The challenges in the supply chain due to COVID-19 are expected to diminish gradually, and companies will adjust to the new normal. However, it’s anticipated that there will be more disruptions in the supply chain in the future, and the evolution of consumer behavior remains uncertain over the coming months and years. In the current geopolitical climate, manufacturers must be more flexible and agile than ever to adapt to sudden changes in supply and demand. Manual processes on modern production lines hinder success. To swiftly adapt to supply chain disruptions caused by economic, weather, or health events, automation is crucial. While coding and marking may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering automation in manufacturing, coding automation can play a surprisingly significant role in enhancing accuracy and agility on production lines. Moving beyond the current crisis, manufacturers who seize the opportunity to automate their coding solutions and experience the advantages of improved control and visibility in their production processes will be better prepared to continue production, regardless of future challenges.

The Evolution of Digitalisation

Coding and marking technologies have traditionally served distinct roles in the supply chain, involving ‘primary level’ coding for on-product information like ‘use by’ dates and ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary level‘ coding for outer packaging and shipment/pallet coding, respectively. However, changes in international and governmental regulations, such as the EU Falsified Medicines Directive, China’s Food Safety Regulations, and new requirements from the US FDA and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), are eliminating these separations. This evolution is driven by a growing emphasis on product traceability, leading to increased automation within the factory setting, including the concept of the ‘batch of one.’ The ‘batch of one’ refers to the ability to trace individual products from a specific production run, offering confidence in handling issues like grey-imports or recalls. To comply with stringent regulations, manufacturers are integrating coding and marking systems with MES and ERP systems, combining lot/batch coding with variable data or serialized codes for individual traceability. This integration involves using human-readable text and machine-readable barcodes, QR codes, and Data Matrix codes to capture diverse data. This data is then automatically or manually read and verified throughout the entire product lifecycle, ensuring production accuracy and enabling traceability from manufacture through transit, retail, and to the end user. The role of coding and marking has evolved beyond its origins in ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date coding.

Safeguarding (and Enhancing) Your Brand

Strategies for safeguarding brands have also incorporated coding and marking technologies. Over the years, brands across various industries have implemented measures to protect themselves from counterfeiting, often aiming to reinforce a premium status, as seen in the pharmaceutical sector. However, challenges related to counterfeiting of everyday items have led to the widespread adoption of unique, serialized coding on individual products. This capability to apply unique variable data to individual products has not only addressed brand protection issues but has also created promotional opportunities. Former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, Stephen Sadove, highlighted the potential success of using technology to tell engaging stories to consumers. In response to on-shelf competition and to gain deeper insights into shopper demographics, brand owners are directly engaging consumers by incorporating promotional codes, such as competition entries, redeemable through dedicated landing pages with additional data capture. Batch-of-one coding can also serve as a late-stage customization solution, allowing individual products to be personalized for a specific consumer, potentially incorporating a name, message, or even a photograph unique to the customer, with each product being one-of-a-kind.

Elevating Experience – Transformations Driven by Consumer Preferences

In recent times, retailers and consumers have been advocating for more comprehensive details on product packaging. Beyond the ‘standard’ product information, there is a growing demand for the inclusion of finer details on a product label, encompassing information about product authenticity, origin, expiration dates, ingredients, and even specific details about the product’s maker or operator, linking a consumer to a particular product at the point of sale. Consumers are also urging manufacturers to enhance and demonstrate their sustainability initiatives by incorporating additional information on products and packaging to indicate suitability for recycling, reuse, and composting. This call for increased information coincides with the challenges posed by sustainability drivers to traditional packaging methods. Manufacturers are now exploring new approaches to incorporate a greater variety of data onto product labels, experimenting with sustainable packaging materials and different pack sizes. Advanced coding and marking technologies have been developed to enable machine-readable barcodes, QR codes, and Data Matrix codes to provide ever-expanding data within the constraints of limited on-pack space, maintaining high precision and quality.

Eliminating Flaws, Reducing Waste, and Mitigating Business Risks

Increasing the diversity of data on packaging and labelling underscores the heightened significance of consistent, high-quality coding. Although coding and marking may seem like minor components of the overall supply chain process, errors can jeopardize product acceptance by retailers, particularly for perishable goods, and hinder traceability within the supply chain. Line stoppage delays can lead to missed deadlines and potential corporate liability, while even basic coding errors may result in inaccurate quotas, unnecessary waste, diminished consumer experience, and a loss of brand trust. Accuracy is paramount on modern production lines, especially those managing multiple products for a global consumer base. Integrating printers with factory automation systems, such as MES and ERP applications, allows for the automatic coordination of labelling data without human intervention. Transitioning from manual printer operation to centralized management and automated job, label, and data coordination eliminates the risks associated with human error and provides essential production data on the factory floor. Utilising automated product coding solutions alongside code validation systems is the most effective method for maintaining error-free production lines, facilitating seamless product message changeovers, and working in tandem with external vision systems for message validation. Online portals now enable live tracking and authentication of products throughout the supply chain. If items are removed, altered, or damaged during production or transit, the associated serial numbers, down to a batch of one, can be decommissioned, and the central repository updated for highly granular, accurate inventory management, with every aspect of business operations receiving real-time updates. Scanning products at the point of purchase provides assurance to consumers and retailers. For instance, pharmacies can validate medicines before dispensing, and customers, through smartphone apps, can check the safety of food products before purchasing them. Ultimately, increased intelligence and visibility of real-time production line operations empower manufacturers to streamline their factories, reduce stock holding and inventory, and progress towards more sustainable production.

Elevating Manufacturing Facilities for Tomorrow

Introducing novel applications with existing technologies to enhance data accessibility, such as dynamic barcodes incorporating sell-by dates, the implementation of 2D codes at the point of sale for products priced by weight (e.g., meat), the use of Data Matrix for identifying and tracking products throughout their life cycle, and GS1 tag contacts for tracking extended warranties on appliances, provide avenues for comprehensive life-cycle marketing. These applications play a crucial role in supporting the increasing shift towards more frequent line changeovers instead of prolonged, dedicated runs of a single product. The ability to trace smaller batch sizes, even down to a batch of one, throughout the supply chain has become indispensable for manufacturers to thrive. As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the migration of daily transactions to online platforms, even for everyday goods, consumer expectations regarding the convenience of mobile ordering, payment, and real-time order tracking continue to escalate. Consequently, the benchmark for consumer expectations from industry leaders continues to elevate. Looking ahead, online tracking of purchases and features like extended warranties are likely to evolve into standard expectations, rather than differentiators, influencing consumer purchase decisions.


In the face of mounting challenges to global supply chains, data emerges as a pivotal element. By embracing novel applications of coding and marking technologies to establish a connected supply chain, businesses can excel in the realm of near-real-time, personalized batch runs. This not only enhances the existing advantages of batch coding but also paves the way for more interactive and immersive applications, fostering engagement with both retailers and consumers. Simultaneously, such initiatives contribute to heightened operational agility and efficiency.

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