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UV laser marking on medicine

The requirements for marking medical products are somewhat unique compared to other industries. It is often essential that the mark itself is not a source of contamination, or does not contain chemicals that might cause an allergic reaction. Furthermore, it is frequently desirable that the marking process leave the marked surface smooth, either to avoid tissue damage or to avoid having the mark become a site for bacterial growth.
 
medicine laser marking
 
Traditional marking methods
 
The dominant method for marking pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and their associated packaging has long been ink printing (inkjet or pad printing). Pills are usually imprinted using an offset rotogravure method.
For medical applications, the main drawback of printing is that it is often easy to remove or alter printed marks. Print quality is also limited, and this represents a problem as manufacturers try to squeeze ever more information, including 2D bar-codes, into a small space.
 
laser marking hglaser
 
Laser marking
 
Laser marking is a non-contact method that avoids the problems of contamination and eliminates the cost of consumables. Furthermore, laser marking generally supports the creation of high-contrast, high-resolution marks that can be made very small and readily be applied to curved or contoured surfaces.
 
Laser marking usually employs either CO2 or solid-state lasers operating in the IR. The marking process itself is a thermal interaction; material is heated until it bleaches, carbonizes, or ablates to produce a color contrast. However, this heating can alter the chemical structure of the material in the heat-affected zone (HAZ), and also produces some surface relief. This texture can offer a place for bacteria to settle and grow, and may be difficult to clean.
 
 
 
Because the mark is actually subsurface, it doesn't provide a possible home for bacteria, and it is nearly impossible to alter or deface without destroying the material itself. Furthermore, since this is a cold process, there is essentially no HAZ or changes to the surrounding material. And, the higher absorption in the UV means that material can be processed with lower laser power (or pulse energy). Finally, since UV light can be more tightly focused than IR, UV lasers support complex, high-resolution marks such as 2D barcodes.
               
Given all these advantages, why haven't UV lasers been widely employed in medical marking applications in the past? The simple answer was cost. But, over the past decade, companies such as Coherent have made substantial improvements in UV laser lifetime, reliability, and output power. These have been achieved through improvements in laser design, materials, and the implementation of stringent cleanroom procedures during production. Also, automated assembly methods and economies of scale as sales volumes have increased have helped to reduce UV laser price by a factor of nearly five over this period.
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