Making Lemonade

Making Lemonade

Most people know the old adage, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” (There’s a modern alternative that suggests selling them on eBay instead, but that’s a different story.) The point you’re supposed to take from the saying is that you should look for ways to turn limitations into benefits and weaknesses into strengths.

And, that’s exactly what a new symbology under development does.

To be cost effective, mass serialization of individual items—whether cans of soda or vials of vaccine—requires high-speed encoding. The problem is that true high-speed encoding is typically done with ink-jet printers that often don’t do a great job of placing dots in a straight line, in precise locations or even necessarily close together. Consider these factors the “lemons.”

So, what’s the “lemonade?” If you have problems printing a series of connected dots to make a line (for linear symbols) or a regular grid pattern (for matrix symbols), why not design a symbology that requires neither?

DotCode-128 (aka DotCode) is designed specifically for high-speed encoding. It is based on a grid pattern in which every other grid location is always blank. For a rough idea of how this works, imagine a chess board. In the first column, put a marker only on the black squares. Skip a column and put a marker only on the white (or red) squares. Skip a column and go back to black. This results in a somewhat diagonal pattern, in which no two adjacent squares have the potential for a marker.

The current design for DotCode encoding is that the default is to put a mark in every space with the potential for a marker. Removing marks from this pattern provides character encoding. The theory is fairly complex, but the result is extremely simple. Because no two adjacent locations will ever have a dot in them, continuous ink-jet printers will have an easier time placing dots, and drop-on-demand printers won’t have to fire as often. And, while not specifically intended for it, DotCode could also be an extremely effective symbology for direct part-marking technologies, such as laser etch and dot peening, in which speed, not precision, is required. (It’s unlikely, however, that DotCode will replace Data Matrix for smallspace, direct part marking.)

Of course, DotCode can also be produced on laser and thermal/thermal transfer printers. Some care might be necessary to dial back the heat on high-end, thermal print heads and ensure that low-end ones heat up fast enough to produce the dot.

Originally based on Code 128 (hence the initial designation DotCode-128), the symbology has been pushed beyond that to provide additional high-density data encoding options. It is still strongly character self-checking (meaning no single error will produce a misread character), and check characters will be included.

The symbology is being developed by Dr. Andy Longacre, scientist emeritus of Honeywell Imaging and Mobility (formerly Welch- Allyn). Dr. Longacre, who also created Aztec Code, is one of the world’s leading symbologists and has been a key member of AIM Global’s Technical Symbology Committee (TSC) for many years. The TSC has been responsible for the development of nearly all modern symbologies.

How soon will DotCode be available? It’s too early to say for certain. The symbology is still in development but may undergo final review by the TSC as early as the end of this year.

With the growing need for cost effective, machine-readable mass serialization (if only to a more granular lot/batch level) to facilitate tracking and minimize the size of product recalls, DotCode could be coming soon to a soda can near you.

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