Inkjet printing in the pharmaceutical industry

Hitachi UX series

Counterfeit drugs are not only a danger to patients, but also a huge economic loss for the pharmaceutical industry. The unique labeling of pharmaceutical packaging is therefore a fundamental part of the production chain and requires suitable printing systems that can withstand the harsh environmental conditions while still enabling high cycle rates. Inkjet printing systems offer the performance, reliability and flexibility you need, at a manageable price.

How does Inkjet printing work and what are the features of the different systems?

Inkjet printing, unlike gravure or offset printing, is a non-contact printing process that does not require a fixed printing plate. This means that Inkjet printing systems are particularly suitable where packaging or outer packaging has to be coded and labeled at high speed.

There are two different variants of Inkjet printing: Drop-on-demand printing, used in conventional office printers, and Continuous Inkjet printing. With drop-on-demand printers, the ink is stored in a tank with a continuous vacuum to prevent it from leaking. The print head consists of several nozzles, each containing a drop of ink that is shot out of the nozzle onto the substrate by an electrical pulse and dries there. The individual drops then form the complete print image. Resolutions of up to 660 dpi (dots per inch) in the running direction are thus possible, at a speed of up to 80 meters per second.

Continuous Inkjet printing uses solvent-based inks with a high fluidity. As the name implies, the ink is sprayed continuously and at a high frequency from the print nozzles, creating a stream of ink. The ink drops are electrostatically charged by a high voltage electrode located in front of the nozzles. By applying different currents, the droplets can be deflected as desired, creating the desired print image. Unused ink that is not applied to the substrate is fed into the closed ink circuit and can be reused as often as required. In Continuous Inkjet printing, up to 6 print lines and up to 1,000 characters can be created at high print speeds of up to 3,000 characters or more per second, depending on the nozzle size.

InkJet printing – intelligent printing solutions for complete traceability of pharmaceutical products

In the pharmaceutical industry, it is particularly important to code all finished products in a unique and tamper-proof manner. This requirement results, among other things, from Directive 2011/62/EU, which mandates certain security features for all prescription drug packaging, including a serialized DataMatrix code (an evolution of the barcode that can store more data), as of February 9, 2019. This Unique Identifier contains the following information in machine-readable form:

  • the code of the drug manufacturer,
  • a unique serial number that can be used to prove the authenticity of the product,
  • a number for reimbursement, if applicable to the product,
  • a unique batch designation and
  • the expiration date of the product.

The Unique Identifier will be consistent across the EU to ensure traceability even across national borders. In addition, the information must be printed in plain text and must offer a specified minimum print quality so that physicians, pharmacists and patients can read and evaluate it without technical aids.

Inkjet printing in the pharmaceutical industry offers many advantages for companies

Inkjet printing solutions are particularly suitable for implementing these new and more stringent requirements in a timely manner. Inkjet printing can be used to generate both characters and 2D barcodes at high print speed and quality and apply them to a variety of surfaces and materials. Even multi-line prints and the combination of characters and graphics can be realized without any problems.

The consistent and clear coding provides very good legibility and high contrast, and is permanent and durable. In addition, Continuous Inkjet printers are highly efficient and therefore particularly economical in terms of individual product packaging. Not a drop of ink is lost with this printing system, which has a significant impact on operating costs, especially with high throughput.

Modern Inkjet printers can be easily integrated into a network for particularly flexible use. In addition, the devices have an intuitive touchscreen interface that can be used to display and modify all important parameters for print jobs. This allows changeover times to be reduced, which in turn helps to limit production costs. Inkjet printing reliably meets a wide range of compliance requirements for the pharmaceutical industry, ensures traceable and counterfeit-proof products and, thanks to short changeover times, optimally utilizes production capacities.

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