2D codes still relevant in 2016? Very much!
Brought to you by Trent Munro, Product Manager for Coding Technologies at Matthews Australasia
The little black-and-white squares that are 2D codes have been around for a while. When they were first introduced, they were a bit of a novelty. But the business world has changed since then, and some argue that Datamatrix and QR codes are no longer relevant.
However, the situation is quite the opposite: the business world’s improved understanding of two-dimensional codes, or 2D codes now lets us tap into their advantages for all sorts of new applications. And the results are powerful.
You may be surprised to know that 2D codes today are used not only to authenticate products, but to save lives, educate voters and remember loved ones.
One of the main benefits of 2D codes is their ability to pack lots of data into a small space. For instance, they can pack in far more than a linear 1D barcode.
Whereas all the information in 1D codes can be found in one pass through the code, 2D codes contain many different lines of data. Also, 2D codes feature built-in error checking systems: if a code is damaged, it is not only easy to detect, but it may still be possible to read some or all of the code.
So let’s look at what Datamatrix and QR codes are, how to use them, the comparisons and how 2S codes are used today.
Datamatrix codes are made up of black and white modules arranged in a compact square pattern. Depending on the amount of data encoded in the symbol, the number of modules increases or decreases. At its maximum, a Datamatrix symbol can store a pretty impressive 2,335 alphanumeric characters, which could include manufacturer ID, a unique serial number and lots more.
Using Datamatrix codes
To date, the most popular application of Datamatrix codes has been the marking of small items, such as electronic components, as they enable a large amount of data to be contained in a very small space. They are also extensively used in the pharmaceutical industry for anti-counterfeiting applications. (This article has some great lessons food & beverage manufacturers can learn from the healthcare industry.) Interestingly, one of the first organisations to use Datamatrix codes was NASA in the 1980s, when it engraved them onto parts of space rockets knowing they wouldn’t come off.
Typically, Datamatrix codes are the better choice over QR codes when it comes to asset tracking, ID and data-driven applications. However, because they are read by 2D imaging scanners or vision systems, they are typically used in warehousing rather than for consumer applications.
WHAT ARE QR CODES?
QR or “Quick Response” first came into popular use in the car industry as a way of tracking vehicles during the manufacturing process. QR codes are computer-generated images comprising black modules in a square pattern on a white background. Encoded within this can be any kind of data, including binary or alphanumeric.
Using QR codes
Over the past few years, QR codes have been used by brands to communicate with consumers; for example, in competitions and promotions. Consumers use an app on their smartphone to scan the code, which directs them to a web page, image, contact information, social media profile and so on. QR codes have become an effective way to build consumer engagement with brands. Today, they are also gaining popularity as a way for consumers to quickly authenticate and find out the origin of products. (See here how Camperdown Dairy International has successfully used QR codes in serialisation to achieve this very thing. You may also find this blog on how winemakers can beat counterfeiters with these codes interesting. There are several other resources listed at the end as well.)
Datamatrix vs QR codes
While both are 2D codes, there are some differences between QR and Datamatrix codes.
First, the similarities: as with barcodes, Datamatrix and QR codes both need a “quiet zone”, which is the empty white border around the code. They also both have areas of data and recognition designed to help with detection and decoding. The more data that needs to be encoded, the more modules that need to be added, creating “versions” of the codes.
This is where the differences come in. The smallest possible version of a QR code comprises 21×21 modules. QR codes then grow in steps of four modules in each direction up to a maximum of 177×177 modules (version 40). Datamatrix codes, on the other hand, can be as a small as 10×10 modules, then growing in steps of two modules in each direction up to a maximum of 144×144. As a result, QR codes can store up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters, while Datamatrix codes can only hold 2,335.
Another key difference is that Datamatrix codes only use the perimeter for the purposes of recognition, while QR codes have more recognition areas. As a result, Datamatrix codes have more space available to encode data, which means as a general rule they can be even more compact than QR codes.
The final major difference between these 2D codes is the “error correction” (EC) levels. Both types of code have EC capabilities as per the Reed-Solomon algorithm. This is the ability to restore data if the code is dirty or damaged. QR codes have four EC levels, depending on the application:
- Level L (low) 7% of code words can be restored
- Level M (medium) 15%
- Level Q (quartile) 25%
- Level H (high) 30%
E.g.: a higher level may be selected for a factory environment where the code is more likely to get dirty. The higher the EC level, the higher the ability to correct errors (but the larger the QR code will be).
