Quality Control for Advanced Barcode Technology

Change brings opportunity for those who embrace it; and equally, challenges for those who are hesitant. Technology progresses constantly in the package printing industry—from pressroom consumables driving increased print quality to unique packaging materials helping brand owners differentiate products.

Don’t think technology has evolved much in printing? It wasn’t long ago that most printers rarely used spectrophotometers as part of their color control program, but today it is widely expected that top US printers use and provide reports based on color management.

Traditional bar codes for retail and inventory management have changed very little in decades. New codes and symbology, such as QR codes, have been developed to respond to the need for more data and smaller physical spaces for the mark. These marks need to be seen by a reader to work and are located in specific areas of a package—in some cases, on all six sides of case packaging.

By leveraging wireless technology and radio waves (RFID, NFC, etc.), the market has developed data carriers for products that can be in proximity, but not seen by the reader, as a solution for speed and effectiveness in supply chain management.

These commercial solutions have various challenges with widespread use of the technology due to cost, complexity and the status quo of 1D UPC. Retailers and consumer brands are looking for operational efficiencies that could be achieved by placing bar codes on all sides of the package. However, visible bar codes on all sides would negatively impact packaging aesthetics and branding elements.

A new technology provides an answer: an imperceptible bar code that is an integral part of the packaging artwork and is easily read by retail scanners, consumer phones and inspection systems.

QC software lets print professionals validate the location and consistency of the Digimarc advanced bar code. Printers use the resulting report as a guide to scan the print sample with a free mobile app to validate that the data is consistent with the traditional UPC bar code.
Photo courtesy of Digimarc

Traditional Snags

Routine use of UPC bar codes in package printing has led to standard operating procedures (SOPs) that limit the risk of the code being printed improperly. There are two primary concerns for printing; one, that the right bar code makes it onto the product in prepress and plating, and two, that the printer reproduces the bar code for acceptable performance in scanning.

Repercussions for an improperly printed bar code on a product are significant for all involved in graphic development and print production. Printers and their graphics partners validate that the correct bar code has been placed on the correct product and verify the code is properly set up for the intended printing and scanning environments.

Variables within the printing system can impact the scannability and effectiveness of the code when printing is out-of-tolerance from the intended printing environment. Specifically:

  • Color strength of the selected barcode color can decrease and cause low scan performance
  • Improper settings may distort the printed code
  • Print defects in the barcode area(s) can create voids or failures

For many print operations, the variables can change enough over the printrun to require multiple checks throughout and at the end of production.

Advanced Bar Code

Retailers and consumer brands are looking for technology that allows for quicker and more efficient transactions, smarter inventory control and consumer engagement. Major players such as Walmart, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo represent and drive significant activity for package printing and graphics industry professionals.

One new topic in the printing, premedia and packaging industries is the availability of an imperceptible bar code that covers a large portion of a package and makes retail scanning—as well as consumer engagement with phones—more accurate and reliable.

The brand name of this imperceptible bar code is Digimarc Barcode, and it carries the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN)—information currently carried by the traditional UPC code. Just as the traditional UPC bar code uses contrast between the printed lines and substrate, the advanced bar code creates sophisticated and subtle contrast modulations within the packaging artwork to encode GTIN and other data. Because it is added directly to print-ready artwork, it can be produced using both conventional and digital print technologies without modifications.

“Retailers and consumer brands are looking for technology that allows for quicker and more efficient transactions, smarter inventory control and consumer engagement.”

Assuring Quality

Packaging graphics have many goals, including: informing customers of everything from product ingredients and allergens, inducing impulse-buys, as well as hosting identification marks that align the correct product to package in manufacturing. The quality control (QC) function within packaging print operations—to ensure the fidelity and accurate reproduction of customer-approved artwork—is critical for a successful packaging supplier.

The advancement of mobile camera and internet-connected devices allows for anyone in the value chain to easily check packaging artwork to discover and validate an advanced, mobile-ready bar code. For print and graphics quality control operations, there are advanced tools from image capture of the printed press sample, to color reference patches, that can be integrated into a color control workflow, to not only assist with barcode validation, but also to track-and-trace artwork movement through graphic development and delivery.

On-press, common print errors like over-impression and highlight distortion, dried and plugged ink, color drift and registration may accentuate the visibility of this advanced bar code and at the same time create out-of-specification printed products. The printer works with the color separator to optimize the application of the advanced barcode technology to avoid troublesome graphic areas and ensure proper printing specifications and tolerances have been communicated upstream.

Prepared & Proactive

As consumers become more reliant on mobile devices, retailers are rapidly digitizing the shopping experience. Pair this with the drive for productivity enhancements and supply chain optimization by product manufacturers and their sales channels and it’s easy to see the role of packaging and packaging graphics as the intermediary. It’s the printed graphics and identifiers that enable everything from the checkout and price identification at the grocery store to alerting consumers of tree nut allergies in baby food.

Package printers and their graphic production partners are a critical part of the value chain that allow for products to be sold and to support growth and healthiness of their customers and brands. Printers who are properly educated on advanced bar codes—including the impact to their graphic output and important QC workflows—will be best prepared to proactively deliver high-quality printed packaging to their customers.

About the Author

headshot Jay Sperry
Jay Sperry, platform evangelist at Digimarc, is a print quality management leader who helped introduce the Digimarc Quality Management System (QMS) at FTA’s INFOFLEX 2019. The QMS includes freely available quality control software, online training resources and technical specifications that enable printers to assure clients product packaging featuring Digimarc Barcode will scan accurately on retail barcode scanners and perform to expectations. Learn more about Digimarc Barcode.