Five Important Questions for Printers When Barcode Problems Occur
Barcode problems are often the result of unclear relationships between a printer and their customer. Customers may complain and even threaten legal action without considering circumstances beyond the control of the printer or due to requirements imposed by the customer. Here are the five most important questions a printer should consider when there is a barcode problem.
A great many printers continue to have informal relationships with their customers and produce packaging or advertising materials based on a long history and non-specific, subjective expectations. Even when the relationship is spelled out in a contract, the barcode is often not specifically addressed.
If the customer has not clearly instructed the printer what is expected, the printer cannot be expected to know what the customer wants.
2. Who supplies the barcode data that you print for your customer?
Brand owners are responsible for assigning barcodes to their products and maintaining a high quality database of those number assignments to guard against mistakes such as using a number for more than one product. The printer should get this information in writing from the brand owner, and if it is provided by a third party such as a graphics designer, the customer should sign off on a proof before going to print.
Verbally transmitted barcode information is a recipe for disaster and made worse if the information is second-hand via a third party such as a graphics designer or advertising agency.
Often printers receive the electronic file of the barcode from the brand owner or graphics designer. This may absolve the printer from errors in the encoded barcode numbers, but the electronic file also contains attributes that pertain specifically to the printer’s process. For example, in virtually every printing operation the ink spreads when applied to paper. The barcode file can be set up to compensate for this—but the amount of spread (and compensation) is specific to the printer and must be known when the file is created. If the file is not compensated correctly—or not compensated at all, the printer is powerless to correct it.
A customer-provided barcode electronic file is intended to avoid problems, but in fact often causes problems because it was not created to the printer’s specific process requirements.
4. What does your customer require regarding barcode quality?
Often this is never discussed between a printer and their customer—until there is a problem. This lack of clarity comes from the long history of printing as an art. Barcodes have changed printing from an art to a science where things that look good aren’t necessarily acceptable. Savvy brand owners require printers to provide high performing barcodes. Savvy printers are pro-active about barcode quality and use it as a competitive advantage.
What is a high performance barcode? It is a barcode with predictable scanability no matter where it goes or what kind of scanner it will encounter. Top quality barcodes get A grades and are predicted to scan successfully most of the time; low quality barcodes are F’s and will probably fail to scan most of the time.
The only way to predict that a barcode will work is to test it against the ISO specification that defines and grades the printed image. The test device is called a verifier, and it too must be an ISO compliant device that was recently calibrated. Scanners cannot reliably test barcodes because different scanners behave differently. ISO-compliant verifiers all behave similarly because they all comply with a known standard.
When a complaint is made for a barcode problem, it should be documented with a report from an ISO compliant verifier. If there is a problem with the printed image or the data structure of the barcode, the verifier will show specifically what it is; from this it can be determined whether the problem originated with the electronic barcode file or with how the barcode information was conveyed to the printer.