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Feb 13, 2020 by Mark Dingley
There is no doubt that the business world has changed since the introduction of QR codes and datamatrix many years ago. While it was once considered a novelty to use those small black and white squares, some now suggest their time has passed.
But is that really the case? Our improved understanding of two-dimensional (2D) codes is enabling us to use their features for new applications – and we’re achieving powerful results.
Indeed, there are a number of benefits to using 2D codes; with the most important being their ability to pack lots of information into an incredibly small space – far more than traditional linear 1D barcodes. While all the information in a 1D code can be found in a single cut, 2D codes contain a number of different data lines. These barcodes can even be read by smartphones too!
Additionally, 2D codes offer a built-in error checking system. If a code is damaged, it isn’t just easy to detect, but it may even be possible to still read some or all of the code.
Datamatrix codes are a type of 2D code that is made from black and white modules arranged into a compact square pattern. Depending on the amount of data encoded within the symbol, the number of modules will increase or decrease. A Datamatrix symbol can store a whopping 2,335 alphanumeric characters, which could include the manufacturer ID, serial number and so much more.
Currently, the most popular use for Datamatrix codes is to mark small items, such as electronic parts, thanks to their ability to store large amounts of information in small spaces. They are also frequently used within the pharmaceutical industry to stop counterfeiting products. Interestingly, one of the fist organisations to use a Datamatrix code was NASA, back in the 1980s, when they had them engraved into parts of space rockets knowing that they wouldn’t fall off during use.
Generally, Datamatrix codes are a better option than QR codes when it comes to asset tracking, identification or data-driven applications. However, as they are read by 2D imaging scanners or vision systems, they typically are only used in warehousing applications rather than by consumers.
Quick Response (QR) codes are a type of 2D code that became popular within the automotive industry to track vehicles during the manufacturing process.
These codes consist of a computer-generated image made from black modules in a square pattern printed against a white background. Any kind of data can be encoded within this, including alphanumeric and binary.
In recent years, QR codes have been favoured by brands as a way of communicating information with their customers, including competitions and promotions. Customers can simply use their smartphones to scan the code, which will then open a webpage, image, social media profile or other graphic. These codes have become a great way to build customer engagement and are also being used for consumers to authenticate and find the origin of their products.
Though both are 2D codes, there are some significant differences between QR codes and Datamatrix codes.
But first, the similarities: as with all barcodes, both Datamatrix and QR codes need a ‘quite zone’ in order to be read – this is in the form of an empty white border around the code. They also both have sections of data and recognition, which is designed to help with detection and decoding. Then, the more data being encoded requires more modules to be added, creating different ‘versions’ of the codes.
And now the differences: the smallest possible QR code can comprise of 21 x 22 modules. Then, QR codes grow by four modules in each direction, until they reach a maximum of 177 x 177 (version 40). Alternatively, Datamatrix codes can be as small as 10 x 10 modules, growing in steps of two modules in each direction, until they reach 144 x 144. As a result, a QR code can carry 4,296 alphanumeric characters, whilst a Datamatrix code can only hold 2,2335.
Another key difference is that a Datamatrix code can only use the perimeter for recognition purposes, while QR codes have more recognition areas within the square. As a result, Datamatrix codes have more available space for encoding data, meaning they can be even more compact than the QR alternative.
Lastly, the ‘error correction’ (EC) levels of the two codes is vastly different. Both types of code have EC capabilities as per the Reed-Solomon algorithm – meaning they can restore data if the code becomes dirty or damaged. QR codes have four EC levels, depending on their use:
For instance, a higher level should be selected for a factory application, where the code is more likely to be dirtied. With a higher EC level, there is a higher chance for correcting errors, though the QR code will also need to be larger.
In all versions of a Datamatrix code, however, the EC is approximately 33%, which is slightly higher than even the highest QR code. Many people believe that Datamatrix codes are more reliable and secure.
But when should you use each code?
Choose Datamatrix when…
1. Your print area is limited, and the encoded message will be short enough to fit into the smallest datamatrix versions (from 10 x 10 to 20 x 20 modules)
2. The use of a datamatrix code is a compliance requirement or is mandated
3. Reliability is key
Choose QR codes when…
1. Your print area is limited, but the encoded message would fit within a Datamatrix code of 22 x 22 modules or more. By choosing a QR code with low or medium EC levels, you will actually gain space
2. The final appearance of the packaging is important – if you’re considering building some branding or design element into the code, a QR code will look more attractive
3. You’re using it for consumer or marketing applications – mobile phones can support QR reading
Food and beverage companies in Australia are now using 2D codes within their serialisation, allowing consumers to check the provenance and authenticity of their products. By applying a unique number to each unit using a data carrier (such as a 2D code), consumers can simply scan the code and identify the individual product, learn about it’s history, gather key information and learn how it should be best consumed – just to name a few options!
In 2015, QR code stickers where placed onto Mercedes-Benz cars to aid firefighters and paramedics in obtaining crucial information about the vehicle in order to save car crash victims. By scanning the codes with a smartphone, the code would direct first responders to a webpage which detailed how to cut into different parts of the car to free the passengers, and included information as to the location of airbags, batteries, cables, petrol tanks and so on. Before this, if a vehicle was damaged beyond recognition, the registration plate had to be tracked to obtain this critical information.
In 2014, the YOURvoice UK political party begun using QR codes on ballot papers. The code was incorporated into the party’s official emblem, directing voters to the website and allowing them to learn more about the party and their policies before casting their vote.
Some cemeteries around the world are also using QR codes to remember loved ones, by placing them on the back of headstones and memorials. When scanned by a mobile phone or tablet, the codes take the user to an online biography, complete with images and videos!
The most important thing about using a 2D code is the printing process – whilst 1D codes are tolerant of fluctuations in print quality. 2D codes must be printed crisply and clearly to ensure they can be read. Laser is the best option for creating indelible and permanent codes onto a range of surfaces, including plastics, paper, glass, metals and cartons on the production line.
Lastly, you should always conduct a final test of the QR code to ensure it directs users to the right location. Don’t be like Heinz, who had to apologise to their European customers for using an out-of-date code on their tomato sauce bottles – which instead took users straight to a pornography website!
Whether you want to use a QR or Datamatrix code on your products speak with Matthews today. Our experts will ensure you choose the right 2D coding solution for your application.