The OptiFlexTM Process - Simple, Fast and Flexible
The simplicity of the Iconotech OptiFlexTM process makes instituting an in-house generic case printing program very easy and is ideal for batch printing of short to medium runs.
This is a direct contact printing process that uses black and white line art to create print layouts in the labeling software supplied with the printer. Print layouts are output from the software to a thermal imager to produce a print stencil.
The print stencil is key to the process. This disposable, low-cost print medium is composed of a Mylar film mounted to a non-woven fiber backing. The film provides a large 11” x 32” (280 mm x 812 mm) print field for placing graphics, product information and bar codes anywhere in the layout.
A stencil is created when the thermal imager burns through the Mylar film exposing the fiber backing through which ink can pass onto the face sheet of the box or bag. Iconotech’s non-toxic, non-flammable, water-in-oil emulsion ink is absorbed into the fibers of the print substrate. Since it dries by absorption not evaporation, it remains stable in the print cylinder.
Stencils are generated for each print job, take one minute to produce and yield up to 5,000 prints.
Print message creation to printed box is just five easy steps.
1. Create print message layouts in the software
2. Produce the stencil from the thermal imager.
3. Mount the stencil on the cylinder.
4. Adjust the feed magazine and the restacker to the size of the print medium.
5. Load the magazine and print.
Our Process Videos
Definition of Terms
Introduction to our OptiFlex Process
Applying the Stencil
Batch Printing – All printed product dedicated to a single SKU with no variations.
Case Dimensions – Dimensions taken directly from a flat RSC case to be transferred over to the software to define the case in the print field. These would include the overall length, the height of the side panel and the location of the fold line or glue flap that separate the major and minor panels.
Contact Printing – Any print method that requires contact with the substrate to allow the transfer of ink.
Film Life – Will vary but you can expect 5,000 prints per stencil.
Fold Line or Glue Flap – The fold line is where the open RSC blank has been folded in half to create the RSC case. The glue flap is where the two opposing ends are glued together. Both landmarks define the the major and minor panels on their respective side of the case.
Generic Printing – Places SKU specific print on a blank or universally printed case, bag, tray or die cut that fits several SKU’s into the same common case size.
Image – Any printing element in a print layout. (Bar codes, text, graphics)
Imager – The thermal imager is used to burn through the Mylar print film to create stencils.
Leading Edge – The first edge of the substrate through the printing process.
Loading Core – The kraft core used to roll up stencils for application to the print cylinder.
Magazine – The accumulation area for print media to be presented to the feeders and driven through the print process.
Pre-Print – Printing done in advance, out of plant prior to production that contains all generic and SKU specific print for each individual SKU. Requires warehousing for each individual SKU.
Print Field – The 32” x 11” print area for horizontal formats or the 11” x 32” print area for vertical formats.
Print Film – The film used to create stencils for the Iconotech process consisting of a Mylar face sheet mounted to a non-woven fiber backer.
Print Media – The type of item to be printed, gusset bags, valve bags, RSC cases, die cuts and trays.
Print Nip Point – The point in the print process where the tangents of the print cylinder and the impression roller come together to nip the substrate and produce print contact.
Stencil – A print film that has been processed by the imager to burn off the Mylar film in the image areas to expose the non-woven fiber backer. Ink will pass through the fiber but not through the Mylar, creating a stencil.
Stencil Fingers – The clamping fingers on the print cylinder that hold the stencil in place.
Stencil Loading Device – A removable assembly that assures the application of the stencil to the print cylinder is correct.
Substrate - The surface of any given print media.
Trailing Edge – The last edge through the printing process
Bar Code Basics
What is a bar code and how does it work: Alpha-Numeric information is coded in a series of printed bars and spaces. The sequence of bars and spaces is machine read and interpreted as a series of “zeros and ones” to create a character. The results are decoded by the scanner or reader.
Bar Code Symbologies: A symbology is an electronic language with specific and unique characteristics and functions. There are over 50 bar code symbologies and the number is growing. For our purposes we will focus on the four that impact today’s retail, materials management and manufacturing applications.
UPC-A: Typically a retail application this code is numeric only. It can be used in conjunction with the ITF-14 in big box stores where case lots are sold at the retail level.
Code-39: Is the original alpha-numeric code. It is the standard for many government bar code specifications including the Department of Defense. A lengthy code. it requires five bars and four spaces (there are 3 wide and 6 narrow) to create a single character.
