In industrial manufacturing, last thing you want to deal with is unreadable barcodes interfering with production. Decoding failures may require downtime for diagnostics and equipment adjustments, which results in unforeseen costs, lost opportunities to meet business objectives, and a lot of frustration. After all, using barcodes in production is supposed to streamline operations, not complicate them! But the fact is that even after you go through the checklist of standard to-dos to prepare your operations with quality barcodes and ideal barcode-reading conditions, some circumstances may be beyond your control and unpredictable no reads may still result.
But help is available. Instead of focusing on the condition of your barcode or the setup of your operations, you may be able to attack barcode readability issues from the barcode reader itself by using more powerful decoding algorithms. In this blog post, I'll offer some advice about how you can dedicate less of your limited resources and valuable time to barcode reading and more to getting business done.
Let's say you've already assessed your application, chosen the best barcode for your data management needs, already implemented the barcode in the most accessible location, already designed the system with the necessary mirrors and clearance paths for fixtures, already used lighting, color, or polarizing filters to maximize contrast of the code on its surface, and even cleaned the printheads of your barcode printer to ensure each code is printed flawlessly. In spite of all that, the unfortunate reality is that conditions change, equipment degrades, and other factors diminish barcode quality long after your codes are applied. These factors can all negatively impact your decoding performance, and can appear at any time. When it is critical that data acquisition occurs without fail, regardless of changing conditions, you need technology at hand that can help you meet any challenge - even the unforeseen ones.
Microscan is the only manufacturer in the world to offer barcode reading devices with high-performance X-Mode decoding technology. These sophisticated decoding algorithms are available on most Microscan barcode readers and machine vision cameras and decode any challenging barcode on sight, right out of the box. For printed codes or direct part marks with low-contrast, "noisy" substrates, print errors and defects, or damage and distortion, X-Mode products offer reliable decode results and safeguard the efficiency of operations. As we like to say, when application circumstances are unpredictable or beyond a user's control, X-Mode just works.
Here's a breakdown of some of the challenging barcode reading conditions in which X-Mode excels:
- Low Contrast
Contrast is determined by measuring the variations in shades of gray between black and white, where a 0 grayscale level would be 100% black. Naturally, a black barcode on a white background is the best selection to reduce the potential for no reads due to low contrast. But the color of the background or surface of a part or package can often be beyond your control. If you have red cardboard on a food container, a green barcode may provide the best contrast.
High contrast and repeatability are the goals, but if ink selection is limited due to cost, you may need your barcode reader to pick up the slack. X-Mode algorithms use powerful image processing to read codes with low contrast, analyzing gradients in captured images of barcodes to detect areas of reflectivity, making intelligent choices about where code elements appear - and where they don't - against the background.
- Narrow Quiet Zone
Even if your background is a color other than black or white, or if your code is printed in color, the need for a sufficient quiet zone around the code is as critical as it would be under normal conditions. The quiet zone (or " no-print zone") is an area surrounding the code which must be kept free from text, print, or markings. The quiet zone is often maintained with a white background for the highest contrast fidelity, particularly when you face liability issues such as those related to food and beverage safety.
If your code's quiet zone is limited due to the space available on a PCB or the leading edge of a mechanical window in front of a test tube, then you need decoding technology that is powerful enough to compensate, learn, and optimize the decoding performance of your system. X-Mode products have a Narrow Quiet Zone feature that allows you to place less space around a code, which can ensure good reads in restrictive conditions where other barcode readers may fail.
- Low Aspect Ratio
When you must ensure low bar height to fit a 1D barcode into tight spaces, good read redundancy is reduced (good read redundancy is enabled by the number of scan lines that are able to cross the code to obtain redundant decodes), which leaves little room for error in reading codes that may be slightly tilted or obstructed. Codes with low aspect ratios are often difficult for less advanced readers, and you need software with reliable location and reconstruction technology to obtain good reads.
X-Mode is available in two of Microscan's laser scanners as well. X-Mode's symbol reconstruction technology is a powerful defense against obstructed or impartially-scanned barcodes due either to damage or low aspect ratio. As shown in the diagram below, the X-Mode laser scanner (the QX-830 and QX-870) takes several scans across the code, even if certain areas of the code are blocked due to angle or other factors, and combines these incomplete segments into a single, complete scan line. The data from this scan line is then output from a device to a host system as the complete data string.
- Challenging Part Surfaces
The surfaces on which barcodes are applied are not always uniform in their texture or reflectivity. Whether you have a low-contrast code marked directly on a part surface, or a high-contrast barcode on a shiny material, you need a decoding algorithm with the ability to " see" complete codes through shadows and reflections. With zero configuration, X-Mode imagers are able to locate a code, analyze the image, detect changes in reflectivity, grid-map the image, and produce repeatable and reliable decodes regardless of other conditions.
