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Preparing to move to 2D codes

10 April 2024

GS1 Data Matrix and QR codes have increased in prevalence in recent years. Christopher Fowler discusses the implications for businesses if 1D linear barcodes are scrapped, and explains how the move to 2D codes may impact how products are created, tracked and promoted.

With consumers and the government demanding better product traceability, the incorporation of 2D codes has been set for 2027. Transitioning to 2D barcode technology brings certain challenges for businesses. Historically, manufacturers have tailored their product designs and packaging around the 1D barcode, taking into account factors such as code readability and the placement of important information such as ingredients and marketing materials. 

The shift to 2D codes may require adjustments to the production processes, which demands both time and resources. Manufacturers must assess the compatibility of their current coding and marking equipment to check that it is capable of printing 2D codes. Upgrades to existing technology might be required because 2D codes are more difficult to print, requiring a higher resolution output. Higher print-quality standards may stretch the capabilities of some older coding applications. 

Along with printer considerations, changes to production line hardware and software may also be necessary. Barcodes are read throughout the lifespan of a product, from component tracking and traceability to stock checking, order picking and much more. With the implementation of 2D codes, many businesses will need to migrate from the traditional barcode scanners they already have to 2D code readers. Equipment upgrades like these require investment from business owners, so it is crucial to start planning early to manage this expenditure.

Why move to 2D codes?
A big advantage of 2D codes is that they can store a much larger amount of data. The data in a 2D code is encoded on both the horizontal and vertical arrangement of the pattern, whereas the 1D barcode can only be encoded horizontally. 2D codes are tiny in size, yet can hold up to 2,000 characters more than 1D codes. This gives the ability to present a large amount of data within a minimal amount of space. The smaller size also allows businesses to mark smaller items where a 1D barcode does not fit. 

2D codes are also well suited to tracking and tracing production batches in the supply chain. The most common use of these codes is for tracking individual products throughout their creation until they reach the consumer – and sometimes through reuse and recovery at the end of the product’s life. When scanned, the code will display all the important information about where the product came from and its journey from its raw material components to a finished product. This enables manufacturers to ensure their products are being produced correctly and that they meet all the customer requirements. It also gives transparency when dealing with errors, as the codes can help to identify the problem and prevent similar issues from occurring again. 

As both the UK Government and private companies work to establish the implementation of future taxation and supervised recycling schemes, 2D codes are being widely considered due to their ability to facilitate the traceability of products. The robustness and flexibility of the 2D code make it ideal in this environment, as distorted codes on crushed cans, for example, can still be easily read. 

Unlike 1D barcodes, 2D codes can be read even if partially obscured or distorted, allowing for a more robust read. As the data size held within the 2D code is much greater than a traditional 1D code, this can eliminate the need for an external database to hold process or product data. This simplifies the process of data management and reduces dependency on centralised systems for traceability. 

The benefits of 2D don’t stop at the factory though. Consumers can scan product QR codes easily from their mobile phones at any location, giving them access to information they would normally have to visit a URL to view. 

The down-chain visibility of the 2D code allows businesses to leverage marketing materials and key information about the product in one convenient location. Promotions, imagery, application download, product descriptions and website or streaming links are just a few examples of the materials that can be stored within a 2D code. This offers businesses a range of tools they can use to highlight their key messages, connect with their customers and increase sales. This, in turn, fosters positive relationships between the brand and customer. 

As the 2D code can hold all of this important information, there is less of a need to design packaging mechanisms around long ingredient lists or promotional materials. This allows businesses to stand out, by creating bold and artistic packaging designs that entice the consumer. For some businesses, a reduction in printed data could drive reduced costs, lead to more innovative packaging variations and bring about environmental benefits.

The complete switchover to 2D codes is expected to be a lengthy process. Aside from the time it will take manufacturers to move over in production, there are wider implications along the supply chain. For example, many retailers do not have 2D code reading facilities in their storage warehouses or at the point-of-sale, so there will likely be a grace period even after 2027 when barcodes and 2D codes are used simultaneously while the technology catches up. 

There are many benefits to moving to 2D codes. While some sectors are already realising the benefits that 2D codes provide, others have not yet considered a move. However, while the benefits of a global shift to 2D codes are numerous, barcodes have been in use for over 50 years and, as with any large-scale industrial change, there will be challenges to negotiate and hurdles to jump, preparation is key.

Christopher Fowler is a coding specialist at Videojet Technologies.

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