Is this the end of barcode labels as we know it?

by Richa Gupta | 06/27/2013

The barcode label printer market is fairly mature. Purpose-built barcode printers are largely based on the relatively lower cost thermal technology. Laser, inkjet and dot-matrix (impact) printers are all, however, part of the market equation to a certain degree. Regardless of the underlying print technology, one aspect of barcode label printing that has not changed much in the mass market adoption of barcode labels is the look itself. A significant majority of labels in circulation today – on products, packages and other assets – are black-and-white. This has, in some ways, limited the features and functionalities of barcode printers. Let’s take a look at a couple of ways in which vendors are bringing in a new age of barcode labeling. On one hand there are other color barcode labels and on the other, no labels at all.

To print color labels, for example, users have had to either buy pre-printed color stock or make investments in inkjet printers because of a lack of options on the thermal side. Thermal barcode printer vendors typically refrain from allocating R&D dollars toward color printing because it is highly cost prohibitive. Over the past several months, GHS labeling compliance regulations have opened up the use of color thermal barcode printers in chemical manufacturing environments. Their use, though, is restricted to niche applications today, primarily as a result of high costs.

Digital watermarking, the process of embedding information into printed materials that can be “viewed” using camera-based solutions, is making waves in the media and publishing industry. The value propositions offered by watermarks (also known as invisible barcodes) are well-suited to support critical authentication, product information and traceability initiatives. These are a viable alternative to QR codes on marketing collateral and product packaging. Here’s the big question, however.

Can on-demand color barcode label printing use grow beyond these highly specific functions? Can digital watermarks ever replace the conventional barcode label format for tagging and asset identification? Can this be the beginning of the end of barcode labels as we know it? Well, the answer is just not so black-and-white anymore.

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