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Marking and encoding – future trends

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Both the method of applying information, as new technologies emerge, and the scope and extent of data that is applied to product, and the flow and integration of the information continues to evolve and become an integral part of the global world of commerce transforming the role that marking and coding plays today.

In the 30 years since the humble bar code first made its appearance, it has become the backbone of e-commerce.

Looking at the process of applying the information on packaging and product, this is still evolving. While hot foil stamping is still widely used, its limitation is that using metal blocks, based on the old tradition of metal printing matrixes, that require hand setting of the characters is time consuming, and prone to human error.

The next level - and a slightly later development is thermal printing, where the information is processed through a keyboard, or central computer. This offers several advantages.

Data can be readily changed, and time and date settings will change automatically. This ensures that use by date, and production information can be traced within a very tight time frame. One example is that if a product recall becomes necessary, the batch in question can be limited to a very specific time segment of the production run.

The next level is laser coding, which while now evolving, is still limited, for several reasons.

Domino (Australia) MD Rajiv Chaudhary, whose company specialises in non-contact marking, and has been selling laser equipment since 1994, says the technology will keep progressing over at least the next 15 years.

Unimark’s manager, Linda Gleeson sees inkjet technology, the original coding medium, to continue to be used for some time in the future, but considers thermal coding to be the mainstay, as it delivers high quality text (up to 300 DPI), combined with dynamic data – live real time information.

“This is an important consideration, with the growing demand for additional nutritional information, generic packaging and traceability for food products, and in many ways has driven the need for changing technology.

Turning to the latest in laser technology, she sees it as a growing technology that has evolved both in application and equipment affordability.

“The equipment is now about a third of the cost it was seven years ago, allowing more manufacturers to adopt its use.”

Bar coding continues to evolve, with 2D bar coding allowing a greater deal of information to be encoded on a much smaller physical area, which provides the possibility to increase detailed ingredient data for pharmaceutical and other small container items.

Matthews Intelligent Identification manager – Identification Systems, Mark Dingley describes the changes in marking and coding as an evolution, rather than a revolution.

“It increasingly facilitates integration and ease of use of equipment, ensures that different points of information application are coordinated.

“Inputting information at a central point, ensures a seamless, accurate information matrix, and eliminates the possibility of human error on the production line.”

New application areas for bar coding are still evolving. Until recently most of the bar code has been confined to the long-life and dry goods area. Recently there has been a focus on chilled and dairy products to adopted bar code identification standards for logistics and traded unit items that have now been in place for many years within the long life food and consumer goods sector.

“These can have very different requirements to long life consumer goods applications,” Dingley said.

“Consider label-placement requirements on cartons just for a start. Many dairy product cartons have ‘breathe holes’, a requirement to meet the rapid cool down and hot fill products and QA and health regulations. Any label placement than can cover these breathes holes need to be reviewed in detail.”

Another recent area where coding technology is playing an increasing role is in agriculture, with the introduction of the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), where cattle and sheep must carry a coded tag, that can trace each animal back to the farm or stockyard where it was born. All meat exported to Japan in particular, now require total traceability.

Another emerging development is car manufacturers placing micro dots on every single component in vehicle, in order to trace them if they are stolen, or need to be replaced.

Looking at the bigger picture, coding has become the gateway to global commerce through data synchronization and information flow.

EAN’s COO Mark Fuller said that the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN) was rapidly approaching critical mass and locally an enhanced EANnet data synchronization service will allow Australian companies to synchronies data with local or global trading partners.

“Benefits will include improved efficiency ad accuracy of information flow, more transparent product recall and global exposure to for locally produced products,” Fuller said.

EAN which will launch its new GS1 Australia brand on July 12 at the Impetus 2005 conference also sees Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in conjunction with Electronic Products Codes playing a huge part in the supply chain going forward.

“In future the US defence department will require items over $5000 to be encoded for RFID. Items under that figure will migrate to a 2D bar code to provide increasing amounts of information even when encoded on smaller items.”

“Adoption of global standards is the key to unlocking the real benefits of these emerging technologies,” Fuller said.

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