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A worker on a factory line in a distributed manufacturing and logistics operation is applying a printed barcode label to a package.

How can we ensure accuracy in label printing?

Barcode labelling accuracy and readability are crucial to support today’s globally distributed manufacturing and logistics operations.


Organisations want to make sure that the barcode labels printed at their locations comply with customer and industry standards and are readable throughout the supply chain. They no longer want to limit scanning checks to just a certain number of barcodes in a batch.

While most verification events today are with 1D barcodes, migration to 2D codes will generate additional interest in such capabilities. This is because label designers and label printers/machines will now be able to fit more information into a packed space – reducing field size while also maintaining readability.

Legible labels ensure end-to-end traceability, thereby improving supply chain operations and overall efficiencies. Labelling inspection solutions that perform data validation and verification rely on camera/vision-based scanning equipment and require consistency in labelling databases and equipment. Verifiers trigger a signal when they encounter a poorly printed or wrong label with an option to potentially pause production so users can determine and fix what’s causing the error, and also initiate an action to separate the questionable product(s) from the line.

 

Why are organisations becoming increasingly aware of validation and verification?

VDC Research, a leading authority on the global markets for automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technologies, recently conducted a survey among enterprises to better understand technology investments in support of data capture and labelling.

The ultimate goal is to lower risks associated with mislabelling and other labelling errors while enhancing overall accuracy. Survey respondents indicated that they are increasingly evaluating the purchase of in-line inspection, validation, and verification systems to minimise, if not completely eliminate, error incidence. Integrating barcode validation and verification as an essential part of the label printing process helps organisations check correctness and quality in order to strengthen their traceability-related efforts.

VDC believes that without verification, bad barcodes are likely not identified until they are unreadable. Nearly all organisations surveyed (96%) indicated current or planned investments in inspection solutions that confirm label data, character, and number quality; and, identify labels that do not conform to required customer and regulatory standards.

Certain non-binding recommendations include conforming with ISO/IEC standards like 15416 (barcode print quality test specification – linear symbols), 15415 (barcode print quality test specification – 2D symbols), and 29158 (direct part mark quality guideline).

Enterprises are evaluating and investing in technologies that will help them lower the risks associated with mislabelling and shipping products with poorly printed, illegible labels. Such purchases will have a positive impact on their manufacturing and distribution functions, resulting in lower recalls and happier customers.

A worker on a factory line in a distributed manufacturing and logistics operation is inspecting a printed barcode label before attaching it to a package.

What is driving investments in label verification and validation systems?

Key drivers contributing to rising demand for and interest in these inspection systems include:

 

1.    The need to enhance overall operational efficiencies is stronger than ever before.

Organisations struggle to quantify the true costs associated with labelling errors. However, they are making a concerted effort to lower overall error incidence and drive-up productivity. The push to standardise labelling technology investments is a step in that direction. Automating label printing-related processes can ensure consistency and compliance with regulatory standards since there is no room for error-ridden manual data entry. Vision-based inspection solutions are now an important part of this conversation as they help standardise the label printing process regardless of location.
 

2.    Stringent quality checks are now essential for minimising production and delivery disruptions.

There is a growing need to access and print variable data for labelling applications, particularly in high-volume environments with complex requirements. VDC’s research shows that a large volume of labels printed for applications like packaging, restocking, and shipping require accurate variable information. The need to assess label quality on products before they go out the door is greater than ever before. Real-time validation and verification will address this specific requirement around checking data quality to support organisations’ goals of end-to-end traceability. Label inspection solutions offer several layers of verification, ensuring labels have been successfully applied to products, match content that needs to be printed, and are readable (catching failing printheads before they result in unanticipated operational downtime).

3.    Inconsistencies due to mislabelling are unacceptable in today’s high-speed environments.

Businesses today are increasingly global in nature—from the standpoint of both sourcing as well as distribution. It has become important to not only be agile and flexible in their manner of operation but to also re-form technology investment and implementation strategies to eliminate process inconsistencies. The need for labelling accuracy and real-time visibility into the movement of goods has never been higher, even as costs are being scrutinised more closely than ever before. Adding automatic visual inspection capabilities will be a popular choice to lower error incidence and, thereby, enhance overall productivity.

4.    Compliance requirements are constantly changing, driving process automation requirements.

Leading global regulatory bodies and enterprise customers recommend that their partners sufficiently inspect barcode quality. This is to strengthen traceability for automotive parts, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and others. For instance, the US FDA released in its draft guidance on UDI that “If a labeler chooses a bar code form of AIDC, the bar code form of the UDI should be tested for print quality”.

VDC’s primary research indicates that organisations may have processes in place that require compliance to ANSI standards, with an overall grade of C or better. The labelling quality recommendation to be standardised across industries and product categories, especially as operations scale and cross-border regulations come into play.

5.    Print automation will take error-ridden manual data entry processes out of the equation.

Any issues with readability can have substantial financial implications for both manufacturers as well as their supplier and distributor networks. VDC’s research shows that among the quantifiable costs associated with barcode labelling errors, the leading ones are—costly product recalls/restocking (34%); waste generated due to rework and scrap (26%); and chargebacks (23%). Print automation is high on businesses’ list of investment priorities so as to take the human element out of the label creation process. Adding automated visual inspection capabilities, via AutoID and vision equipment, will help organisations void unreadable labels and automate required reprinting due to illegible barcodes.

How will organisations keep labelling quality in check using these solutions?

VDC’s research shows that labelling error rates are at just over 3%. These errors typically happen due to factors including inconsistent labelling processes across distributed locations and manual spot-checking specific sets of barcode labels from designated batches. Label inspection functions can help keep products moving through the proposed supply chain without any unnecessary disruptions, helping organisations lower overall operational risk.

The ultimate aim is to make the printing process error-free. In-process labelling data validation and verification will help achieve that goal—enabling organisations to scan, verify, grade, and potentially, record every label printed. Automation in label printing will be essential to realising this goal; VDC believes that it will be cumbersome to manually meet requirements for updating and validating individual templates if they do not leverage the capabilities of dynamic labelling processes.

Growing migration to data-rich 2D barcodes will serve to increase awareness of and investments in label validation and verification solutions.

This will happen as these barcodes continue to demonstrate the ability to fit in more data in less space along with 2D verifiers’ ability to offer flexibility when scanning and checking for errors. Applications such as components parts traceability in automotive, accurate representation of serialisation/UDI requirements in life sciences, and rising adoption of 2D codes in the food & beverage industry will lead the charge.

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