3D Barcodes

 In 101

Hologram city panorama / 3D render of glowing holographic view of modern cityYes Virginia, there are 3D barcodes but let’s first be clear what they are not. Contrary to what some have written, Data Matrix Code and QR Code are not 3D barcodes (and nor, for that matter, are UPC and Code 128 2D barcodes). Come on people, remember your middle school geometry: data encoded in the X or Y axis is a 1D barcode; data encoded in X and Y are 2D barcodes. Thus data encoded in the X, Y and Z axis is a 3D barcode. Everybody clear?

What is particularly interesting is why there are 3D barcodes because it is not for the “usual” reason of needing more data capacity. It is because of the need to barcode certain items in high heat or chemical-intensive environments where a label would not survive. To identify parts such as metal subassemblies a method of direct part parking such as engraving, mechanically, chemically or using a laser to actually emboss the barcode image into the surface of the part. While these barcodes do not have the usual reflective differences necessary for conventional decoding, they do exhibit the unique quality of element or feature height: the bars and spaces not only have X and Y dimensionality, they also have a measurable Z axis dimension. Although additional data capacity is not the sole driving force behind this technology, it is a side benefit: the Z dimension can be used to represent additional data. Think of it as an overlay encodation which can be used in a variety of ways.

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Whereas a UPC symbol will commonly identify a class of products across an entire market, a 3D barcode can identify both the class  in the X and Y axes and the individual item in the Z axis. Said another way, every can of 12 OZ Coca Cola bears the exact same UPC number across the entire US market, from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Zion, Illinois. The additional axis enables n industry to singulate an individual within a larger class of products; think Serial Number of license plate. The most common application is in manufacturing where subassemblies must be uniquely identified and tracked. Other usages will undoubtedly be discovered.engraving machine cuting out pattern

While 3D barcode scanners are somewhat special, they are by no means exotic. Handheld versions are readily available, as well as fixed mounted scanners for conveyor or work-in-process systems. And because 3D barcodes do not rely on reflective differences between bars and spaces for decoding, they do not adhere to the same rules as conventional barcodes regarding color. 3D barcodes can be painted or anodized and still retain their data storing and retrieval properties.

3D barcodes also do not need error detection or correction algorithms since they are exceptionally robust and nearly impervious to damage. This also makes them conducive to certain security applications to identify in an unalterable way items that may be prone to being stolen. Microscopic versions of 3D barcodes could be used to mark precious gems or valuable artwork. A more practical usage could be 3D marking of pharmaceuticals.

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