What You Can't See Is What You Get
Hidden bar codes can be used by supply-chain partners to verify product origins.
Maverick Enterprises Inc. is working with bar codes that can only be seen under ultraviolet light.
Securing pharmaceuticals these days usually involves a discussion of using visible serialized bar codes for electronic pedigrees. But invisible bar coding may have a role to play as well.
Bruce A. Johnson, vice president for Maverick Enterprises Inc. (Longmont, CO), is working with hidden bar codes that are only visible under specific ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. “Bar codes can be printed with ink that is only visible under specific UV wavelengths that are specific to certain drug companies,” he reports. “Security against counterfeiting and piracy is the goal.”
Because the codes are invisible, they can be printed anywhere on drug labels. “The entire label could be covered in these hidden bar codes, becoming one giant bar code,” Johnson explains.
To provide the label materials capable of displaying the different wavelengths, Maverick has partnered with TimeMed Labeling Systems Inc. (Burr Ridge, IL) and its pharmaceutical labeling products and services division, Pharmex. Chosen is Pharmex’s C2Rx nonsmearing patient-label material.
Because UV bar codes can’t be seen with the naked eye, a product’s entire label can be covered in them.
Johnson envisions the labels with hidden bar codes to be used as follows: a drug manufacturer would employ a specific labelstock that enables a certain UV wavelength, such as one in the 200 nanometer range, to be seen. The drug manufacturer then embeds specific information into 2-D Data Matrix bar codes and prints those codes invisibly onto the label. When a pharmacy distributor, like CVS Caremark, for instance, receives bottles from that drug manufacturer, the distributor uses a wavelength-specific UV light along with a smart sensor, such as a Cognex reader, to capture the information from those codes. The distributor then proceeds with repackaging, whether it involves transferring the bottle’s contents into patient-prescription bottles or placing a new patient-specific label over the manufacturer’s label.
Maverick designs wavelength-specific UV labelstock that distributors capture using UV light.
If the distributor were unable to find the hidden bar codes, it would know—even before opening the bottle—that the bottle’s contents were suspicious.
Johnson says that Maverick and TimeMed hold the patent for this wavelength-specific labeling system, which can be read on Maverick’s pharmaceutical packaging systems designed for central-fill and mail-order fulfillment lines. The two companies are currently working to implement the solution in one plant in the next four to six months, he says.
Johnson is even hopeful that wavelength authentication can even be automated. “Digital pictures of the hidden bar codes could be uploaded and inspected automatically on pharmacy fulfillment lines,” he says. “Pharmacists could even recall those pictures as they approve specific patient orders, as needed.”
“We are trying to develop an off-the-shelf solution for security,” Johnson continues. “If drugs are being handled by a lot of people, there are vulnerabilities. Big wholesalers are trying not to open cases from manufacturers, but that is pretty hard for smaller ones to avoid. The best solution is to check and scan everything.”