Eliminating label and packaging errors with automation

Wayne Johnson, autocoding product manager at OAL, tells us the top five reasons for label and packaging errors in food manufacturing and why they occur.

2014 AWA International Sleeve Label Conference & Exhibition label labeling OAL packaging

Product recalls can have a catastrophic impact on a food manufacturer’s brand and business and costs the industry millions a year. In 2015, 277 product recalls in the UK were related to labeling and packaging errors. These errors could have been detected and resolved at an earlier stage within the manufacturing process before the incorrectly packaged and labeled products entered distribution. Not only would the manufacturer have avoided a substantial fine, but they would also have avoided the significant damage to their brand reputation.

People up and down the supply chain make mistakes every day and manufacturers need to be confident that their systems can detect and prevent them.  Although manufacturers do have manual systems in place ready to check labeling and packaging, these are not fault-proof and do not protect factories to the extent necessary to build trusted, reliable brands from a retailer and consumer perspective.

Labeling and packaging errors can cause cross contamination, premature spoiling, consumer illness and fatalities, especially if the error lies within the allergen information. By preventing packaging errors, manufacturers can ensure a positive brand reputation, supply chain relationships and risk-free distribution, retailing and consumption of products within the food industry.

OAL tells us the top five reasons for label and packaging errors in food manufacturing and why they occur.

1. Human error
Retailers pushing for all category ranges to have a unified look have created difficulties for operators ensuring the correct labels are applied to products. It is now common place for all products to have the same design with just one word different on the label artwork; hence it is very easy to select the wrong labels from a big box of labels, especially in a high speed, quick change over food factory environment.

Human error has the potential to cause a product recall in the case of a date code error. If the date code was incorrectly calculated or not changed during setup or changeover and this was not identified before production, then this could cause the whole line to be recalled.

He says, “I have seen many errors when setting up printers. It’s all too easy to change the date and not the month or put the 32nd of a date. Although quality checks seek to prevent errors when signing off labels, these can be easily missed when you are trying to check ten or more things as well as keeping an eye on the production line.”

2. Equipment errors
If a printer goes into a “fault” state then this can usually lead to firstly, the printer stops printing but the line carries on running. This can result in un-printed or badly printed packs. If these are not detected by the operator at the end of the line then these could go out to the customer.

Secondly, the date code can revert to a default setting. This has been seen on a number of printers. If this change in date is not detected then this will potentially result in a product withdrawal due to an inaccurate best before or use by date.

3. Promotional activities
In most cases, promotions are briefed to the production team at the last minute or packaging arrives just before production starts. This increases the pressure on the team and can lead to a lack of clarity around when the promotion was meant to start and finish. Incorrectly packing products into promotional packs after the promotion has ended can lead to retailer fines and claims for loss of income due to the wrong prices being scanned at the tills. This is very damaging for the manufacturer’s brand reputation.

4. Supplier packaging errors
Packaging suppliers can make errors too. Spliced reels of labels or films are more common than most people think. The difficulty with this, especially due to similar artwork designs, is that it is almost impossible for operators to spot mistakes on the line. 30-minute quality checks (applying a label to a check sheet and signing it off) may catch some, but if the splice error occurs between a check and in some cases reverts back to the correct label, the error will not be realized until the dreaded phone call from the retailer.

These errors from the suppliers can often go undetected or incorrectly identified as operator errors which may lead to misplaced disciplinary action but without the necessary evidence and it is very hard to prove otherwise.