Code GS1-128: Is an extremely flexible code that uses “Application Identifiers” to define multiple codes within the code. A demanding code to print, it is used in the traceability initiative in the produce industry and for Yum Brands fulfillment.
ITF-14: Is a standard shipping container code that is an application of the Interleaved 2of 5 symbology for the purposes of outer shipping case identification. This is the most common application for our product.
ITF-14 Description and terminology: See download for a visual description and breakdown of the elements of the typical ITF-14 case code.
Start Indicator: A character at the beginning of each bar code symbol that initiates timing and directional information to the decoding logic.
Packaging Indicator: Provides a unique identity to each shipping container, intermediate package or pallet. This typically is used to indicate if the product is packaged in different configurations inside, i.e. 12 packs or 24 packs, etc. Each pack may or may not share the same item number.
Number System Character: This is the first digit in each manufacturer's 6 digit UPC identification number. It has to be a 2 digit number, usually a zero plus a number, because the Interleaved 2 of 5 symbology requires an even number of characters.
GTIN Manufacturer's Number: These five characters are always the manufacturer’s GTIN number.
Item Number: This is the individual product item number. There are two ways to assign this number. It can be the same for each level of packaging or it can be a unique number for each different level of packaging.
Check Digit: The check digit is based on an algorithm using the previous 13 characters. This digit provides additional data security and is an essential part of the symbol.
Symbol Placement and number of codes per case:
GS-1 US, formerly known as the Universal Code Council, requirements call for a minimum of one on one side of the outer shipping case. They recommend, two adjacent panels be coded. We find many clients print on all four sides because it is easy to do and doesn’t cost much more when having cases printed.
The position of the code on the case is very specific. The code must be no more than 1.25” from the natural bottom of the case and no closer to a vertical edge than 0.75”. Note: this means you can place the code along a horizontal line 1.25” from the bottom and anywhere along that line as long as you stay 0.75 from either edge. The usual location however, is on the lower right hand of the case. Our system prints the major and minor panel in one pass and makes the two adjacent panel placement very easy. See the attachment.
Bar Code Quality: We are very proud of the consistent print quality our system is able to produce. The Iconotech system provides printed cases of almost pre-print quality. We stress our ability to provide a Verifiable Code, not just a readable code. This quality issue is at the heart of any discussion of bar codes and our system’s capability. The concern many prospect have is that a quality bar code, printed directly on a shipping case, can only be achieved by having the cases printed by the box manufacturer. Past results with ink jet or other attempts to print in house case codes may have fostered this assessment. Our goal is to educate the prospect that Iconotech can provide the results desired. To address this concern and possible objection is to understand the difference between Verification and Scanning.
Verification: Verification is a quality process that measures the technical attributes of a code and measures it against the specifications for that symbol. This process is accomplished by using a verifier, equipped with the proper aperture settings to correctly measure the individual bars and spaces. This is usually an off line hand held device.
Scanning: The process of scanning the code is just reading and deciphering the bars and spaces to determine the data included in the code. Bar code scanners have become very forgiving and intelligent so the act of reading a particular code may not say much about the actual quality of the code and its ability to be read in all circumstances. Conversely, if a code is verifiable, it is understood that code meets the quality specifications for that symbol and should be readable in most circumstances.
NOTE: Remember the Iconotech System is a batch printer. We cannot print variable data such as serialization, actual time and date, variable weight and automatic data. We do not do RFID.
For additional resources or more reading about bar codes, we suggest you visit The Bar Code News
Iconotech and Bar Codes
One of the strongest features of the Iconotech printing process is our ability to create and print industrial bar codes directly to corrugated cases and/or kraft multi-wall bags. Our high read rates are achieved through a combination of our software, the imaging process and our printing technology. As we are a batch printing system, our only limitation is the inability to create variable data bar codes.
Any direct printing process will experience a phenomenon known as ink dot gain. This is the spreading of the printed ink through capillary action as the ink penetrates the fibers of a bag or box and dries. Unchecked, this can result in bar codes that don’t read because the printed bars have spread, closing down the spaces which destroys decodability. Our software lets us make one time adjustments to the bar width and the space in-between so we can compensate for the spread of the printed ink. When printed and dry, our codes are in spec.
Once the bar code is created in the software, it is output at a high-resolution 200 dpi to our thermal printer, creating the printing stencil. The Iconotech printing process lays down a minimal amount of ink through the stencil to create the perfect, in spec bar code.
