Q:Tell me about Emerald Packaging’s customers and their needs and requirements.
Todd Somers: The customer base focuses predominantly on fresh cut produce, but it does cross over into various food categories such as bakery, confectionary and frozen foods. Printed packaging has grown in importance within the marketplace, whereas years ago you may have seen things called “naked packs” where there was no packaging at all, or a standard one or two-color print UPC PLU (product look up). Those products have been replaced almost across-the-board by custom printed packaging, providing marketing outlets to packers and retailers.
Being a printer of flexible packaging, we have really capitalized on that. And so what we do here is extrude polyethylene and take that polyethylene and print on it…up to 10 colors. We run three 6-color presses, two 8-color presses and one 10-color press and then we take that film and turn it into a finished product.
Q:Tell me about the need to add additional equipment to your operation.
Somers: We had a new project for unit-level traceability. It was brought to us by one of our customers, Growers Express (Green Giant) who wanted to more concisely target where its product was packaged, the day it was packaged, etc. This was primarily for food safety and traceability, but also for marketing reasons.
The concept revolved around having a human readable and a QR code printed onto a package that was unique to each individual package. And then that unique code printed on the package would be boxed, with a label on the box saying in essence inside this box is numbers 1 through 3,000. It would go out to a field and then be scanned with a GEO tracker, the date and location code. Then there would be the history and the record of where something was packed, the field it was packed in, and so forth.
The idea is that should there be any type of food borne illness, it could be tracked back to the specific field so that any tainted product could be isolated and removed from public consumption, rather than a complete recall that could affect perfectly good produce (just like we saw a few years ago with spinach that was recalled that ended up being perfectly fine).
Q:The codes and information being printed onto the bags are ultimately for your customer Growers Express. What benefits have been realized?
Somers: It is probably still a little early to express all of the benefits, but one of the main benefits we are seeing is code legibility. And that has been very important. We are going out to a customer base that, like most customer bases, is pretty unforgiving. If there were any technical issues or issues in terms of scanning or being able to read those codes, it would get back to Growers Express, then to us, then to Domino, and it simply hasn’t been happening. So it has been very positive.
Q: Do you have other customers like Growers Express who are interested in doing this same type of printing onto their packaging?
Somers: Yes, we do have other customers who are looking at the technology and talking to us about bringing it on board into their operation, and I am convinced that it will happen. It’s going to take some time though because what we are doing here is not a closed loop. The packers themselves, especially those in field packing, have a lot of work to do on their end as well in terms of infrastructure in order to be able to handle it. They have to be able to have multiple scanners, and scan codes in the field, and train people.
For example, they may be packing in 13 to 18 different fields, on any given day, going through well over a million units in a day. And so many of them, while realizing the benefits of the technology, see the shortcomings of their own infrastructure in terms of being able to handle it, and have to make decisions on if they want to implement it, how to implement it, and across what SKUs they want to do that. And so it is a little bit more complex than just going to a customer saying we are able to provide you this product with a unique code on every bag, labeled appropriately and so on.
There still is a level of discipline and education within the packers that requires them to think through how they want to do something like this.
One way to look at it is that the codes themselves on every single bag are unique, the QR and the human readable codes. However that has no information behind it from the time it leaves Emerald Packaging. It simply is a number with a bunch of blank fields behind it. And it is not until the time that the product is packed in the field that the data is then populated to show what the item is, where it was packed, who the specific packers were, so on and so forth.
Q:How many bags are being printed with the new printer?
Somers: In a calendar year, we will print 12 to 15 million units with the Bitjet, and that’s just on the limited SKUs that we are rolling out right now for Growers Express. Overall, here at Emerald Packaging, we are putting out upwards of 2 billion units/year. That is either plastic bags or impressions for form/fill/seal applications in total for all customers.