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A Graphic Argument for RFID Labels

By modifying their requirements for shipping-container graphics, Wal-Mart and Target could give CPG makers a way for RFID compliance to pay for itself.
By Ken Rohleder
Jun 12, 2006CPG manufacturers are beginning to understand how the graphic requirements of their largest customers drive complexity in their own supply chains and create sustainability issues upstream. By allowing CPG manufacturers to mark kraft shipping cases with a single RFID label—corner-applied to two adjacent panels—retailers would have a flexible graphic interface without driving complexity and cost upstream.

The Challenge
Consumer packaged goods (CPG) are generally sold in standard case packs across most retail channels. For example, a standard case pack might contain 12 bottles of pancake syrup, packaged in a corrugated shipping container. For each base product sold in a standard case pack, there are often dozens of variations, such as different flavors, colors and seasonal promotions. Even though the length, width and depth of the boxes might be exactly the same, each product variation still requires its own unique corrugated shipping container, or shipper. The UPC code and product description are printed by the box manufacturer, with maple-flavored, butter-flavored, blueberry and sugar-free syrups each requiring its own unique shipper even though all four products are all packaged in the same size bottle, 12 to a case pack.

It is not unusual for a CPG manufacturer to have 50 or more shipping container variations for a single base product (consider Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Pop-Tarts and Campbell's soups). When major retailers require unique graphic treatments to facilitate shipments into their systems, the number of cases required double or triple. Wal-Mart and Target, for example, often require color-coding by department, as well as four-panel printing to help stockers organize and find products in the back room. Their printing requirements preclude the CPG from shipping the same case to Kroger, Albertson's or retailers with more generic requirements.

Manufacturers have known for years that if they could buy unprinted kraft cases, their spending on corrugated shipping containers would drop incrementally, and box inventories would drop dramatically—which would reduce complexity and virtually eliminate shrinkage and obsolescence—saving an average of 8 percent on even the most efficient corrugated purchases. The challenge, then, is how to imprint each box in-line in a way that meets each retailer's requirements.

The Solution
With current technology, white pressure-sensitive labels can be applied in-line on adjacent sides of each case (wrapping around the corner of the box) with very high resolution and in any color. The labels can include product descriptions, bar codes and brand identities, as well as color-coding (click here to view a graphic illustrating how this would work). If manufacturers were given the option by retailers of labeling a case's corner, rather than directly printing that same information on all four of the case's sides, they could buy generic, unprinted corrugated boxes and still provide a flexible graphic interface on the carton.

Ink and the Environment
The cost and environmental impact of printing kraft corrugated containers is often understated by the corrugated industry. The process of cleaning the press between color changes can take 20 to 40 minutes per print station, depending on the colors and the level of automation on the press, thereby increasing the cost of corrugated boxes. In general, changing ink colors on a flexographic press requires 50 gallons or more of hot water and detergent, which either enters the waste-water stream directly, or is diverted to an ink separation plant, where the solids are reclaimed and land-filled. Wal-Mart, however, recently launched an initiative to attack just these kinds of upstream environmental issues.

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