After successful implementation in sectors including tobacco and pharmaceuticals, two-dimensional barcodes or 2D codes are gaining prevalence across industries and are expected at the point of sale within the next 5 years
The growth in 2D codes presents significant opportunities for manufacturers but is not without its risks. As James Cutforth, Domino Printing Sciences, explains, preparing for the new dimension in barcodes requires bespoke product handling solutions, designed to facilitate crisp, clear coding on a range of products and packaging types.
Two-dimensional barcodes have become a common addition to product packaging – with factors such as globalisation, online trading and the need for more robust anticounterfeit 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, global standard organisation 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 at 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 serialisation and wider traceability. However, the complex nature of 2D codes also presents some challenges.
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.
Utilising 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 precoded 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
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 serialised 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.
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
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 specialised 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 specialised 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.