John Folkers – Videojet Technologies Inc.
Recall news can be frightening. The snack cakes you like so much may contain mold. The granola bars you buy have traces of nuts that are hazardous to people with food allergies. The hand sanitizer you’re relying on during the coronavirus pandemic may contain methanol.
Fortunately, the alerts go beyond a press release that lists the product and affected lot number; there’s also a clear photo of the label, so you can see if what’s in in your fridge, pantry or cabinet should stay or go.
Making sure those batch codes are indelible and easy to read—no matter the printing method—is what Videojet Technologies Inc. specializes in. Since the 1970s, the company has supplied and serviced printers (and inks and more) that add batch and lot numbers, expiration dates and just about anything else a manufacturer needs, to labels, flexible film, boxes or bottles for industries from food and beverage to pharmaceutical to automotive and aerospace.
Coding and marking—the industry term—has come a long way since Videojet CTO John Folkers joined the company in 1995. He knows making the fine print legible is crucial—even when there’s no emergency or recall.
“I think about what we do as a method of communicating important information to consumers,” he says. “We all read that use-by date on the milk when we pull it out of the refrigerator.”
Acquisitions and innovations
Founded more than 50 years ago as a division of A. B. Dick Co., Videojet first began making forms printers. The company was purchased in 2002 by the Danaher Corp. which Folkers explains was instrumental in taking Videojet to new heights in the industry.
“We became the market basket provider for our customers with our own acquisitions from 2002-08 that included thermal inkjet, lasers, thermal transfer printers, networking solutions and more,” he says. “We have a broad and diverse toolbox to serve the vast variety of customer needs in coding and marking.”
Videojet printers provide coding and marking data such as best-by dates, production dates and lot numbers—as well as linear and 2D barcodes that can be applied to virtually any kind of product packaging, shipping box or pallet by printers integrated into the production lines.
Though well-versed and experienced in the coding and marking technologies, Folkers keeps his focus squarely on the horizon.
“My purpose is not to be constrained by short-term targets or urgent needs,” he says. “Because I’ve been in the business 25 years and have held a variety of roles, I get to step back and look at what our customers will need over the next 10 years.”
What’s in a code?
While customers using multimillion-dollar packaging lines are not likely to replace them anytime soon, Folkers says trends in coding and marking are shifting to newer methods. Lasers, for example, are increasingly used to code products on the fly, he notes.
He began his career at Videojet by mixing inks used in the inkjet machines but sees plenty of value in other methods. And not just because other technologies can replace the use of chemicals that might be restricted in consumer packaging or workplaces.
“Lasers are a growing part of this industry,” Folkers says. “Laser technology continues to evolve, enabling marking on more and more materials. We want to remain at the forefront of it.”
The devices Videojet provides are also data capture tools, he adds, providing information that can be used to improve service support. Data, including the specific codes printed, can also be put into the cloud for the entire supply chain. For example, most pharmaceuticals are traced through the supply chain using the codes on the packaging.
Videojet’s equipment has internal sensors and sees every product on a customer’s production line, so the captured data is also an Internet of Things springboard to create predictive tools that can help customers avoid downtime and better understand their operation, Folkers adds.
So how does someone with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard (as well as post-doctoral research work at Collège de France) find himself guiding innovation in printing technology? Toggle wasn’t the first to ask, he says, and the answer is found in how he began his Videojet career in 1995.
Folkers was responsible for the chemical composition of inks made at Videojet and he had to make sure they worked reliably in the inkjet systems. A Videojet inkjet nozzle sprays 80,000 ink drops, each 1 nanoliter in size, and the last thing any packaging line needs is a lengthy shutdown because a drop didn’t go where it should have.
So Folkers didn’t just make inks that didn’t gum up the works, he learned how to un-gum the works while testing the inks he made.
“I spent lots of time maintaining our equipment while running my experimental inks, so much so that I became effectively a service level technician,” he recalls.
Folkers became CTO and vice president of R&D in 2008, charged with stretching the boundaries of all printing methods. To do this, he traveled to other Videojet facilities to understand the technologies, working with Videojet’s teams on how they could be improved.
Has this obsession bled outside work?
Well, when Folkers recently looked at a bottle of vitamins at his house, he jokes that he could tell the label was digitally printed in a single run.
He also admits his children didn’t enjoy grocery shopping with him, as the trips frequently became a lengthy show-and-tell about the codes on every product.
“I have a strong background in science,” Folkers says. “But I’m also fascinated by our core technology—from flying ink drops to steered laser beams—and how their applications affect consumers every day. I am excited to see where we take it next.”
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