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2D or not 2D? that is the question?

Barcodes can no longer satisfy demanding applications.

Sunday, 21 October 2001

"A solution looking for a problem," is how one industry insider aptly described the two dimensional datacodes.  However, the Data Matrix method of direct part marking today looks set to take the place of industry standard linear barcoding.

As today's manufacturers strive to pack more and more components into smaller and smaller packages, while industry regulators require increasing levels of traceability, the major problem is the amount of space a barcode occupies in order to carry the necessary information.  By utilising 2D binary code, Data Matrix marking can include more than 2,000 characters to pack as much information as needed into the smallest possible space.  1mm square is not unheard of; meaning that now even the smallest component can be successfully marked.  In fact, the final size only depends on how much information needs to be accessed.

By using Data Matrix, not only can more information be included in a smaller space, but also the matrix itself does not have to be complete.  This is because data is encoded multiple times within the symbology, leading to greater error detection and correction levels than ever before achieved.  Unlike a barcode, a Data Matrix code remains fully readable even in the event of up to 20 percent damage.

This fact alone will have far reaching implications for several industries where damaged components or faulty manufacturing may need to be traced back to source.  The automotive, electrical and aerospace industries, in particular, spring to mind as manufacturers are looking to ensure total quality and safety of all manufactured components.  With many electronic components and integrated circuits being necessary in everyday items, for instance mobile phones, it is not possible to achieve this with traditional barcodes.  Many barcodes would by necessity take up a larger amount of space than an integrated circuit itself, whilst by contrast, Data Matrix allows traceability of an integrated circuit back to the original silicon wafer.

With unit level traceability being the key, a Data Matrix code also has enormous potential for use in high theft items, such as video & DVD machines, televisions, CD players, computers and PDA's - even lawn mowers.  Imagine the possibility where a policeman could walk around a car boot sale with a Data Matrix scanner.  Any stolen items could be instantly identified, even if some components had been switched around in order to confuse the original product identity.  Such a scenario is not impossible.  Even now a police data bank is being set up under the Neighbourhood Watch Machine Marking Scheme and manufacturers are already chemically etching the Data Matrix code onto printed circuit boards.  It's the good side of Big Brother, rather like having CCTV in shopping precincts.

A Data Matrix code is also extremely robust, as it does not rely upon good print contrast to be readable, a contrast as low as 20% will still give a full decode, whereas a barcode will require at least 80% contrast.  It can actually be woven in garment labels as a machine-safe permanent record for the item of clothing.  The work wear and commercial laundry industries find this aspect of Data Matrix very beneficial.

Data Matrix was first developed by US firm Robotic Vision Systems Incorporated (RVSI).  In the UK, leading inventory control and data management specialists, DATA Dialogue, have been appointed as business partners of RVSI.

DATA Dialogue has a comprehensive industrial and commercial background and the company is ideally placed to work with manufacturers to provide a complete solution of direct part marking systems, image readers and systems integration.