by Martin BAILEY
Monday, January 31, 2022

Reaping the rewards of packaging and coding in the field

Right now, one of the most notable consumer trends is the growing appetite for fresher produce with greater supply chain transparency. This is putting pressure on producers and suppliers to identify innovative yet cost-effective ways to package and code directly at the point of harvest. But how can the coding and packaging of produce be undertaken as effectively in a field in all weathers as it can in a factory? Plus, how can manufacturers ensure they are meeting legislation around robust, legible product coding for their packaging operations across the entire supply chain?

Factory-standard packaging in the great outdoors

Here’s an example of how one of our customers is addressing this challenge. The company has thousands of square feet of agricultural land in the UK’s East Anglia (and beyond), suppling green vegetables to every major grocery store in the country. Their produce is picked from the field and moved into the back of a trailer just a few yards away where it is packaged and coded, then sent straight to a distribution center and onwards to the store. 

The packaging trailers are satellite-tracked and built to a bespoke design by the customer. These allow operators to pick products and then almost instantly perform quality assurance checks, flow wrap package and print them. They are then put into trays and arrive in the hands of distributors in a matter of hours.

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I think that’s about as close to ‘farm to fork’ as you can get! But, as you can imagine, there were more than a few challenges involved with enabling the client to set up applications this close to the agricultural coalface. 

Not only did Markem-Imaje have to address common issues—such as varying substrate materials—we also had to think about the harsh environmental conditions you would expect outside in a field.

Streamlining the produce journey 

The key step we took was to introduce the SmartDate Xtreme printhead range for the customer’s SmartDate X65 thermal transfer printers. The innovative development of the SmartDate Xtreme printheads not only improve printhead life, but it also allows us to print high resin ribbons and difficult substrates at a faster speed. The development also makes the printheads far more reliable in difficult applications. The SmartDate system can be easily upgraded up to IP55 too. As well as being important in an all-weather environment, that option provides protection against potential water ingress from cleaning the packaging machines.

We also optimized the printer mounts and created a customized air-blowing system, which removes debris from both sides of flexible film. This extreme terrain package was supported by an uninterruptible power supply.

Let’s not forget the very human side of packaging operations. As picking teams are often made up of people who may not share a common language, we had to ensure the user interface was simple and intuitive.

Errors can arise from all types of sources. That’s why we’ve found that a combination of our Systech packaging intelligence verification software and inspection systems enables the scanning not just of a barcode but, for example, an entire punnet. This allows for the confirmation of correct coding, coupled with the correct products, making it easy to spot errors. Even in an outdoor setting. 

From extreme environment to efficient production point

There’s no doubt that packaging food at the point of harvest presents significant challenges. But it also offers significant advantages. Not least the ability to respond quickly to the growing public demand for fresh produce.

Packaging and coding in extreme environments call for strategic thinking and a collaborative approach to creating specialized and tailored solutions. But, done right, it can help to transform a muddy field in the countryside into a highly efficient and cost-effective production point. 
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