On the other hand, in all versions of Datamatrix codes, the EC is about 33%, so slightly higher than QR codes which is up to 30%. This leads many to believe that Datamatrix codes are more secure and reliable.
So when should use each code:
Choose Datamatrix when…
- Print areas are tight and the encoded message is short enough to fit into the lowest Datamatrix versions (10×10 to 20×20 modules).
- Using a Datamatrix code is mandated or is a compliance requirement.
- Reliability is imperative.
Choose QR codes when…
- Print area is tight, but your encoded message can fit inside a Datamatrix of 22×22 modules or more. By choosing QR codes with a low or medium EC, you can actually gain space.
- Appearance matters; you may want to build some branding or design element into the code. QR codes just look more attractive!
- You’re using it for marketing or consumer use — more mobile phones support QR reading.
Our team can help you working out which code to use.
HOW 2D CODES ARE USED TODAY
1) To authenticate products: Australian food & beverage companies are using 2D codes as part of serialisation to allow consumers to check the authenticity and provenance of products. A unique number is applied onto each unit using a data carrier, such as a 2D code. As touched on above, Camperdown Dairy International is one company benefitting from this technology. Developed with Matthews Australasia and the cloud-based authenticity platform Trust Codes, the company’s system prints each tin of infant milk formula with a unique QR code and human-readable information, both managed by iDSnet. Consumers can scan the code and identify the individual product, along with its history and key information about Camperdown, Australian dairy products, and how best to consume the product. Read the full story here.
2) To save lives: In 2015, Daimler began using QR code stickers on Mercedes-Benz cars as a way to help fire-fighters and paramedics get critical information about the cars to save crash victims. Scanned by a smartphone, the QR codes direct users to a webpage showing how to cut into various types of vehicle to free passengers, for example, the location of airbags, battery, petrol tank, electric cables, high-pressure cylinders, and so on. Previously, if a vehicle was damaged beyond recognition, emergency crews would have to use the registration plate to obtain necessary information.
3) To educate voters: In 2014, the YOURvoice political party became the first in the UK to use QR codes on ballot papers in the European elections. The party incorporated the code into its official emblem, directing voters to the party’s website, so they could find out more about the party before casting their vote.
4) To remember loved ones: Also in the UK, some cemeteries have started using QR codes on the back of headstones and memorials. When scanned by a smartphone or tablet, the codes direct users to an online biography, images and videos of the deceased.
HOW TO PRINT 2D CODES
The most important thing for 2D codes is that they are printed correctly. While they are more tolerant of fluctuations in print quality than 1D codes, 2D codes still need to be printed clearly and crisply to ensure they work. Laser is the best option for printing indelible and permanent 2D codes onto substrates, including plastic, glass, paper, cartons and metals on the production line. Hi-res inkjet is another technology that can print 2D codes too.
Also, always test the final printed code with a QR code reader to ensure it directs users to the right place. Don’t find yourself in the same position as Heinz, who had to apologise to European customers when an out-of-date QR code on tomato sauce bottles directed people to a pornography website!
For a further explanation on QR codes, check out this article, while this one sets out the 5 codes manufacturers should know, which includes QR codes. You may also be interested in how Millennials are forever changing packaging with regard to delivering unique, authentic content — and where 2D codes, such as QR, fit into that.
Matthews has a whole resource library of whitepapers, articles from our thought leaders, presentations, infographics, our YouTube channel and so on. All material from our resource library is free to download.
* Trent Munro is the Product Manager for Coding Technologies at Matthews Australasia, and an accomplished business strategist, marketing innovator and speaker specialising in business development and optimisation. Over the past 18 years, he has worked across a range of blue-chip and medium enterprises including Goodyear Automotive, Clariant, Corona Manufacturing and Matthews. Trent holds a range of post-graduate and graduate qualifications in Commerce, Psychology, Project Management and Science. At Matthews, he has overseen market development locally and abroad, launching class-leading traceability and automation technologies across manufacturing, healthcare and logistics