From Russia with love

By Pieter Le Grange from Industrial Inkjet Ltd.

As much of the inkjet industry is aware, there is something of a panic going on in Russia right now, through the introduction of the “Chestny ZNAK” also known as the Russian “Honesty Mark” scheme. This could well be the start of a major shift in how countries utilise digital print technology, which in turn will create opportunities for suppliers of digital printing equipment.

Several years ago, the nascent inkjet industry was given real purpose by the introduction of “best before dates” on perishable items.  “Best before” or “use-by” date codes were supposedly invented in Chicago in the 1930’s, by Al Capone’s brother, Ralph. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have actually made any money from it – Ralph persuaded milk suppliers to stamp a date onto their product after a relative became sick from drinking “bad” milk.

This was followed by Marks and Spencer in the United Kingdom, who put such dates on the products on their shelves from 1973. The big change however, took place when the requirement became law in the EU, with Directive 79/112 in 1979. Once it became law, the food packaging industry had no choice but to find a technical solution to printing a variable date code.

Overnight a large captive market for continuous inkjet “date code” print systems was created, and companies like Domino, Videojet and Imaje grew rapidly as they were able to meet the need. Something similar happened with “Track and Trace” codes on pharmaceutical products, however over the last 30 years, most of the other opportunities for inkjet technology have not had it so easy.

Where the requirement is fixed by law then the market has no choice and will buy whatever they need to get the job done. However any application that is not enforced will always be subject to normal market forces i.e. who wants it and what are they willing to pay. Timescales for adoption are then measured in years.

Typically – and ceramic tiles was a good example – penetration into the new market crawls along slowly for a long time until suddenly the whole market “accepts” the technology as proven, and changes over en-masse. Tile production suddenly changed over to inkjet around 2008 – perhaps initiated by the economic crash at the time and the realisation that inkjet was both mature enough for volume production and more importantly, it saved money.

So what has this to do with our friends in Russia? Well Chestny ZNAK is a Russian state regulation that is forcing the adoption of digital print technology.

Chestny ZNAK is similar to pharmaceuticals in that it is a unique Track and Trace code (datamatrix) applied to each product or its packaging. The Russian state is in the process of enforcing such coding on a very wide range of products, from the obvious such as tobacco and perfume, to the slightly more esoteric such as flashbulbs and wheelchairs. The name of the scheme suggests that the goal is to prevent counterfeiting, but a number of commentators see it as a form of taxation – not much different to tax stamps on alcohol or cigarettes. After all most countries apply excise to spirits and tobacco.

The particular product range that is causing a lot of the commotion in the inkjet industry is dairy produce. Just as an example, about 7.2 million metric tonnes of milk is consumed in Russia each year, which would need 7.2 billion 1 litre containers and the same number of individual barcodes. Then there is cheese, butter and yoghurt to worry about.

Unlike tobacco and alcohol, the dairy industry hasn’t a track record of buying excise stamps and is having to move fast if it wants to adapt to the new requirements. If it doesn’t then it simply can’t sell its products any more. Depending on the shelf life of the dairy product the code must be in place on each product by 1 September or 1 December this year 2021, with cheese and ice cream scheduled to begin even earlier, 1 June 2021.

So how does it work in practise? The brand owner has to register with the Russian state and will need to install a PC-based “print server” package on his line. This package will supply a block of codes to the print system (laser or inkjet). The codes are then printed and a camera on the line will record that a code has been used and the brand owner will be invoiced accordingly. The price for one code is about 50 copecks (0.7 US cents).

While that sounds reasonably easy to implement, there are technical challenges to be met:

There is quite a lot of variable data to be encoded into the barcode – up to 45 characters. At the same time the code may need to be printed small – remember this code is probably getting “squeezed” into an existing product artwork. Yoghurt pot lids would be a good example of a product with little real estate area available. A 24×24 element datamatrix printed say 14x14mm square means that each element is less than 0.6×0.6mm. Given that the specification calls for “A” grade barcodes to be printed, there is going to be a lot of pressure to use high resolution systems. At least 600dpi will be needed for many applications.

Media to be printed might not be very friendly either. On paper-based laminated board for cartons it might well be possible to print nice barcodes on the inner paper layer before over-laminating, but inevitably the manufacturing people will want to add the code at as late a stage as possible. That means printing onto the outer layer – usually polyethylene – which requires solvent or UV-cured inks.

If UV ink, the ink will need to be rated for “accidental food contact” and the brand owner will need to carry out migration tests and prove that printed samples meet regulatory requirements.

Then there is the line speed to consider. Again looking at cartons for drinks, the obvious place to add the coding system is just before the roll material is cut into individual cartons – at the “creaser/cutter” stage. But line speeds are still quite high at that point – at least 300 metres per minute and sometimes more. The customer may well want to run at a wide range of different line speeds for different board materials, and will want to continue to print as the system slows right down for a reel change. So the setup has got to be robust enough to cope with both the huge change in speed but also a significant change in the web tension and hence the “stretch” of the material.

On top of the specific needs of Chestny Znak printing there are the usual challenges of adapting inkjet to an existing production line, so things like “wander” of the web, vibration and variations in the media thickness, as well as ensuring print quality are being adequately monitored and controlled.

This is lots of additional work and for anyone whose digital print system is not already installed and running, there is now massive time pressure and significant technical risk. However, for suppliers of digital printing equipment, this may well be the kind of significant opportunity that happens perhaps only once or twice in a generation, which simply cannot be missed.

Russia has taken the lead, but inevitably other countries will follow. Perhaps we are now entering the era of “excise on everything”?