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Product marking and identification
Product marking and identification
Product marking and identification is a topic that is gaining attention within the industry and business communities as needs are recognised for more efficient and effective handling of materials and goods, and needs for tracking and traceability are distinguished. Such needs invariably require an automatic or semi-automatic means of identification, based on appropriate item marking or data carrying attachments, such as barcode labels or radio frequency tags. The importance of product marking and identification is embodied in the way they are applied, the drivers for these applications being the needs for process enhancement and improved efficiency of item movement and management, enhancement of manufacturing and assembly process, traceability, security and control. The ubiquitous barcode, to be found now on so many retail products, is perhaps the most visible example of product identification, albeit indirectly through the number encoded in the symbol. When read it provides the key to the information concerning the product, such as price, supplier, restock level, etc., stored in a systems database. As far as the identification is concerned it is in this case one of product type and brand. Applied in this way the barcodes facilitate rapid handling of products. Elsewhere in the supply chain other applications can be distinguished in which this principle of automatic identification is used, on packages, containers and pallets for example, where serial numbers or unique identification of items rather than indirect identification of type or brand are required. Unique, single item identification is particularly important where the need is of a safety, or system critical nature. Identification of turbine blades, implant devices and surgical instruments come into this category of applications. For these items direct marking of identification codes is required.
With tracking and traceability now at the very core of supply chain logistics the beneficial impact of the enabling technologies is gaining increasing attention within manufacturing as well as the more established areas of retail and distribution. Recent concerns over beef and genetically modified foods have further stimulated attention to traceability (based on labelling, tagging or direct marking) throughout the supply chain, from manufacturer to user.
The technology enablers to facilitate product marking and identification are many and varied and encompassed within a discipline that is variously known as automatic identification, auto-ID, automatic data capture (ADC) and automatic identification and data capture (AIDC), to name a few. AIDC appears to be the term that is currently used within the industry. As a discipline it draws on information theory, coding and communications theory, error control theory and theory unique to the foundations that distinguish it as a subject in its own right. It is an important, but as yet largely unrecognised, sector of information technology (IT). It features little in IT courses, IT professional development, or in IT literature, yet provides the facility for radical and revolutionary impact on process and product development where identification and data capture are concerned. It is revolutionary in the sense that it has application in virtually every sector of industry, commerce and services where data are handled and radical in the sense that, when effectively applied, the benefits, both direct and indirect, are usually substantial, with swift returns on investment. In academic terms AIDC is a young subject, still attracting the constructs, terminology, theoretical foundations, technological dimensions and features that underpin its positioning within the academic and IT arena. The time is right for AIDC to take its place as the IT data capture/data carrier dimension of IT, along with data processing, database and data communications dimensions of IT. The positioning paper, "Machine readable data carriers", presented within this issue, seeks to provide a brief introduction to the subject of automatic identification and data capture and its significance with respect to product marking and identification.
As an industry AIDC is buoyant and exhibits both rapid and substantial growth. According to a leading market research firm, Frost & Sullivan (Brown, 1998), the 1997 European market for AIDC technologies was estimated to be worth US$4.9 billion. The compound annual growth rate, over the period 1997 to 2004, was estimated to be 13 per cent.
AIDC is a dynamically evolving industry with developments in existing technologies, such as barcoding, and emergent technologies. Keith Osman's paper, "Potential for two-dimensional codes in automated manufacturing", is illustrative of such developments, in this case two-dimensional data carriers, one category of which is based on barcodes. It is also illustrative of the potential of AIDC technology that is now gaining ground in the application arena. Douglas Telford's tutorial paper, "The application of high-density codes in engineering", provides a more practically oriented introduction to direct marking of items with matrix data carrier technology and, again, is illustrative of the applications potential. From the standpoint of emerging technologies, Rafi Ahmad's paper, "Marking of products with fluorescent tracers in binary combinations for automatic identification and sorting", introduces the use of fluorescent traces for data encoding and identification, and the use of the identifier for sortation purposes. Gareth Monkman's paper, "Secure electronic tagging", deals with the development of novel secure holographic data carriers and the prospects for reprogrammable holographic marking systems with high data density and rapid data transfer capabilities.
Within the few examples provided in these papers the breadth and prospects of AIDC and its significance to product marking and identification can in some measure be defined. As education and awareness of AIDC gain ground as an IT discipline the needs of prospective users will be better served, the growth of the industry enhanced still further and its impact manifest in the enhancement of efficiency and effectiveness of wealth creating processes.
Brown, E. (1998), A Competitive Benchmarking Analysis of the European Market for Automatic Identification Equipment, Frost & Sullivan, London; summary editorial, "The growing importance of ADC", Automatic ID News Europe, October.