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A review of the current options in package printing to confront product counterfeiting and diversion

February 2011 By Dr. William Llewellyn
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Track-and-trace technology has developed enormously in the last few years. Even though bar codes have been around for nearly half a century, they play a key role today in supply chain management in many different ways—securing and documenting a variety of information from unique product identifier to production location, batch number, and expiration date. Bar codes are also the natural partners for today's product authentication technologies.

The number of levels at which authentication, tamper-evident, and track-and-trace elements can be added to products has grown exponentially. The three major areas of focus are devices for visual authentication (with the naked eye, or with a scanner of some kind); secure tracking systems (creating a continuum through the supply and distribution chain); and technologies that are difficult, or impossible, to replicate, to foil the counterfeiters. Such devices may be overt or covert, to provide the broadest possible umbrella of protection for everything from ethical pharmaceuticals and medical devices to legal documents, designer handbags, prepared foods, and computer software.

It is naturally a product's packaging that provides the substrate of choice for track-and-trace operations in most cases. This makes the whole security print platform an attractive target market for converters active in the package production or label production fields, at all levels.

The ubiquitous bar code

Bar codes are the most ubiquitous track-and-trace technology. They may be one- or two-dimensional, and are readable in a variety of ways. From what was originally a 'professionals only' operation, bar code reading has also become an option for the world's millions of camera cell phone owners, for whom another 'app' is available: the ability to use their phones to read a 2D bar code via a QR (Quick Response) code on product packaging, and connect via WiFi to retrieve product information and traceability.

Variable information print technologies

Bar codes may be applied via a simple label, pre-printed with a logo or other message and subsequently furnished with unique variable information print—including a barcode—by direct thermal, thermal transfer, or inkjet print. The mature direct thermal technology, which creates images using heat on a heat-sensitive substrate, primarily serves the retail market. It offers ease and reliability of use for short-life applications, and delivers relatively low-cost quality bar codes at reasonable print speeds. These characteristics also make direct thermal an obvious choice for transit product identification and tracking labels, e.g., for parcel distribution, as well as outer case and pallet markings.


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