators to ensure the correct codes are placed on the corresponding products you are depending on human touch points, and whenever you have increasing human touch points you have a higher probability of error.

Ensuring the right information is coded onto products is vital. Incorrect coding could lead to costly product recalls, which in turn can cause damage to brand reputation.

2) Different packaging – pouches
There are now many different sizes of packaging for the same product, depending on which channel you purchase them from. A soft drink, for example, may be found in any number of aluminium can sizes, as well as PET bottles.

In addition to that, there is a move in the beverage industry towards pouches, as they offer great flexibility – particularly for on-the-go consumers. They are relatively cheap in terms of cost of goods for the manufacturer, very flexible in terms of what you can print on them, and are easy to transport, with literally thousands able to be placed in a single box.

In certain beverage sub segments – particularly fruit juices and alcoholic drinks – they are becoming more popular. We don’t see this so much in carbonated drinks, as cans and bottles tend to hold the carbonation better, but pouches are certainly gaining market share.

3) Going Natural and Green
It is no longer sufficient to have a tag line “no added preservatives”, or its derivatives, in fine print on the back of a package. It is important to have natural claims clear and at the fore-front of a product’s package. Certain manufacturers have gone further and even moved to eco-friendly packaging.

The concept of sustainable packaging is one that resonates well with a population that is increasingly conscientious of their impact on the environment. Coding and marking systems need to be flexible in order to service the different substrates and color schemes used by manufacturers in their efforts to go natural and green.

4) QR/2D codes scanned by consumers (gaming)
It’s important for brand owners to understand consumer purchasing patterns, and to capture this information promotions are often featured on packaging. For coding and marking, different packaging means new SKUs and different secondary packaging requirements – if you’re using different bottling you are also carrying out more changeovers.

With respect to gaming applications, manufacturers have to ensure they have a database and software that is intelligent and can keep up with the coding and marking on the inside of a bottle cap or a different part of the label at very high speeds.

BD: What challenges do beverage manufacturers face that coding and marking can help to alleviate?
CS:​ Outside of providing the usual best by​ information, coding and marking can:

1)      Help meet increasing requirements for traceability

In the EU, wine manufacturers are required to be able to provide information as far back as where the grapes to make the wine were sourced. This is becoming increasingly important, particularly in sub-segments such as juices.

Nestlé, for example, have a self-initiated program where they are looking to provide traceability from farm-to-fork for their consumers. There are regulatory requirements, and then there are self-initiated goals that certain manufacturers are imposing on themselves in order to ensure that their consumers have better visibility into their supply chains.

This way they know they are getting the freshest of the fresh and where their ingredients are coming from. This is very important to the new generation of consumers – millennials. Manufacturers are trying to figure out how to market to millennials and health is a key factor.

2)      Prevent counterfeiting and diversion

This area really applies more to spirits, liquors and high value, high priced beverages.

Preventing counterfeiting and diversion are areas where coding and marking can provide manufacturers added value that stretches way beyond best by dates. If you have the correct software and printer setup you are able to create and mark unique, specialized codes onto your products.

By sharing this information with your distribution chain partners, you ensure that your product is not diverted to unintended retail outlets. Additionally, you can avoid your brand being associated with a substandard product sold on gray markets.  

In many countries, alcohol is taxed by use of excise stamps. Real change has occurred as these excise stamps move from paper-based labels, with little security, to sophisticated devices with unique codes – enabled by track and trace systems in conjunction with vision verification and databases (allowing for easy audits).

BD: Is there a technology (including inks) from Videojet that is more suited to the production environment in the beverage industry - for example, high condensation?

When we think of CIJ we have a very diverse product portfolio, depending upon what areas are important to the customer – from line speed and code complexity to maintenance schedules and wash down capabilities. We have an ultra-high speed offering which can handle line speeds of over 500m per minute and we have high resolution printers that can apply three lines of print.

Given the environment that beverage manufacturers operate in, wash downs are very important. Here we have printers that can withstand jets of water, which minimizes the amount of maintenance required as they do not need to be covered for wash down procedures; all without the need for external plant air connected to the printer. Certain applications require colored inks – dark colored bottles for example – and we have pigmented inks which are able to achieve a high contrast.

One of the challenges a lot of manufacturers run into when they have CIJ printers is that the printhead tends to clog up over time. When you have a clogged printhead that results in either a missed code or a poor quality code. Our patented CleanFlow technology is designed to help the printhead self-clean, to enable higher uptime - which is critical for the beverage industry.

