Celebrating 30 years of TTO innovation

By Andy Gray, product marketing manager at Markem-Imaje

We are delighted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our first innovation in thermal transfer overprinting (TTO). That’s 30 years of continuous development to support changing industry print and coding priorities. Our evolution from TTO trailblazers to continued market leaders, has been quite a journey, one we’ve been privileged to share with customers around the world. We’re proud of our role in the story of a technology that has significantly advanced print quality, speed and productivity for flexible film packaging lines.

Three decades of TTO breakthroughs

Just over 30 years ago, printing onto film was typically undertaken using ink roll coders and hot foil coders, a highly mechanised approach. Back then, it could take a snack food factory with multiple packaging lines many hours to change all their lines – and they would have to change them all again the next day. Added to this, print quality would be variable at best and poor at worst. From those pre-TTO days of slow, inefficient packaging lines to TTO today, we’re proud to see how far we’ve come as pioneers of the technology, and how much our innovation has helped to drive industry forward.

As the inventors of SmartDate® the first industrial thermal transfer overprinter, we were the first company to commercialise TTO and take it mainstream. This was a critical leap forward, both for industrial printing and for food manufacturers. Our first machine, the SmartDate®, was the first in a long line of TTO machines designed to help answer key challenges around productivity, efficiency and speed. Following on came our SmartDate® 2 which introduced a whole new world of continuous bagging machines, with a longer ribbon, enabling companies to print on continuous packaging lines without wasting high volumes of ribbons.

As customer needs and priorities evolved, and legislation became more rigorous, so did the scope and efficiency of our TTO solutions, bringing us right up to date with our most recent innovations, the SmartDate® X45 and SmartDate® X65.

A proud heritage of TTO innovation

A lot has changed in industry in 30 years. From increased awareness of environmental issues to technological advances to shifting consumer demands, these and other market forces have shaped our heritage in developing TTO solutions. Our rate of innovation has increased to match the speed of business. For example, in the case of machine speeds, with the SmartDate® X65 now delivering fast, high-resolution coding on flexible film packaging.

Right from SmartDate®, we were leaders in TTO machine speeds, but we’ve kept this up with continuous product research and development. Another example of our continued drive to bring new ideas to industry 30 years on are our SmartDate® Xtreme and SmartDate ®Xtreme Plus thermal printheads, a market first and really pushing the envelope in terms of the application space for TTO technology. This market-first enables the printing of high quality, durable codes at up to 600 mm/s, twice the speed of the market’s next fastest coder using high resin ribbons.

From analogue to AI

Back in 1993, fax machines were still commonplace in business while email was still a novelty. Technology – and the drive to be connected in business – has moved on radically since then, as has our TTO technology. Customers and markets now expect fast, seamless connectivity as standard.

In contrast with those early days of faxes, today we harness the best of connectivity to provide remote video support and diagnostics. This capability is so advanced that we can remotely take control of printers in order to solve problems, even when machines are running at full speed.

Today, AI is quickly becoming mainstream, but we were ahead of the curve, already having embraced this still-evolving technology for the benefit of our customers with our connected services. These services allow manufacturers to troubleshoot printer issues by themselves, across all key Markem-Imaje technologies, including our TTO solutions.

In addition to connected services, our unique Advanced Service Exchange includes a direct replacement of a broken part with a refurbished one immediately with up to 90% of the items dispatched on the same day.

From LCD displays to touchscreens

Alongside connectivity, user operability has also come a long way in 30 years. Just compare the analogue style of the small two-line LCD display with a literal key for security on early SmartDate® machines with solutions like the SmartDate® X45 with its intuitive user interface with 10.2-inch colour touch screen, fully remotely accessible over the internet. While it’s incredible to see how customers have embraced our new products, we’re also impressed by the handful of companies who continue to use and value SmartDate® and SmartDate® 2! This proves that while we continue to advance TTO technology, we’ve succeeded in creating longevity in our products.

Helping our customers to reduce their carbon imprint

The last three decades have seen a marked shift in how the environmental responsibilities of individuals and businesses are perceived. Rightly so, the environment is now a more pressing concern for customers, consumers and governments, leading to more sustainable production practices becoming a critical consideration for food manufacturers. With every step forward in print technology, we have aimed to make improvements to the sustainability of our products.

One example of this relates to the volume of waste created by TTO, just as with other printing technologies. In terms of improvements, the SmartDate® Xtra 3520 uses a thin 4.0 micron ribbon which contains over 10% less plastic than the industry standard.

Additionally, the plastic cores of the SmartDate® Xtra 3520 ribbon are 100% recyclable, and the entirety of the waste PET plastic from the film of the ribbon is either repurposed into Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) or recycled into new plastic. This ensures a notable reduction in the amount of waste created, helping to lower the volume of mis-coded bags and levels of waste in food plants. Because our thermal transfer ribbons are 50% to 83% longer than industry standard ribbons, they can be changed less frequently, offering up to 80% more prints per roll.

Our SmartDate® Xtreme Plus printhead is another breakthrough, and not just for its aforementioned speeds, but for also for supporting more sustained production with its greater print longevity than comparable models. The model has also reduced waste by improving line production efficiency and excels in challenging applications.

Looking to the future

In three decades, we’ve played a critical role in turning innovation in thermal transfer coding technology into an established and valued solution for business. While it’s great to see just how far we’ve come, we’re even more interested in looking ahead, to understand how else we can support our customers.

That’s why we continue to evolve by developing new features, including innovative ribbon management and patented industrial design concepts, colour touch screen interface, or via the continued improvement of our consumables. This includes via the market-first Advanced Consumable Management system, the unique ‘relative motion’ feature to ensure printing information is completed when unscheduled line stoppages occur, and patented ribbon saving features for less waste. We have also supported customer’s improvements to their TTO technology with the aforementioned unique  Advanced Service Exchange.

“The SmartDate X series of printers are really primed to Industry 4.0 needs, have been exceptionally well received by the market, and continue to achieve improvements in the area of performance and consumables reduction,” says Jeffrey Bradley, TTO product division director at Markem-Imaje.

From our foundations as a small UK-based company developing TTO to a global company with the technology as a mainstay of our production and innovation, we’re looking forward to continuing to support businesses with further developments in TTO over the next 30 years and beyond!

Andy Gray