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Bumblebees and flowers, ants and acacia trees, industrial code readers and laser markings… What do these three pairings have in common? The answer is that they’re all examples of entities that have undergone coevolution. Granted, the latter duo isn’t exactly subject to the pressures of Darwinian natural selection out in the wild, but who’s to say that the demands of industrial automation on traceability technology aren’t at least somewhat akin to the Darwinian process? After all, there are plenty of formerly popular devices that are now nowhere to be seen, thanks to much more sophisticated devices taking their place.

One of the main “evolutionary” pressures put upon direct part markings (DPMs) is the need to be exceedingly small. The consumer electronics industry strives to cram codes onto as many work-in-progress (WIP) components as possible, including printed circuit boards (PCBs) and sometimes even the individual capacitors and resistors that these boards carry. If you’ve ever taken a gander at a PCB, you’ll know that there’s very little room for extraneous decorations. PCBs commonly carry 5-mil codes, and some of the higher-value components they hold – such as microphones and processors – acquire 3-mil codes for traceability.

Another industry that’s putting pressure on DPMs to shrink further is healthcare. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires any medical devices meant to be used more than once and reprocessed between each use to bear unique device identifiers (UDIs) in the form of permanent markings on the devices themselves. Such devices include surgical instruments like vascular clamps that offer little space for machine-readable markings. Fortunately, laser marking techniques have evolved to the point where they can form two-dimensional codes that are barely wider than the head of a pin. Within these tiny squares, the individual black-and-white checkerboard cells are almost impossible for the human eye to make out. Thanks to this major improvement, it’s becoming much less difficult to place UDI codes on PCBs and surgical instruments.

Of course, these miniscule markings would be useless if scanners couldn’t read them. Some high-performance industrial code readers, such as Omron Microscan’s MicroHAWK family, have more than kept the pace with laser-marked DPMs and can now distinguish between black and white Data Matrix cells as small as 2 mil. (A mil is equivalent to a thousandth of an inch, or about 1/30th of the width of a credit card.) These code readers overshoot the current requirement by a significant amount, as GS1 – an organization that assigns barcodes to organizations and sets industry-wide standards for traceability – puts the minimum x-dimension for 2D codes at 3.9 mil. (See GS1 General Specification, Symbol Specification Table 7 for direct part marking of medical devices.) This is almost twice the minimum decodable size for MicroHAWK readers. However, that’s no reason for Omron Microscan to rest on its laurels. As code reading devices get more and more sophisticated, the minimum allowable x-dimension is likely to diminish, prompting makers of scanning equipment to improve their wares even further.

The coevolution of laser markings and high-performance code readers is of particular interest today because medical device identification requirements are getting stricter. In fact, new UDI compliance regulations from the FDA are taking effect this year, and the affected devices include class II medical devices and instruments such as acupuncture needles. As traceability requirements become more comprehensive, manufacturers will find themselves under pressure to place DPMs in trickier locations. End users of medical devices, such as hospitals, may need to upgrade their equipment in order to read the ever-shrinking laser marks.

You can see how this has turned into a never-ending cycle of coevolution. As technology progresses, so do compliance regulations, and then technology must progress further to stay abreast of the requirements. It’s the perfect recipe for relentless advancement, with laser markings and code readers spurring each other on to become – respectively – less conspicuous and more eagle-eyed.

Watch out for a new addition of the Omron Microscan’s barcode readers – miniature MicroHAWK ID-45, optimized to read DPM in all sorts of settings including metal cavities. Equipped with the TRUE Autofocus and X-Mode technology, ID-45, can read damaged codes too and is a perfect match for electronics, medical device and any DPM application. Register for the webinar on February 22nd introducing this future bestseller!

February, 22 - Session 1 - 7:00 AM PST

February, 22 - Session 2 - 11:00 AM PST

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