SO WHAT IS AN IN SPEC BAR CODE?
In spec means that a given bar code will meet the quality standards assigned to it by the GS1 Council, but as you will see, there are a lot of variables that go into the interpretation.
As a Packer/Shipper you are most likely going to be using only one or two of a few types of bar codes. The ITF-14 is the common case shipping code based on your GTIN number and the product code. The occasional UPCA, a retail bar code, is used for point of purchase applications, often in conjunction with a shipping code for goods sold at a big box store where case lots can be purchased. The GS1-128, because of it’s flexibility and the ability to incorporate multiple application identifiers which identify specific pieces of information, can be the most demanding to produce. It is being used in applications like the Produce Traceability Initiative in the produce industry and to satisfy the Yum Brands requirements. As the demand for global accountability in the food chain increases, so will the use of this code. All of these codes have different parameters that qualify the codes as in spec.
There are volumes of information out there about what goes into making up a specific bar code, but for now, lets let the software do that. What you need to know are just a few key things.
1. Verification and scanning are two different processes. Scanning happens at the retail or warehouse level and is simply a pass/fail process based on the ability of the bar code to convey it’s information. Verification is a measurement against a set of quality standards. Verification is a much higher assessment that analyses the structure of the bar code to tell you where it is succeeding or failing. There are two different types of verification set by the GS 1 Council, a full verification consisting of 9 elements and a partial verification consisting of 4 elements, all of which are part of the full 9 elements.
2. In the verification process, each one of the elements are analyzed and compared to the GS 1 standards then assigned a grade. The lowest element grade is assigned as the over all grade. It is not an average of the grades.
3. A successful partial verification should always scan in the supply chain, but a failure may require a full verification to determine where the code is failing and what steps may be necessary to correct the problem.
4. Further, the GS 1 grade of a code will depend on what it is printed on. White substrates will always produce a higher graded code but not necessarily a better code simply because of the contrast between black and white. Conversely, codes printed on brown kraft bag or corrugated will produce a lower grade, but not a poorer quality code, because of the reduced contrast between the brown and black. Depending on the code, this may or may not be acceptable. For example, the GS1-128, to be in full compliance with the GS1 standards as currently written, can only be printed on white substrate with our equipment to receive the minimum passing grade of “C”. The same code printed on brown kraft color will produce a grade of “D” based solely on the grade for contrast. Even though the kraft code received the grade of “D” when a “C” grade is called for, it will scan consistently. The ITF 14 and the UPCA codes were written with the understanding that they would most likely be printed direct to corrugated so a “D” grade is the spec for direct print. The “D” grade, reflects only the lower contrast between the brown of the kraft and the black of the ink. Those codes will always be in compliance.
5. It was interesting to learn that one major distribution center we visited did not scan any incoming product at the time of receiving. Cases were only scanned during the picking process. If the code does not read, the product is pulled, the code is fully verified, and if it fails, it is reported and fines are issued. The bottom line is, if your bar code does not scan, you will get fined. If your bar code scans, none of this will be of issue.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO?
It only makes sense for you to comply with the GS1 standards for the types of bar codes you are using. This is your best leg up and a stable platform to operate from. Once achieved, you can move on to more important matters. This is our recommendation for that protocol.
1. Use an Iconotech printer. We are with you every step of the way and offer full support in resolving your bar code issues. Iconotech direct print is the most economical solution out there and offers excellent print quality with the freedom and flexibility you need to make changes and keep your production running smoothly.
2. Own a verifier and develop a random testing procedure to assure you are consistently producing readable codes.
The Department of Defense has guidelines for random testing that offer good suggestions. We recommend a verifier with the full ANSI verification mode to use as it might be necessary to dig deeper into the elements to see what might be causing a code to fail. Most verifiers will let you toggle between full and partial modes permitting you to use the partial mode for everyday use and switch to full mode when more complete diagnostics are required. An additional option is to mount an in-line scanner in the system to read codes as they are printed.
3. Understand the GS1 specifications for each of the codes you will be using, if nothing else, know the letter grade that has to be achieved in order to pass.
4. Work with your bag or box suppliers to get substrate that has a good face sheet and keeps wash-boarding to a minimum. Use a white substrate when the higher code grade is required.
Bar Code Basics Video
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Iconotech - 2 Heritage Park Road - Clinton, CT. 06413 - 800.521.0194