Packing Data Into a Compact Code

June 1, 2010
DataMatrix barcodes provide a solution for packing data into small spaces on packaging.

Barcodes are ubiquitous today. They enable retail purchases and supply chain tracking and are regularly used in industries such as healthcare, transportation and logistics, aeronautics, chemicals and technology. According to GS1, a global organization dedicated to implementing standards to improve efficiency and visibility in supply chains, at least 5 billion barcodes are read daily worldwide. GS1 provides standards for several types of barcodes, including DataMatrix codes. DataMatrix is becoming a popular barcode choice because of its ability to embed a large amount of data in a small space, making it easier to fit on packaging and on products themselves.

A single DataMatrix code can contain up to 3,116 numeric characters or 2,335 alphanumeric characters. Applications using DataMatrix symbols include:

• Direct parts marking, such as automotive and aircraft parts, medical instruments and surgical implants;
• Laser or chemically etched parts with low contrast or those that require light marking on a dark background, such as circuit boards and electronic components;
• Very small items that require a compact code, such as pharmaceutical vials or cosmetics.

How Does DataMatrix Work?

Black-and-white modules, arranged in either a square or rectangular pattern, form DataMatrix codes. The square format is used most often because it offers a larger range of sizes and can encode more information than a rectangular format. Rectangular DataMatrix codes can encode only up to 98 numeric characters but can be used to fit better into available space on some products or packaging.

DataMatrix codes help ensure readability because error correction is built into the code design, meaning that some portion of the printed code can be rendered incorrectly without invalidating the data. The error correction allows for up to 60% of the code to be damaged while the overall code can still be read.

The codes must be read by two-dimensional imaging scanners or vision systems. Therefore, use of DataMatrix codes may be best-suited for applications that already involve imaging scanners throughout the supply chain.

As mobile technology evolves, more programs are being offered that enable smartphones to read barcodes, including DataMatrix codes. Currently, these technologies have marketing applications to enable consumers to access information about products or promotions. However, it remains to be seen if this will become the dominant symbology in material handling or logistics applications.

Implementing Barcode Use

Companies implementing the use of barcodes, including DataMatrix, should follow specific steps outlined by GS1. These steps include obtaining a unique GS1 company prefix, which must be incorporated into every code.

GS1 also advises companies to determine early in the process what technologies they will use to print barcodes. These companies can work with the manufacturers of variable data printing systems to ensure the printers they select will provide clear, readable, consistent codes. Printer manufacturers also can help companies install the printer on a production line to ensure proper placement of the code on the product or packaging.

Various types of products support GS1 DataMatrix standards, including laser coders, thermal transfer overprinters, binary array printers, continuous ink jet printers and thermal ink-jet printers.

Jeff Norris is a product manager for Videojet Technologies’ Brand Protection Solutions group, a provider of track-and-trace systems tailored to the specific needs of customers. Norris has worked in the marking and coding industry for 12 years, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and is a GS1-certified barcode consultant.

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