Data matrix codes are gaining acceptance and helping improve high precision manufacturing lines in consumer product labeling
Over the last couple years, observant consumers may have noticed new markings on some common products like detergent and ice cream. Manufacturers are beginning to use data matrix codes to augment the bar codes that have been used for decades.
These small markings give manufacturers another tool to improve the high precision manufacturing lines needed in today’s consumer market. Data matrix codes, also called 2D codes, help ensure that various components such as front and back labels are correct.
That adds another layer of protection as manufacturing facilities use more automation while producing more variations. Many factories now produce many smaller runs of these variants to meet the demands of consumers who want specialized products without the cost increase that’s often associated with lower volume production runs.
Though 2D codes don’t have the same level of visibility that UPC codes have given bar code technology, data matrix codes are far from a new technology. The marking have been used in industrial applications for years. For example, automakers and aircraft suppliers often laser etch the codes onto engine and transmission components.
The 2D codes are now being adopted for consumer products. “This is a cost effective way to ensure that packagers are using the right components,” says Jeff Snyder, Manager of Industrial Identification, Code Reading and RFID for Siemens Industry.
It’s not a big challenge for manufacturers to start printing these 2D codes. Printers are fairly standard. The readers are simplified vision systems designed for very specific tasks. That keeps their cost down to around a couple thousand dollars, well below the fee for complex vision systems.
These readers can easily be linked to a range of industrial systems. Programmable logic controllers (PLC), human machine interfaces (HMI) and other systems from Siemens can be set up quickly to begin gaining the benefits of this error proofing technology.
There are significant differences between data matrix markings and the bar codes consumers have grown familiar with. UPC markings must have high contrast, typically black on white. Data matrix codes don’t require as much contrast and they can be far smaller.
A lot of information can be stored on a mark that’s only ¼ inch, or 5-6 mm, per side. That’s because data matrix coding stores data along both the height and length of a symbol. That gives it far more capacity than a one-dimensional bar code. Data matrix symbols can hold more than 3,000 characters, although most component verification applications use 10-14 characters.
These subtle patterns can be printed on front labels without drawing the consumer’s attention away from the packaging. That is important in products as diverse as ice cream and laundry soap. There’s steady growth in the number of product variations in both these markets, as in many others.
For example, when detergent makers are producing more variants, they need to ensure that front and back labels are correct. The same holds true for ice cream lids and containers.
“The data matrix codes fit unobtrusively on the lid, letting code readers confirm that everything is labeled correctly,” Snyder says. “If ice cream has nuts and the label doesn’t say that, a resulting food allergy could lead to recall and legal ramifications.”
The system can be designed to provide a range of warnings when readers detect incorrect lids and/or cartons, or front and back labels. Production lines can be shut down or alerts can be sent to operators so they can determine whether the issue is serious or not.
These 2D codes can bring high reliability without requiring a substantial investment in effort or capital funding. Automakers have wrung cost out of the equipment and they’ve built a knowledge base that is hard to rival. That means that new users can adopt the equipment and technology without concern about the viability of the technology.
Data matrix systems also boast high reliability. The 2D codes have so much storage capacity that error detection and error correction can be written within each symbol.
That ensures that codes can be read even if the label has significant damage. Matrix codes can typically reconstruct up to 20% of damaged characters. That’s a dramatic contrast to barcodes, which have only a single check digit for basic error detection and have no error correction capability.
Siemens has a number of different products that will help companies gain the benefits of 2D coding. Software makes it easy to convert user data to symbols that can be printed on tags or on packaging. A range of readers make it simple to check these codes during production. The Siemens MV420 can provide an excellent solution to many packaging type applications. The MV440 offers added capabilities for more challenging applications.
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