When the condition of your part surface is beyond your control, or when environmental factors such as part roughness due to heavy machining affect symbol quality, you will need powerful decoding capabilities to overcome these obstacles.
- Damage or Distortion
Whether from printing and marking inconsistency or environmental conditions down the line, damaged codes can have very costly results. Problems can occur when the substrate unexpectedly moves during the barcode application process, causing a skewed or misprinted code. Temperature, water, and other environmental factors can also cause code blotching, erasure, or tearing. You need to be able to identify errors that alter the shape, skew, or uniformity of a code in order to improve your processes (updating printing equipment or operating conditions), but if codes have already changed enough to result in no reads, process improvements after the fact are merely reactive measures. Despite the best maintenance efforts, you cannot always predict tears, scratches, or debris further down the conveyer. When a code is distorted, blurred, or scratched after application to a surface but still must be decodable every time, you need aggressive decode algorithms that proactively overcome barcode quality inconsistencies. X-Mode is the answer.
- Code Type
After you have applied barcodes to your parts, you are well past the design phase and the guidelines for selecting and creating a good barcode likely won't result in an immediate re-design effort. X-Mode decodes all 1D and 2D codes that you would expect in production environments and beyond (Data Matrix, QR Code, PDF417, Code 39, Interleaved 2 of 5, Code 128, Codabar, Code 93, UPC/EAN). With over 30 years of barcode reading innovation and over 100 patents, Microscan is both the pioneer and expert in reading all barcodes used in production environments.
- Integration Hassle
No configuration, no experts, and no engineers are required to implement X-Mode; its built-in algorithms offer simple, out-of-the-box performance. Plus, X-Mode's ability to read rotated codes with symbol reconstruction technology expands the range of possible mounting angles and positioning of X-Mode readers in machinery. X-Mode decoding algorithms are available on multiple platform devices from laser barcode scanners to 2D barcode imagers and even to machine vision cameras and software.
- And more
All of the benefits described above, including omnidirectional decoding for upside-down or tilted codes, and even the ability to decode symbols in seemingly-impossible locations (for which mirrors are used to read codes in geometrically complex orientations), can all be accomplished with X-Mode. With additional software-configurable parameters, such as background color selection, narrow quiet zone tolerances, decode redundancy settings, and symbol reconstruction, X-Mode is an exceptionally powerful all-in-one decoding tool.
How does X-Mode work?
With X-Mode, there is no button to push. There is no " set it and forget it." Just power on your device. The software is already installed and automatically trains on the code you need to read, learns the dynamics, and then optimizes your system for the most reliable decode based on your conditions.
Do I need X-Mode?
If you use barcodes to automate any part of your automated operations or data-logging activities (and most operations do) then it's possible you could run into any of the real-world problems discussed earlier. Barcode labels get scuffed and scratched as they move along the conveyor belt, and as printing or marking systems degrade, distorted codes can result even as they are applied. Even if you have a color-printed barcode on colored material, you still need to ensure sufficient contrast to read the code.
Microscan is committed to customizing our devices for your application, and X-Mode is no exception. Setting a maximum performance level for decoding power does come at some cost, so we offer the option to turn off X-Mode parameters on most products. However, on average, over a range of mark types (dot peen, laser etch, etc.) and a range of substrates (aluminum, PCB, etc.) and finishes (gloss, matte, etc.), a device with X-Mode will provide twice as many good reads.
Is X-Mode a good investment?
X-Mode is the industry-leading decoding technology for both 1D and 2D symbols (printed or directly marked), regardless of mark type, substrate, or symbol quality. X-Mode offers the highest performance available out of the box as well as the scalability to meet your future application needs. Microscan continues to develop X-Mode technology, and we offer software and firmware updates on our website free of charge. In competitive solutions, companies may try to sell - and then upsell - customers on four to five different decoders with varying levels of performance that must be replaced to meet future demands, resulting in additional expenses, engineering, and production downtime. Why sacrifice performance and leave your operations underprepared for application changes that may occur in the future? Future-proof your operations to accommodate potential issues by using the right tool to begin with. That tool is X-Mode.
So what's the bottom line?
Microscan provides fast, reliable barcode and machine vision solutions for reading any code without configuration or data acquisition expertise. Our high-performance X-Mode algorithms and data acquisition patents lead the industry, with unprecedented symbol location, analysis, and reconstruction capabilities right out of the box. Even under the worst circumstances, X-Mode just works.
Focus on what you do best, and leave the barcode reading to us. Microscan X-Mode products read any code, on any surface, in any condition, so you can overcome The Most Common Causes of Unreadable Barcodes. Learn more in this latest white paper from Microscan.
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