A New Dimension in Barcodes
Two-dimensional barcodes have become a common addition to product packaging — with factors such as globalization, online trading and the need for more robust anti-counterfeit methods driving their uptake. In several industries, including European tobacco and pharmaceuticals, 2D codes are now a regulatory requirement.
Such is the success of 2D codes that in May of 2020, the global standard organization GS1 began an initiative to support the adoption of 2D codes at the point of sale (POS) with a new barcoding standard — the GS1 Digital Link. The standard will facilitate the use of 2D codes in POS systems and allow for a gradual transition away from standard linear barcodes.
There are multiple benefits to using 2D codes in place of traditional linear barcodes — 2D codes enable more information within a single code, including dynamic data, and can facilitate serialization and wider traceability. However, the complex nature of 2D codes also presents some challenges.
The Challenge Behind 2D Codes
It is imperative that 2D codes are printed correctly to ensure that they can be effectively scanned — this is particularly crucial when using 2D codes for regulatory purposes, such as those used in pharmaceutical applications, and will be increasingly important when considering 2D codes for use at POS.
Utilizing variable 2D codes on products can provide significant benefits to manufacturers in terms of facilitating better supply chain control, however, applying the code to packaging that has been packed or filled can be challenging.
Dynamic data, such as batch-related information (including batch numbers and ingredient variations including nutrition and allergen info), product expiry dates and unique product IDs, will require real-time, on-product coding rather than pre-coded labels. In such instances, simply “bolting on” a coding device to an existing production line may not be optimal because, often, production machinery is not designed with coding in mind.
For this reason, product handling or the “presentation of the product” to the coding device is fundamental to achieving high-quality codes. Manufacturers that choose to code products in-line without effective product handling will be subject to production line variations which can affect final code quality, including:
- Product position: Small variations in the position of products may result in codes applied in the wrong area or missing or incomplete codes.
- Product distance from the printer: Positioning too close or too far from the coding device can result in blurry or unreadable codes.
- Product angle: A slight rotation in product positioning can result in deformed codes, even if this is by just a few degrees.
- Line speed: Minimal speed fluctuations will affect the quality of the code, leading to squeezed or stretched codes.
- Conveyor vibrations: At high speeds, minimal vibrations can affect code quality leading to low-quality, blurred or wavy codes.
- Challenging product geometry: Certain packaging types can be a challenge for a standard coding setup.
At best, a poor-quality 2D code resulting from inadequate product handling will cause a high number of rejections, rework and defective stock. Poor-quality 2D codes can also have a knock-on effect on lines that require the aggregation of serialized products. The repercussions can be even more severe if an unreadable 2D code leaves the factory unnoticed. Brands can face financial penalties such as fines, as well as loss of business, product recalls and potential legal implications.
What’s the Solution?
A bespoke product handling solution can solve all issues above concerning code quality by ensuring optimal and consistent product delivery to the coding equipment. The optimal solution will be designed based on several different considerations, including:
- Product and packaging type: Factors such as the shape of a piece of packaging, substrate type and weight of a filled pack can be crucial. In pharmaceuticals, for example, boxes of blister packs are light and have regular form, but glass or plastic medicine bottles will be more challenging to code.
- Code requirements: Code type, placement and resolution are determining factors. Many machine-readable codes have minimum size requirements and necessitate the use of high-resolution printing technologies.
- Existing production specifications: If a coding solution is integrated into an existing production line, it will need to be designed with existing specifications in mind so as not to slow down production or reduce overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).
A bespoke solution may use multiple types of technology to handle finished products and present them to the chosen coding device for final printing, including specialized conveyors, wheels or product carriages and movers such as robotic arms, depending on the product type. These devices can use different methods to handle products with varying levels of force for delicate and robust products alike. A bespoke handler could be developed with pneumatic or servo-electric driven side, top or bottom belts, or even magnetic or vacuum solutions.
As well as improving overall code quality, bespoke product handling solutions can also be developed to allow additional processes to enable pre or post-treatment of a substrate, where necessary. When used alongside machine vision systems, such solutions can also help to give critical information for operations monitoring.
Product handling is the foundation that a viable 2D printing solution is based upon. When applying 2D codes directly onto product packaging, it is imperative to consider whether products can be adequately coded in situ or if a specialized product handling solution is required. Product handling solutions will help improve overall code quality on the line, helping manufacturers to improve OEE by reducing waste, increasing production efficiency and reducing overall running costs.