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Data Matrix Barcodes: Print Quality and Popularity On The Up
The full version of this counterfeiting feature can be read in the July issue of our digital magazine: http://www.pharmtech.com/ptedigital0710
The information encoded in a Data Matrix barcode is formatted using the structure defined by the GS1 Organisation and detailed in their GS1 General Specifications.3 The standard for data content enables the product to be identified (using the CIP 13 code, in the case of the French market), and also allows additional product attributes to be carried in the same barcode, such as the batch number and expiry date and, if required, unique serial numbers for the item.
These variable data requirements make it necessary to print the barcodes when the product is being packaged; however, this places demands on the printing methods that can be used for the Data Matrix barcodes.
Printing barcodes: points to consider
Recent advances in printing technology, particularly ink jet printing, make printing directly onto the packaging when the product is being packaged perfectly possible, but there are certain potential problems that must be taken into consideration.
There has been a recent growth in the use of Data Matrix barcodes within manufacturing organisations because of the need to identify and trace items within production processes, as well as the wider supply chain. The wide implementation of this coding technology has also driven the development of barcode scanning systems that can improve the decoding performance of Data Matrix barcodes when the print quality is not perfect. For instance, if a Data Matrix barcode has a partially damaged finder pattern, it may still be possible to locate the barcode and attempt to decode it if the rest of the image is intact. It may take longer to try and decode such a damaged barcode, but with processing speeds improving all the time, a scanner might devote more time, having a few more tries with different algorithms before giving up on a particular image.
The printing of Data Matrix barcodes is not particularly challenging for conventional printing methods because the size of the individual modules within the matrix will generally need to be larger than the widths of linear barcodes that are found on grocery packaging, for instance. Controlling or compensating for the amount of ink spread is also less of an issue with Data Matrix unless the ink spread becomes a significant percentage of the module size.
The challenges with printing on pharmaceutical packaging arise with the need to print on the packaging line to encode the expiry date, batch number data and, in due course, serial numbers where these are required. It is also preferable to ensure that the printing of the packaging does not slow down the flow of the line, particularly on fast moving packaging lines. There is therefore a real need for printing technology to further develop to achieve faster printing speeds and yet continue to achieve similar or better print quality in the future. Improvements are already being developed with ink jet systems in the way that the ink is controlled within the nozzle feed mechanisms to help reduce blockages and deliver consistent ink drop sizes to the product. Developments in printing technology will no doubt rise to meet these challenges as the use of Data Matrix barcodes on pharmaceutical products continues to grow.
Martin Morrison is Technical Director at Axicon Auto ID Ltd.
1. Club Inter Pharmaceutique www.cipclub.org
2. EFPIA, "Results demonstrate EFPIA anti-counterfeit product verification pilot project successful" (April, 2010). www.efpia.eu
3. GS1 Organisation www.gs1.org
4. ISO/IEC 15415:2004 (International Organization for Standardization, June 2009). www.iso.org
5. B. Moore, Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (Novermber 2009). www.aimglobal.org