Manufacturers are typically operating around the clock. Unplanned downtime affects their production quotas and it is virtually impossible to make time up once lost. Anything that coding and marking manufacturers can do to help with uptime is a bonus.

We also have Smart Cartridge technology. When the ink or solvent is finished, all that is needed is to take the one cartridge out, put in the next one and the system is ready to operate. There is no mess, no waste and no mistake when it comes to fluids as you cannot mix the actual inks with the makeup solvent.

The system will not allow you to put an ink cartridge into the solvent tunnel.

Videojet also supplies a wide range of nozzle sizes to suit different applications. 50 micron nozzles are available, for example, for coding in smaller areas - such as a bottle cap for a gaming application.


From a laser perspective we have advanced technology, particularly our CO2 lasers - which are available in a variety of different wavelengths. In the bottled water industry, for example, manufacturers want to maintain a clean image of the water and do not want a black ink mark on the bottle.

With laser, however, you are burning off material from the substrate, so the wavelength has to be perfectly set to the packaging material to avoid punctures – particularly as many companies are looking to lighter weight, thinner materials. Videojet recognized the need to use lasers on ultra-thin substrates, such as PET bottles, and reacted accordingly to what its customers were asking for.

For spirits and liquor, which are mainly packaged in glass bottles, laser is the primary means of coding and marking due to the clean, crisp finish it provides.

BD: What factors must be taken into consideration when choosing between CIJ and laser?

CS:​ First of all you have to consider the substrate you are working with and the way in which different technologies operate in conjunction.

CIJ printers code by adding material – or ink – to a substrate, while laser coders operate by removing material. So it’s very important that you understand what substrate you are using and the color of that substrate. Even when it comes to ink, you want to be able to provide high contrast. If you’re using a dark amber, green or black bottle a black ink isn’t going to provide this – you will need pigmented or colored inks.

For laser, if we tweak the wavelength it provides a different looking code. You can get a frosted effect at one wavelength, a clear, crisp code at another wavelength, and at a third wavelength you may be able to achieve a black code. It depends very much on the substrate and how the laser reacts with it. Certain manufacturers, when they have their packaging products made, specify certain additives to enable the laser printer to create the code quality and color they require.

In developing countries, most carbonated drinks are sold in returnable glass bottles, and in that case you want an ink based solution which will be placed onto the bottle itself. When the bottle is returned it will be put through a caustic wash in order to remove the code and will then be recoded once refilled. We have specialised inks for returnable bottles. When we spoke with customers we understood what sort of chemicals they used for their caustic washing process and developed our inks to be easily removed using those substances.

Finally, we must look at Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Up front, lasers are more expensive no doubt, but they do not have the ongoing costs associated with CIJ printers, such as inks and solvents. However, the list of substrates you can use in conjunction with a laser is narrower than that of CIJ – which can be used to print on virtually any substrate. What is important to remember is that testing/sampling is vital.

Whenever our sales team presents a coding and marking solution to a customer they always ask for a sample of the product. This is then sent to our sample lab and we try to mimic the manufacturers’ production line. We ask them several questions, such as how fast is your line? What’s the distance between the printer and the product? We mimic this in our lab and then we send back samples.

BD: With more and more instances of counterfeiting in the beverage market, how can coding and marking help to defeat this problem?
CS: ​At Videojet we take a multi-layered approach towards defeating counterfeiting: Firstly, there is the way in which the code is generated – then, there is the technology used to generate that code – and finally, there is the software that encompasses everything. This is mainly going to be seen in the spirits and wines sector - the high end, high priced products.

If we think about smart coding, you may have a code that is a series of numbers and letters and certain numbers or letters are purposely printed differently. For example, we may remove the centre dot of ink from the letter X. This is smart coding and is done intentionally in order to identify counterfeit products. The X has to have the middle dot missing in order to pass the test as it were.

Then there is overt coding, where a user can see the code – which may be used in conjunction with smart coding - and covert coding, which is an invisible code generated using infrared or UV ink. You can also use smart coding in conjunction with covert inks for an extra level of protection.

To the naked eye a person doesn’t know where the code exists, but the retail supplier will be able to locate and check this code. If counterfeiters try to replicate this type of product it will be very difficult – close to impossible. Covert and overt codes can be utilized on the same product if desired.

Controlling all of this requires software to track the codes created and to store those codes in a database. We have a software suite that has the ability to generate, import and administer unique codes for the tracking and lifecycle management for these sorts of high end products (spirits, wines etc).

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