Automating Barcode Reading Speeds Verification

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Germany exported $99.5 billion and imported $60.5 billion worth of pharmaceutical products in 2020, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Some of the incoming products are reimports, or goods that are initially exported from Germany that are brought back into the country because doing so is legal and makes economic sense. These reimported products arrive in packages of varying sizes and formats from countries around the world.

Every reimported pharmaceutical product has one thing in common: It must be registered with a European code. Re-importers must check that a product is registered by examining the code and comparing it to a database. This verification cannot be done on a sample basis, noted Stephan Strelen, CEO of systems integrator Strelen Control Systems.

  A high-resolution camera enables the reading of many miniaturized codes and modules at once across a wide field of view. Courtesy of Strelen Control Systems.

“They have to do that for every single package! So, an importer who imports large amounts of pharmaceutical products needs to code-read every single product,” Strelen said.

Running this check is no easy task because an importer has little control over the package or its labeling. Package height and other aspects of the format vary widely. Code print also differs greatly. There can be white print on black, black print on white, or colored print on a colored background. The print can be of poor quality and low contrast, and the miniaturized codes can be small.

Reading these miniature codes can be done with a handheld barcode scanner, but it’s manually intensive and time consuming.

A manual method may also result in error because it requires 100 or more similar-looking products to be scanned one by one. Software and manual checks can detect when a package is skipped or read more than once. If such an error happens, though, the entire batch may have to be scanned again.

A final problem with the handheld barcode scanner approach is that collecting extra information, such as printed data on batch purity, requires even more manipulation. Gathering this extra data may also require something other than a barcode reader, depending on how the data is formatted.

Alternative to handheld readers

To address these issues, Strelen Control Systems developed an automated system to read these miniature codes. This required an extremely flexible solution, with a vision system that had a great depth of field of view and high resolution. The automated miniature code reader would have to interface with different networks and control systems, requiring a near-universal connection capability.

Autofocus adjusts a camera to different packaging formats for inspection of shipping and logistics containers with printed codes. Courtesy of Strelen Control Systems.

  Autofocus adjusts a camera to different packaging formats for inspection of shipping and logistics containers with printed codes. Courtesy of Strelen Control Systems.

Strelen Control Systems engineers opted to use cameras from SVS-Vistek, whose products offer more than 20-MP resolution. With this high resolution, the field of view is wide enough to capture multiple products with enough detail to distinguish small features, such as miniature codes. An SVS-Vistek press release describing its contribution to the project also stated that the company’s cameras are equipped with real-time autofocus that compensates for different package sizes.

In addition to the availability of cameras with the required resolution and capabilities, increased computer processing power was a key to the solution for overseeing a large number of codes simultaneously. Another important ingredient was the development of highly efficient algorithms that enabled each code module to be located and identified despite that the images were only about 3 × 3 pixels in size.

“This can read more than 100 packages in one go and the use is extremely simple,” Strelen said of the product. So far, 16 customers have deployed 35 systems.

During operation, the system captures a wide field of view, imaging every barcode within an area simultaneously. This data can then be processed offline to extract the codes, allowing the verification of multiple packages at once. The result is ~20× improvement in the speed of the code check.

Strelen noted plans to eventually develop the system so that it can read package bundles that are shrink-wrapped in foil. The surface reflections of the foil cause this to be challenging, he said, but software may be able to help overcome this issue. Other software changes in the works will enhance the system’s ability to handle more inspection tasks, such as comparing the code to the writing on the package. The image data might also be used for defect inspections. These capability extensions are possible because the vision system has the necessary resolution for the image data to supply the required detail.

These new capabilities, though, cannot compromise the system’s main task: reading hundreds of miniature codes at once. That job requires speed — and 100% accuracy.

Published: June 2023
Vision in ActionStrelen Control SystemsSVS-Vistekbarcode scanningautomated miniature code reader

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