The ultimate date coding guide for manufacturers

7 Minutes

A date code is a small print with a big impact. Without it there would be complete and utter chaos (and we aren’t even exaggerating about that.)

And we really take that for granted, how a string of numbers or letters can be the difference between peak health or a health scare.

But let’s put the doom and gloom aside. Because luckily for us, it is a legal requirement that most food, and pharmaceutical items carry a date code, to keep users safe and retain the quality of products.

Here’s everything manufacturers need to consider when date coding their products.

Jump straight to different sections of this blog!

Different types of date codes

3 reasons why you should take date coding seriously

The role of date coding in specific industries

What is a date and batch coding machine?

Different types of coding technology for printing date codes

Things consider when choosing a date coding machine

Ask our experts

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Different types of date codes?

Most packaging requires a date code presented in the form of a standard day/month/year, however this varies depending on what information needs to be pulled from the code.

Best before, use by and display until

Widely recognised date codes, which highlight the day, month or year a product should stop being displayed or consumed.

Best before, use by and display until, have different meanings and should be read as such. Either as a rough indicator of a products freshness, or a strict safety measure.

Julian dates

(Funnily enough) Julian dates were created by the one and only Julius Caesar.

They are seven-digit numerical codes that provide information on when a product was packaged.

The first 3 digits highlight the consecutive day of the year. So, for example, January 1 is 001 and December 31 is 365.

We mainly encounter these dates on plant tags and horticultural packaging, and on certain food items like eggs.

Batch and lot numbers

Information can be extracted from a batch or lot number, including the date that a specific product was manufactured.

These codes are most useful when it comes to stock rotation, product recalls and supply chain management.

Serial date codes

It’s getting serious now. This is where the top guns get involved, the pharmaceutical and medical industry.

Serial codes are vital within these sectors to individually identify products. This is done incrementally or sequentially and meaning every piece of packaging has a unique code.

They will usually be double, triple, quadruple checked by a camera system to guarantee consumer safety and peak traceability.

2D barcodes and data embedded barcodes

The potential for scannable barcodes and QR codes is huge when it comes to batch and date coding. Not only can they provide information on a products quality to consumers, they can also be used by suppliers and manufacturers for efficient stock rotation and pricing indicators.

The barcodes provide an all-in-one approach rather than individually printing each piece of variable information.

Aluminium foil lid coding for dairy products - best before and batch code
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3 reasons why you should take date coding seriously

1. Consumer safety

Keeping the user safe is an obvious reason to print reliable date codes. We’re all good people and we wouldn’t want to see anyone get hurt, would we now?

Legible, high-quality codes are key for consumers to determine how fresh their product is and how long they can use it safely.

In the eyes of a manufacturer, the presence of a crisply printed date code also has the added benefit of improving brand reputation. It shows you take the health of your customers seriously.

2. Compliance and regulations

Date coding is necessary to comply with legal requirements. It’s a mandatory part of the manufacturing process for all companies producing  perishable goods destined to be sold to consumers.

These regulations vary depending on the country, region, or product, but the standards create a high level of safety and consistency across all produce.

3. Inventory Management (Waste)

Batch coding is used as a tool for stock rotation and inventory management across the entire supply chain.

Lot numbers and batch codes provide vital information on the manufacturing process, which in a nutshell will limit unnecessary wastage and reduce cost implications of product recalls.

The role of date coding in specific industries

Food and drink icon

Food and Drink

Date coding in the food and drink industry keeps consumers safe and supports waste reduction. UK Government guidelines mandate that all food items require a best before or use by date. The implications of mislabelling or not including the dates on your packaging can result in criminal action. The FSA (Food standards agency), FDF (Food & drink federation) and WRAP (Waste & Resources Action programme) provide support to manufacturers seeking advice on date coding regulations.

Orange syringe

Pharmaceutical and Medical

Expiration dates must be clearly printed on all medical packaging and include both the month and year. This is compulsory to keep the consumer safe and is implemented by the European Union commission. The use of batch numbers and serialisation codes improves traceability down to individual units, guarantees efficient implementation of product recalls and reduces the risk of medicine falsifications. For information regarding date coding and product marking within the UK, manufacturers can reference the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

What is a date and batch coding machine?

A date and batch coding machine is the equipment that applies the dates codes, and often other variable information, directly onto products and/or their packaging. This can be a printer (sometimes referred to as a coder) integrated onto a production line, or a dedicated off-line system that both feeds and prints onto the packaging before it is filled.

Different types of coding technology for printing date codes

There are various technologies that are capable of printing date codes onto packaging. Your choice of technology  will depend on your application requirements.

Thermal Inkjet (TIJ) printing

Non-contact print technology that uses interchangeable ink cartridges.

High-resolution and maintenance-free, the compact units can be integrated into most manufacturing equipment.

Read more: Why choose Rotech as your thermal inkjet supplier?

Thermal Transfer (TTO) printing

A contact print technology, ideal for large print areas, on flexible film, label stock and medical paper (Tyvek®).

Laser marking

An environmentally friendly non-contact technology, laser coders work by etching or vaporising the surface layer of the material, leaving an inerasable mark.

Hot foil coding

A contact print technology that is reliable, economical, and low maintenance. It is also unique in that it can print metallic codes.

Continuous Inkjet printing

Non-contact print technology with very good adhesion to most packaging materials, meaning it’s ideal for high-speed production and printing on curved surfaces, i.e. the bottom of a can.

Read more: Thermal Inkjet Printing vs. Continuous Inkjet Printing

What you need consider when choosing a date coding machine

1. Substrate to be printed onto – Is it a porous or non-porous surface?

Certain technologies have better ink adhesion on glossy surfaces.

2. Shape of the product – How far away does the printer need to be from the substrate?

A contact printer would not be suitable for a curved surface. Furthermore Printers vary in their ink throw distance, which will affect the technology you choose.

3. Budget – How much can I afford to spend on this printer, now and into the future?

Hidden costs such as maintenance, consumables and downtime can take you by surprise. The initial investment and the true cost of ownership need to be considered.

4. Print quality required – How important is print quality?

For cosmetic manufacturers a small, discreet print is ideal to retain the overall look of the packaging. Whilst for food manufacturers, a human readable print is standard.

5. Colour of print – Do I need a different colour print other than the standard black ink?

Only certain technologies can produce other colours over the standard black print. So, it’s worth taking this into consideration early in the process.

 

6. Integration with existing equipment – What manufacturing equipment does the printer need to be installed onto?

Do you have existing equipment that you would like the printer work alongside? If so, you must consider the space available, and at what angle the printer needs to be positioned. Alternatively, you may require an all-in-one date coding system.

7. Speed of production line – How many metres per second does my machine run at?

Your chosen coder must be able to keep up with production to prevent downtime or delays caused by bottlenecks.

8. Production environment – Does the coder need to withstand harsh environments?

If you work within a dusty, damp, or wet working environment, you will need to consider the IP rating of your printer. So, the system is not effected by dirt particles or regular wash-downs.

9. Environmental impact – How do I make the process as sustainable as possible?

It’s good to understand the environmental impact of different technologies to adhere to sustainability regulations and growing environmental pressures.

10. Quality control and validation – Does the print need to be double checked by a vision system?

Using a camera system to double check date codes and highlight coding errors means improved accuracy, fewer product recalls and satisfied customers.

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Ask our experts.

We don’t like to toot our own horn, but when it comes to date coding, we really are the experts. There is a team of engineers available to talk you through your current process of printing batch and date codes, and then offer a better solution in terms of efficiency, capability, and cost. Get in touch today to discuss your date coding requirements.

 Date coding on edible gummies carton
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