Data Matrix: Expanding the Second Dimension of Data Capture

Many of us will never forget the disastrous explosion during the launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 that ended in the breakup of the ship and the tragic loss of a school teacher and 6 additional astronauts. However, most of us are probably unaware that it was during NASA's return to flight effort following the accident that NASA engineers realized that a better form of identifying parts was needed; a symbology that could be directly marked onto each part.

 

It was Fred Schramm, an engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, who eventually developed the prototype for the Data Matrix code. Now after nearly a decade in the public domain, Data Matrix might finally be on its way to maturity.

 

Manufacturing Climate Drives Use of Data Matrix

NASA is not the only organization to recognize the need for a paper-less quality control system, or the advantages of component level traceability. The increase in the outsourcing of sub-assembly manufacturing, tightening government and industry regulations, and the ever-present internal quest for 6-sigma quality (virtually defect-free products) is fueling the demand for complete component-level tracking.

 

 

As industry trends make it necessary to encode a greater amount of data in an ever-decreasing amount of space, more companies are turning to space efficient Data Matrix. All a manufacturer needs is .1 inch of space on a component, and they can mark it with a 5 or 6 digit Data Matrix symbology. This enables the traceabiliy of a product that in the past could not accommodate any type of machine-readable form of identification. For some manufacturers who are space-constrained, Data Matrix is the only solution.

 

 

Learning Curve Higher Than Expected

By now many companies already understand the benefits of using Data Matrix. In a lot of ways, the benefits of Data Matrix may have been over-marketed. "I think one of the most common misconceptions about Data Matrix and 2D codes in general is the belief that 2D codes are as easy to use as 1D codes. When end-users realize that Data Matrix requires more expertise, they are disappointed," commented Chris Kapsambelis, an integrator with expertise in Data Matrix applications at Barcode Data Systems Corporation.  

 

Comparison of 1D vs. 2D Bar Code

 

David Krebs, Director of the AIDC Industry Research and Consulting Group for the Venture Development Corporation concurs. "Education has been an issue for Data Matrix since the beginning, especially when you compare it to other emerging technologies such as RFID," commented Krebs . "When the symbology was first introduced, the benefits of using Data Matrix were very well marketed. People quickly grasped the reasons why they should use Data Matrix. What was missing was the education on how to use the symbol." He went on to say that people are still asking a lot of questions. How do I apply it to my part? Should I use ink jet or laser etching?

 

Now that several industry organizations have adopted the symbology as a standard for small part marking, education has already started to improve. Industry organizations such as the AIAG, EIA, ATA, and SEMI, have already started holding educational conferences and symposiums on how to use Data Matrix and other 2D symbologies. Ron Tillinger, Program Manager for the AIAG commented that they received such a good response to the last conference they held recently in Detroit, they are already planning additional conferences on 2D symbologies.

 

Complex Marking Techniques Demand Robust Technology

As manufacturers migrate from 1D codes to 2D codes, demand is increasing for products that are easier to use and truly perform in industrial environments. "The majority of the manufacturers using Data Matrix codes don't want to give up the performance they enjoyed with their laser scanners. What they want is a plug-and-play system that is easy to use and still provides a high degree of performance," commented Matt Allen, Product Marketing Manager for Microscan Systems, Inc. "These were the driving factors behind the development of our smart cameras." As a result, the technology for decoding Data Matrix has evolved from sophisticated vision systems, to fixed-mount and handheld readers that function like a bar code scanner.

 

End-users also want one decoder that can read symbols with varying levels of contrast. "As Data Matrix is implemented throughout large manufacturing facilities, it is not uncommon for the plant to use a variety of marking techniques," commented Gary Moe, Vice President of I.D. Integration Inc. "Often times, a plant will use chem-etch for small product runs and will use laser etching or dot peening on large product runs because these methods are better suited for the large volume production lines often found in automated manufacturing environments."

 

Technology may be getting easier, but Data Matrix symbols are becoming more complex. A recent Microscan research study indicates that direct product marking accounts for 85% of all Data Matrix applications. Black and white applications such as thermal transfer and ink jet on labels account for only 15% of Data Matrix applications. Of the 85% direct product marking applications, 65% of the application were laser etching. This trend is only increasing, mostly because laser etching produces the most accurate mark.

 

Since Data Matrix remains a complex symbol, quality must be the number one issue for all concerned when evaluating a Data Matrix solution. When evaluating a Data Matrix solution, it is important to recognize the tradeoff that exists between quality and cost that isn't necessarily as important as in linear bar coding solutions. Although laser-etching equipment may be at the high end on a cost analysis of marking methods, it produces the highest quality mark. The same is true for readers. A CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor) device can decode black and white symbols just fine, but a CCD (charge-coupled device) imager may be more appropriate for reading lower contrast dot peen and laser etched symbols because CCD imagers provide greater image clarity.

 

The Road Ahead

Although interest and demand for Data Matrix solutions has been increasing, especially within the last year, it will still be some time before it reaches maturity. While Data Matrix has already been spec'd in as a code for direct part marking on all new products in the aerospace industry, it will still take some time for suppliers to catch up, to become educated, and allocate funding for any needed changes. For suppliers in the electronics and automotive industries as well, compliance to these new standards is not merely a matter of replacing the bar codes on their packaging with Data Matrix symbols. Compliance involves creating an entirely new product coding system. It involves reconstructing an entire database robust enough to handle WIP tracking and participation in global e-commerce systems.

 

However, the process doesn't have to be painful and expensive. For many companies, such as Texas Instruments, the change to Data Matrix labels on their packaging actually proved to be a cost advantage, according to Dan Wikander. Mr. Wikander is Manager of Delivery Automation Business Systems for TI's Worldwide Semiconductor Group. Wikander commented that when TI switched from bar codes to Data Matrix on their packaging, they used one solutions provider for the entire system, and the set-up of their system couldn't have been easier. Now more than a year later, Wikander still believes it was a success and plans to move on to direct product marking with Data Matrix.

 

Although the learning curve may be steeper than expected, the development of the Data Matrix symbol and 2D technology has been, on a whole, a much faster and smoother process than the introduction of linear bar codes. What turned into a long, 40-year process to develop the current UPC code first used in grocery store applications, has been accomplished in only a little over a decade for 2D symbols. In light of the recent demand for Data Matrix within the last couple years, there is no doubt that this is a quickly changing and rapidly growing market.

 

This article was written and provided by Susan Snyder, responsible for research and public affairs for Microscan. In addition, Susan manages Microscan's global applications training program. Microscan is a world leader in the development of fixed-position bar code and 2D readers. First introduced at ScanTech in 1997, Microscan's 2D Data Matrix reader Quadrus was the first fully integrated Data Matrix reader to combine a light source, camera and decoder into one compact unit. For more information on Microscan or their products, please visit www.microscan.com.