In the current climate, two of the major factors that drive companies are innovation and sustainability, with both often going hand in hand. The packaging industry is no different, as businesses look to innovate to not only increase their productivity, cut costs and improve their offerings, but also to fulfill the demands of a marketplace, and a planet, seeking sustainable solutions.
Laser marking has been at the forefront of some interesting applications recently, as it has provided new options for the look of packaging, along with altering the way that produce can be supplied and traced. Let’s examine these trends.
Laser-Sensitive Pigments and Laser Marking
Recently, the German packaging company Kisico formed a partnership with tech company Merck KGaA to craft bottle caps that could be altered in significant ways through laser marking.
Laser marking, along with laser engraving and laser etching, has been used in diverse industries for years, and the processes allow operators to craft light or dark marks on an item’s surface or to even remove a small portion of the material. This process then allows for the incorporation of serial numbers, bar codes, dates, branding information, graphics and anything else desired.
In normal laser marking, clear and crisp marks are left, though their color options are limited, with only a lighter or darker shade of the original color being attainable with usual methods.
The Kisico/Merck KGaA partnership is interesting in that special laser-sensitive pigments are being utilized, giving a much wider range of color options for companies looking to laser mark their packaging.
These laser-sensitive pigments have been developed in two separate forms — as both pigment powders for use in altering colors within polymers, and pigment granules which facilitate darkening when they are exposed to a laser.
Kisico plans to use the markings to indicate information such as brands, product names, manufacturers, batch numbers, hazard symbols, thread size and temperature resistance. Companies that follow suit could enact similar markings, or could explore options of their own. All of this can aid in traceability for food packaging and other forms of packaging, increasing quality control and efficiency.
Laser Engraving Produce Through Natural Branding
While laser marking and engraving have been put to use in packaging for quite some time (even before the advent of laser-sensitive pigments), a new application that has emerged in the last few years is truly remarkable — engraving directly onto produce itself.
With sustainability being forefront in the packaging industry, and companies looking at new ways to reduce or eliminate cardboard, paper and plastics, any innovation can have a major impact.
This is where natural branding comes into play.
Natural branding is the recently developed process of laser engraving key product information directly onto a piece of produce, which helps to eliminate a wide variety of consumables in the packing process and reduce overall waste. The marks left behind are clean, crisp and readable, just as they are when laser engraving is used for plastics, metals, and other surfaces.
Potential markings companies could utilize on produce can include a wide range of options, such as:
- Company branding
- Bar codes
- Serial numbers
- Organic information
- Point of origin information
- Freshness dates
By marking directly onto the produce in question, companies are able to do away with or reduce their need for labels, which in turn means:
- Eliminating the need for and cost of ink, paper, adhesives and more
- Reducing energy consumption
- Gaining a simplified tracking process for produce
- Reducing the use of plastics and other packaging materials
Best yet, the laser engraving process doesn’t harm the produce being marked, affecting only the uppermost, superficial layer of the food. Taste, color, smell and shelf-life are all unaffected.
Laser marking companies and packaging companies that have explored natural branding have found that produce with at least a thin skin fares the best for marking, and they’ve successfully marked some other food items as well. Some examples include:
|Bananas||Lemons and Limes|
|Cucumbers and pickles||Oranges|
|Grapefruit||Pumpkin and squash|
|Cookies||Cheeses with a rind|
The only real drawback to natural branding is the initial investment in acquiring a laser marking machine. These systems can be somewhat costly, though when that cost is compared to the amount that will be saved long-term by eliminating consumables, they can still prove to be an asset to many businesses.
Though adoption of natural branding has been slower in some sectors than originally anticipated, the importance of sustainable solutions in the packaging field and elsewhere means that this is a process that will likely grow in use over time.
As you can see, some great technological advances are underway in both the laser marking and packaging sectors. We look forward to following these trends and seeing where similar innovations could take the packaging world next.