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New study of industry goals reveals pursuits far beyond plastics

New study of industry goals reveals pursuits far beyond plastics
A new database of publicly-stated sustainability goals and commitments from nearly 100 major brand owners and retailers helps identify industry priorities.

Ask anybody what the most pressing issue is in sustainable packaging and you’re likely to receive some variation of the same answer: plastic waste. It is undeniable that the current state of affairs revolves around heightened awareness of marine plastic pollution.

In response, there  is unprecedented momentum around the world created by initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy, and it’s progressed to the point where it seems that any brand owner or retailer looking to make a splash must make some kind of announcement related to plastics, be it committing to 100% recyclability by 2025, upping their usage of recycled content in plastics or taking steps to eliminate certain types of single-use plastic packaging. There is even worry from some that industry has become too single-mindedly focused on recycling and other circular economy-oriented pursuits, with an argument that tunnel-visioned strategies can create blind spots for other important issues.

Yet a closer look at industry goals and commitments, though, reveals a broad and diverse range of focus areas in sustainable packaging, with a few surprises for those believing plastics and recycling have taken over entirely.

Industry pursuits were recently studied and catalogued in the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s newly-released Goals Database, a resource that is available for SPC members only. The database is a curated compendium of publicly-stated goals and commitments from nearly 100 major brand owners and retailers, containing hundreds of entries under 14 different classifications of pursuits in sustainability and packaging. Each entry is either designated as a goal, which is usually stated with a firm target date and target improvement, or a statement of support, which is a softer commitment without concrete metrics but still indicative of its importance to the company. By tallying up the number of goals and statements of support in categories like recyclability, material efficiency and bio-based material usage, an overarching view of industry priorities comes into focus.

The first major takeaway is that 75 of the brand owners and retailers studied—about 86%—have either goals or statements of support that address one or more concepts in sustainable packaging. Specific, tangible goals have been put forth by 48 of those companies, while only 12 companies studied have not made any public commitments whatsoever. According to the data, transparent acknowledgement of the importance of sustainable packaging is a widespread practice. The areas in which those acknowledgements are made, however, is truly a mixed bag.

For all the buzz around recent pledges to make 100% of packaging recyclable, only 20 companies were found to have made goals that draw a hard line on the percentage of packaging that must be recyclable by a target date. Another four have goals in recyclability with other boundaries, and another 24 companies have made soft commitments toward improving the recyclability of their packaging.

Summing these up, a grand total of 48 companies—about 55%—have made some type of public commitment to improving packaging recyclability. Relative to other categories of sustainable packaging pursuits, that’s a lot—more companies have made concrete goals around recyclability than they have in six other classifications of sustainable packaging improvements, and the combined number of companies with either goals or statements of support for recyclable packaging is the second most of any sustainable packaging classification included in the database.

But not the most.

The most prevalent types of sustainable packaging commitments made, it turns out, don’t address recycling or recovery at all—they address responsible sourcing.

By the numbers, industry places the most emphasis on recycled-content usage and responsible fiber sourcing. More concrete goals are made around responsible fiber sourcing than any other area in sustainable packaging—34 companies, or about 39%, have specific goals—and the number of companies making either a concrete goal or a soft commitment in recycled content usage is more than any other category: 54 companies, or about 62%.

Of those commitments in recycled content usage, only three are exclusive to plastic packaging; the vast majority either encompass all packaging materials or are an extension of a company’s goals in responsible fiber sourcing, addressing paper packaging only.

And while responsible fiber sourcing and recycled content usage are showing momentum, there are many other areas with significant activity. Commitments to reduce packaging are almost exactly as prevalent as recyclability commitments, and goals around eliminating unfavorable substances from packaging are common as well.

 

Of the 640 entries in the database, commitments to more sustainable packaging only account for about half. The other half are broader commitments to sustainability made on a corporate level, addressing greenhouse gas emissions, energy reduction, water reduction, operational waste reduction and renewable energy usage. When these types of goals are accounted for, they greatly exceed the number of sustainable packaging goals.

For instance, nearly every major retailer and brand owner was found to have made a public commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These types of goals are important, because packaging improvements can contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, water, waste and energy, but it is important to note that packaging is seldom mentioned when these goals are stated. Less than five companies specifically mention packaging when stating their commitments in these impact categories.

