About 5 percent of the medicines consumers buy each year are fake. Makers of counterfeit goods cost brand owners $500 billion annually. Merchandise worth tens of billions more walks out of stores in the hands of thieves. Multi-million-dollar damage awards go to consumers harmed by tainted or poisoned foods, beverages, or drugs.
Those scary statistics are grabbing the attention of the packaging industry, often supplanting traditional concerns like throughput and cost controls. Result: rising interest in new types of inspection equipment, security tags, holograms, covert taggants, and other tools to curb theft and insure product safety.
At this year's Pack Expo in Las Vegas (September 26-28), for example, two entire pavilions were devoted to security technology and radio frequency identification. "The degree of concern in the industry is high," says Tom Egan of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, the show's sponsor. "You have the increased tightening of federal government mandates and guidelines affecting security in the supply chain. And those concerns become greater as the supply chain lengthens with the increase in global trade."
Whatever Wal-Mart Wants
Among the machines that packagers are shopping for at shows like Pack Expo are high-speed devices to attach electronic article surveillance (EAS labels) to packages containing everything from CDs and batteries to hand tools and high-priced diet supplements. Unless deactivated during purchase, the tags trigger an alarm if someone attempts to leave the store.
"Wal-Mart and other big retailers are pressuring suppliers to add these labels to more products, including high-priced goods that are now kept locked in glass cabinets," says Roland Wyman of EAM, a custom packaging machine builder in Scarborough, ME. "It hurts sales if customers need to find a clerk if they want to handle such merchandise."
EAM's flagship Mini-ST can apply up to 400 of these source tags per minute to cartons. In a typical arrangement, two reels, each containing 7,500 tags adhering to a clear polyester, are mounted on the Mini-ST. Tiny grippers on the machine separate each individual tag from the spool as a carton passes underneath, and a pneumatic rod tamps the tag gently to the carton.
The Mini-ST weighs only 14 lbs, which is a big plus, says EAM President Steve Swinburne, who designed the machine. "Integrating the tagging process into existing automation has been a difficult and costly process for many manufacturers because space is at a premium on most manufacturing floors."
Key components in the system include: an instantaneous (start and stop) synchronous motor from Superior Electric (Danaher), an Aromat PLC, a Banner high-speed optic sensor to stop the motion in a precise position, and a high-speed cylinder and valve from SMC Pneumatics that positions the tag on the target. The 20 mm cylinder completes its stroke in just 40 milliseconds.
Swinburne notes that a big challenge was to develop an "intelligent encoder-driven" software system that gangs six of the FG-24 units together to provide the potential of up to 144,000 tags/hr.
RFID: From Pallets to Products
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, now used extensively on pallets and cartons to track shipments and manage inventories, are poised for increased use at the individual product level. Cost is still an obstacle—about 20 cents a tag on average—but experts predict a jump in RFID tagging over the next five years, especially for higher-priced products and pharmaceuticals, where counterfeiting is rampant.
West Pharmaceutical Services, for example, is offering a built-in RFID disk as part of its new multi-layer Spectra capping system for vials that contain injectable drugs. On the production line, the vial is first sealed with a rubber stopper. Then an automated capping machine takes the vial and fits it with an assembly consisting of an aluminum shell that covers the stopper and a flip-off plastic lid. The 13.56 MHz RFID disk, supplied by Tagsys USA, makes up one of the layers inside the plastic cap. Because the RFID tag sits on the top of the bottle, scanners can get a 100 percent read rate.
Also part of the system: other identifiers, such as UV ink for spectroscopic authentication of the drug package anywhere along the supply chain. Carol Mooney, a marketing manager for West Pharmaceutical, says Spectra responds to a major 2004 FDA report that challenges drug packagers to adopt a layering approach of covert and overt steps—including RFID—to thwart tampering and counterfeiting. The West assemblies allow further customization with printing of brand names and logos on the aluminum shell and plastic button. "The FDA wants pharmaceutical companies to employ several security technologies—not just one—and to build in the ability to make frequent changes," says Mooney.
With the exception of minor modifications to the pressure blocker that holds the vial in place on the production line, the new West Spectra system poses no special problem in manufacturing, notes Bill Bogle, COO of Genesis Machinery Products. His company's RW-600NS Westcapper, featuring a Total Control touchscreen and Allen-Bradley SLC-5/04 Series PLC, can cap up to 600 vials/min. In this operation, a vial with the stopper inserted enters the capper, where it is rotated against a fixed rail to bend the aluminum shell of Spectra over the lip of the vial. For additional security, Genesis offers a Vial-Trak system that allows a manufacturer to print an identifying mark on the vial and then confirm that mark with a vision system prior to labeling.
Cutting the Cost of Security
Other suppliers are trying to offer packagers enhanced security while curbing costs. Creo, a new subsidiary of Kodak, planned to show at Pack Expo "the world's only forensically invisible tagging system." At concentrations of just two parts per million, the inorganic powder taggant cannot be detected in a forensic trace analysis, explains Kevin Harrell, the business development manager.
The inorganic powder is typically added to inks, molten metals, or color pellets used in extruded or blow-molded plastic containers. Later, users can employ a Creo reader to detect the taggant particle patterns on the package. "You get the track and trace capability of RFID at a fraction of the cost," says Harrell. Creo is also adding its taggant to printed RFID antennas to prevent counterfeiters from copying RFID tags by duplicating RFID numbering schemes.
Holograms continue to be popular as a way to build brand identity and discourage counterfeiters, but more packagers are using cold stamping to keep costs in line, says Brad Long of Kurz Transfer Products. In this setup, a laminating nip roller containing the hologram foil is added to a flexographic printing line used for labeling. As the foil unwinds from the roller, it joins with an adhesive substrate, which is then cured in a UV light station. The carrier is then removed from the decorated substrate and rewound separately. There's no need for engraved stamping dies, and the hologram cold foil can be processed at speeds up 490 feet/min—more than twice as fast as hot stamping.
"In terms of capital investment, a hot stamping machine can cost more than $100,000 versus retrofitting your flexographic printer with a cold-foil processing station for $20,000 or less," says Long.
Packagers also are enjoying some costs savings with induction sealing, a technique that gained popularity following the Tylenol poisonings of the 1980s. In this process, a capped container passes on a conveyor under a sealing head, which produces an electromagnetic field that heats a foil laminate positioned under the cap. The hot foil melts a polymer coating, causing it to bond to the lip of the container and create a hermetic seal. Now, more sealers are air-cooled, rather than water-cooled, which has substantially trimmed the size of the units and sharply reduced acquisition and maintenance costs for packagers, says Mark Plantier of Enercon.
These technologies are just a small sampling in a long list of security solutions for packaging. From biometric systems that recognize packaging machine operators by their fingerprints to X-ray inspection of beverages to detect foreign objects, security is capturing an ever bigger share of the packaging dollar.