For as long as products have been packaged in plastic containers, there have been labels on those containers to identify the contents. Laser part marking has been used for years by industrial manufacturers to put part/model numbers and other information on parts. Now, a new process has been developed that combines the two and (potentially) signals the end of the line for paper product labels.
Laser Beams: Check; Still Working on the Sharks
As there haven’t been a whole heck of a lot of new developments in the packaging game since, well, plastic containers, probably, this is understandably a big deal. Dreamed up by a French company called Sidel, a self-proclaimed “global provider of PET solutions for liquid packaging,” the new process is, perhaps unsurprisingly, only viable for PET bottles at this point. PET is polyethylene terephthalate (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), the most common thermoplastic polymer resin in the polyester family. So this new process isn’t an esoteric, barely applicable thing—it should see wide use before long.
Sidel has been able to use their laser marking process to add both simple alphanumeric information, like bar codes, and splashier graphic elements, such as brand logos, to their plastic bottles. To ensure that the laser-applied markings remain visible over the lifetime of the package itself, the markings are applied to bottle preforms; when stretched into the final bottle shape prior to filling, the markings stretch with the plastic to minimize distortion. Laser marking an already-stretched bottle can also affect the plastic at a molecular level, potentially compromising the structural stability of modern thin-wall containers.
To create the actual markings themselves, specialized lasers cause a photochemical-induced carbonization reaction in the PET material, at a molecular level. Though the process can thus far only produce markings in varying shades of gray and/or black—helpful depending on the color of the plastic involved—different wavelengths are being tested in an attempt to create more colorful markings. Slight alterations to the chemical makeup of the plastic may also help facilitate this.
Less Waste, Lower Cost
As stated above, this new process could, eventually, eliminate the need for paper labels on plastic containers. This will ultimately result in less waste, as that’s one less component to go into the recycling bin or landfill later on.
And, because companies using laser marking technology will be able to reduce their production costs thanks to the subtraction of paper costs, they could pass those savings on to the consumer. Not saying they will—gotta pad those CEOs’ pockets, after all—but they could. Just about everything comes in a plastic container these days, so that could (again, potentially) add up to pretty significant savings over time.