It’s unclear if packaging enters corporate conversations around impact-oriented goals, but it’s clear that the concepts of responsible sourcing, design optimization and recovery resonate the most when leading companies set out to make improvements in sustainable packaging.

Zooming back out, we can see that industry has indeed placed significant emphasis on achieving circular economy principles for plastic packaging. But perhaps the buzz around those pledges has created a misperception of an exclusive focus.

Clearly, sustainable packaging is alive and well on multiple fronts, for a number of different materials and many important focus areas. It’s an absolute certainty that plastics and recycling will continue to dominate the industry news, but quietly, companies are continuing to aim at improvements in many other areas of sustainable packaging. And for the first time, the data exists to prove it.

Adam Gendell

Adam Gendell is the associate director of GreenBlue’s flagship project, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a membership-based industry collaborative led by an independent non-profit that believes in the power of industry to make packaging more sustainable. Access to the Goals Database is available exclusively to SPC members.

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It’s time for bioplastics to be plastics

It’s time for bioplastics to be plastics
A plastic package by any other name (PLA, for example) is still plastic, contends sustainability expert Adam Gendell.

“I wish people would stop calling PLA* a bioplastic…” said Steve Davies, director of public affairs and communications at NatureWorks during a recent meeting of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Industry Leadership Committee on Bioplastics. “…and start thinking of it as one more functional material—dare I say it…another plastic.”

These words were spoken by a representative from one of the largest producers of bioplastics in the world—in fact, one of the chief pioneers in the field and the reason the word “bioplastics” is as ubiquitous as it is today. Steve’s point is this: When those of us in the packaging community hear the word “plastic,” we think of a spectrum of polymers with different performance characteristics, costs, sustainability attributes, advantages and disadvantages. But the word “bioplastic” often carries a narrow connotation of a compostable, plant-based plastic with limited functionality and prohibitive cost.

It’s time for that to change.

The world of bioplastics has exploded, and there is an amazing breadth of materials that can be classified as bioplastics. Part of the reason, arguably, is the far-reaching definition of a bioplastic. The most commonly used definition, popularized by European Bioplastics, is that a bioplastic is bio-based, biodegradable or both. To unpack this, that means that a bioplastic can be inherently non-biodegradable. It means that a bioplastic can contain 0% bio-based materials. A bioplastic may be 100% fossil-based. It can be any combination of being partially bio-based, fully bio-based, non-bio-based, biodegradable, compostable or non-biodegradable, so long as it is not both non-bio-based and non-biodegradable.

There are four basic permutations of these characteristics, and bioplastics encompass three of them:

The definition of bioplastics is a matter of semantics, but the semantics are removed when the family of bioplastics becomes enveloped in our definition of plastics. There are a slew of terms used when describing plastics: “barrier plastic,” “formable plastic,” “heat-resistant plastic.” By including the terms “bio-based plastic,” “biodegradable plastic” and “compostable plastic,” we can articulate more clearly what properties are relevant to our conversations.

For those companies interested in decoupling plastics from fossil-based feedstocks, as is encouraged in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, “bioplastics” may or may not be the answer. “Bio-based plastics” are the answer—and it’s also important to recognize the importance of partially bio-based plastics, as the world of bio-based intermediates is ballooning and partially bio-based plastics can keep that innovation marching forward.

Here’s another point to consider: Amazing work is being done to pursue plastics made from sequestered atmospheric greenhouse gasses. This technology carries the promise of decoupling plastic from its conventional fossil-fuel feedstock, but it doesn’t fit the common definition of a bioplastic. Semantics strike again, and to advance the use of novel feedstocks, we can’t limit ourselves to “bioplastics.”

Other companies are interested in compostable plastics. For packaging likely to end up with food waste, compostability is especially enticing. It offers an alternative to recycling, which is phobic of contamination, and diverts food waste from the landfill by delivering it to the industrial composter who can take advantage of its residual value.

For this pursuit, “bioplastics” may or may not be the answer. One step further, “biodegradable plastics” may or may not be the answer either, since not all biodegradable plastics are truly compostable. “Compostable plastics” are the answer, and the matter of the feedstock being bio-based, partially bio-based or fossil-based, is not directly relevant to the job the plastic is being hired to do.

