Seven Steps to Barcode Quality and Compliance
Examining the entire process of getting a high performance barcode on a label or package, there are seven critical steps where mistakes should be avoided. Each step is critically important. Diligent process control at step five cannot correct errors at step 1 through 4.
Step 1: Symbology
Specific barcode usages require specific barcode types, or symbologies. The barcode on a consumer item must be a UPC or EAN. Code 39 or Code 128 could encode the same data but scanners in consumer sales establishments cannot read anything but UPC or EAN.
Step 2: Allocation
Assign the numerical or alphanumerical data encoded in a barcode carefully. A UPC symbol is a combination of preassigned data from a global administrator, and discretionary data assigned to the product by the brand owner. This data structure model is common in open-loop systems. The right symbology with incomplete or incorrectly parsed data will fail.
Step 3: Design File Preparation
The design file translates the data into a barcode, and contains all of its essential attributes: color, element (bar/space) size and data structure. The design file must comply with industry-specific guidelines including regulatory product data and location on the package.
Step 4: Printing
Barcode quality is often limited to printing, and blame for barcode problems usually lands here. Often the cause is elsewhere. Nevertheless, printing is the first opportunity to verify a barcode image. Do not miss this opportunity. At very least, errors detected here can be quarantined and corrected.
Step 5: File Control
There are two types of printing operations: internal and external. The hand-off of a barcode file to either type of printing operation is critical. Some printing operations routinely replace the carefully crafted barcode design file and re-key the data. Considered a quality control measure, it is also an error opportunity. For the same quality control reasons, others insist the design file be used as provided; this too can have unintended quality consequences.
Good communication with upstream vendors and downstream customers about design decisions is the key to effective barcode file control.
Step 6: Print Process Control
Barcode file hand-off is just the beginning. Pre-printing is often a multi-step process, each step being an error opportunity. Repeatability of each step is important: identifying and controlling every variable, and establishing protocols to test for control over time.
Verification opportunity resides in every step. It is so important it deserves its own discussion. Barcode verification is part of a larger discussion about all processes and procedures. Anywhere and everywhere variables lurk, consider verifying. This is obvious in multi-stage pre-press such as flexo. But even direct processes like ink jet have variables, often overlooked. Ink nozzles clog. Ink viscosity and distance of the substrate from the nozzle affect line width. Thick substrates are closer to the spray head than thin substrates, which affects line width. Spray pressure is another variable. Are these variables controlled? How can you test?
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John helps companies resolve current barcode problems and avoid future barcode problems to stabilize and secure their supply chain and strengthen their trading partner relationships.