Barcode technology addresses the counterfeit dilemma

Oct 28, 2009
By PharmTech Editors

New barcoding technologies are helping to aid product traceability and fight counterfeits. Mark Beauchamp of Citizen Systems Europe explains how these technologies have affected the pharmaceutical packaging and labelling industry.

Q1: DataBar code, designed by GS1, an organization that designs and implements global standards and solutions, is becoming the global standard. Why is this?
Manufacturers, distributors and retailers across a wide range of industries now need to share much more information about products than they did previously. This is because of a number of factors, including the need to increase efficiency and cut cost throughout the supply chain, as well as to improve traceability. In many cases, conventional barcodes are unable to hold the level of information needed. GS1 DataBar codes have been developed to solve this problem and can hold considerably more information than standard barcodes, including Global Trade Identification Numbers (GTIN) for variable data such as batch, expiration date, serial number, price, monetary value, size or weight. However, the new system will only work if it’s adopted universally, which is why it’s being rolled out as the next standard in barcoding.

Q2: How can this kind of coding be used to aid traceability and prevent counterfeits in the healthcare sector?
Information is key to both improving traceability and reducing counterfeiting in the healthcare market. To this purpose, a 2D barcoding technology called DataMatrix, which can hold even more data than a GS1 DataBar code, is becoming more and more popular in the pharma sector as it enables more complex tracking and even allows security codes to be embedded in codes on batches of drugs. This information can be accessed instantly by scanning the label on a product or batch. By feeding data back to the manufacturer, suppliers and retailers can help create a closed loop data system that continually monitors the status of a drug as it travels across the globe. This can help manufacturers prove the validity of a drug or shipment simply and quickly.

Q3: What is the difference between DataBar and DataMatrix?
DataMatrix (matrix style 2D barcodes) are becoming increasingly popular in the pharmaceuticals sector as they allow up to 1000 or more characters of information to be held on a single label. These codes, which are generally square and comprise a pattern of black and white cells, can be read in a similar way to the bars on a conventional barcode. This type of code is extremely space efficient and scaleable depending on the amount of information needed to be stored.

DataBar is set to replace the traditional EAN barcode at the point-of-sale, which is currently the industry standard. The codes look very similar to conventional barcodes, but they can also be stacked one above the other to create a 'stacked' barcode that can store more information.

These complex codes can be read by standard handheld scanners, providing a great deal of backward compatibility within the scanner market. DataMatrix codes, on the other hand, require true '2D' scanners, which are not always used on low-cost terminals. However, the increasing availability of CCD (Charge Coupled Devices)-based scanners, which use low-cost cameras, is beginning to make 2D scanning very affordable.

Q4: What trends in the pharma industry have influenced advances in barcoding?
The demand for increased traceability and the need for a solution to counterfeiting have helped drive the development of new barcoding technologies. GS1, the organization promoting the new barcode standard, has designed the new codes specifically to address these requirements and to help companies reassure both consumers and regulatory bodies that their safety concerns are being addressed.

Q5: How have these advances influenced printing and labelling systems?
Many of the printers currently being used to produce EAN barcodes are already capable of printing DataBar and DataMatrix codes accurately — including systems used to apply ink jet codes directly onto products, large scale print-and-apply machines used to label boxes, and industrial printers used to label master cartons. This is one of the major benefits of the new coding systems and will allow organizations to implement the technology quickly, easily and affordably.

Q6: Many different suppliers of printing, labelling and coding equipment promote their services to pharma. As well as good customer and post-service support, what offerings should companies be on the look out for in particular?
When choosing a label printer to print DataBar or DataMatrix codes, pharma companies should look for a system that is robust enough to handle the volume of labels needed; conventional all-plastic printers are generally not up to the job. Printers should also be simple to use. All too often, valuable time is wasted loading media and changing ribbons, but the latest specialized label printers make these operations faster and easier, and eliminate problems such as jamming and tangling. It’s also worth looking for a machine that can accommodate different sizes and types of media. DataBar codes in particular can be printed on very small labels, making them extremely versatile, but standard printers can struggle to print on these smaller labels efficiently.

Q7: How do you think printing and labelling technology in the pharma industry will change during the next 10 years? Do you expect to see any major advances?

I think DataBar and DataMatrix will have a big impact on efficiency, traceability and safety in the pharma sector, but the market will no doubt continue to present us with new challenges with regards to labelling. The big question for each of the latest labelling systems will be which ones prove most popular and are universally adopted. Only with a coherent flow of information will the necessary improvements be seen. Perhaps in time, a central organization will be required to manage the secure transfer of data around the world.