Finding the Right Code for Small Packages

Charge-coupled device technology gives product packagers flexibility to choose the code that works best for their packages.


Bar codes will probably never become obsolete for certain uses, but the time when they were considered to be the only way to convey product data has passed. In addition to traditional linear bar codes, there are now 2-D codes and even invisible bar codes. And of course, text.

The healthcare industry has been late in adopting bar codes, but the delay has actually worked to its advantage. While industry waited, bar code technology providers came up with solutions to the problems of cost and limited space on small packages. But one of the most significant developments is the advent of the charge-coupled device (CCD) bar code reader. The CCD reader can handle text as well as most traditional and emerging codes. Even though the Health Industry Business Communications Council encourages bar code use, it has produced a draft application specification for using text as the machine-readable symbol on small healthcare products.

Now that CCD readers can read several types of 2-D symbols and linear bar codes as well as text, labelers have a bit more flexibility in coding their products. But before automatically choosing text, labelers must consider the benefits of each type of code and use the one most suitable for the application.

Linear bar codes have been around the longest and therefore are widely accepted and used. Many systems are designed to reproduce and read linear codes at high speeds.

Two-dimensional symbols have two advantages over linear bar codes. They can carry large amounts of data such as product identity, lot, and expiration date. Also, depending on the amount and type of data, they use less space than linear symbols. Such symbols are attractive to labelers of unit-dose and unit-of-use packages because of the limited amount of space for labels.

But for labelers of small packages, two problems remain--the cost of using 2-D systems and the lack of any available space on such packages. Nearly all the coding equipment now in use cannot print 2-D symbols. The cost to upgrade these packaging and labeling lines is significant. And, while some 2-D symbols can be printed very small, not all printers can produce such symbols at such a high resolution. Finally, many packages have no space for additional graphics.

For some packages, labelers can solely use text. The text on the label will be what the CCD system can read. For many small packages, there will be no requirement for an additional bar code symbol.

From a cost standpoint, hospitals are advised to use CCD readers because they, unlike laser-based readers, can accommodate such a wide range of codes, and therefore won't become obsolete any time soon.

The healthcare industry can move freely to adopt any of these solutions because it hasn't invested heavily in any one system, as the retail industry has with laser-based scanning. HIBCC, in cooperation with the developers of CCD technology, is currently setting up a review group for the draft specification and invites industry to participate.

Michael Miller is with systemmé Informatica, an international firm specializing in healthcare bar coding. He was a key figure on the UPN development team and is co-chair of the Automatic Identification Technical Committee of HIBCC. For more information, contact Miller at 815/877-3122, visit, or contact HIBCC at 602/381-1091.


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