So rather than the binary distinction between plastics and bioplastics, let’s simply expand the list of functional characteristics on the polymer specification sheet. Buyers of plastics should continue to choose resins for their combination of functional material characteristics and cost performance.

But let’s marry the family of PLA*, PEF*, bio-based PE*, modified starch, PHA*, and many others with the family of PET*,  fossil-based PE*, PP*, PS* and everything between to recognize that “bioplastics” are equally—if not more—diverse than the conventional family of plastics, and the functional characteristics related to feedstock and end-of-life compatibility are neither mutually exclusive nor limited to an outdated understanding of uniquely progressive materials in our growing world of packaging.

Adam Gendell is the associate director of GreenBlue’s flagship project, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. His work with the packaging value chain touches on goal-setting, design considerations and stakeholder engagement. Gendell has developed and delivered training seminars for hundreds of packaging professionals, including the coalition’s fall conference: SPC Advance. He coordinates several Industry Leadership Committees and is a frequent speaker and writer on sustainability topics. In 2013, Adam served on the PAC NEXT Leadership Council.

*Abbreviations:

PE—polyethylene

PEF—polyethylene furanoate

PET—polyester

PHA—polyhydroxy alkanoates

PLA—polylactic acid

PP—polypropylene

PS—polystyrene

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Checkweigher offers precise weighing for tiny containers

Checkweigher offers precise weighing for tiny containers

The more expensive the product, the more critical fill accuracy is to safeguard profits. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and other packagers that fill very small containers have a new inspection option. The C35 VC Checkweighing System provides extremely accurate weighing—+/-4milligrams—for vials, small bottles and aerosols.

From Mettler Toledo, the C35 VC system features throughput of up to 300 pieces per minute. Its checkweighing range is 3 to 200 grams, and the system can weigh containers up to 100 millimeters in diameter.

A positively driven side transport mechanism maintains a grip on the packages to smoothly move them on and off the weigh-cell conveyor, facilitating accurate checkweighing for containers as small as 14mm in diameter. In addition, the system can weigh a variety of containers with no need for change parts.

Electromagnetic force restoration (EMFR) load cells in the C35 VC system enable small, precise measurements. Intelligent software tools for the load cells can learn to ignore interference from both the checkweigher and nearby equipment. The system’s high-precision temperature sensors and temperature-compensation software work together to protect against damage from temperature changes.

To assure optimal movement for all products, users can add conveyors and handling options. These include guiderails that ensure smooth package handling and diverter arms for the safe rejection of delicate glass packages. The system’s human-machine interface (HMI) is a 15-inch, multilingual touchscreen.

Using the easy-to-operate C35 VC system, packagers can inspect 100% of their product and separate nonconforming items from those that pass inspection. Two optional Weight Data Interfaces enable them to collect production data.

Mettler Toledo supports several data-communication technologies, including Ethernet/IP Profinet, Profibus DP OPC DA/UA, TCP/IP and various serial communication options. The Fieldbus and OPC solutions incorporate Pack ML (ISA TR88.00.02) in the base architecture, which provides easier, faster control integration.

The C35 VC system’s benefits include improved efficiency and lower production costs as well as reduced downtime, thanks to a global service network.

Mettler Toledo will introduce the new checkweigher at Pack Expo Las Vegas, which is set for Sept. 23-25, 2019.

Cannabis Packaging

7 best packaging practices for cannabis marketers

7 best packaging practices for cannabis marketers
Even working within the rules, cannabis marketers can leverage classic packaging design techniques.

Brands should apply classic best practices in packaging design to cannabis marketing to cut through the competitive clutter, encourage social media sharing, make a statement and more.

As the legalization of cannabis spreads across the country, a disruptive new variety of products is hitting the market. Even in this brave new world, many of the old laws apply—especially when it comes to packaging design. That’s why it’s worth considering how the tried-and-true rules of good packaging and brand design may still be relevant, even to the wild new frontier of cannabis products.

Here are seven best practices and how you can translate them into the design language of pot.

1. Understand the “Natural Habitat” and aim for mind-blowing shelf impact

This is one of the basic rules of packaging. If you don’t stand out on shelf, you’re dead in the water. Or more appropriately, your brand goes up in smoke. All the senses need to be engaged. It’s got to not only look appealing; it needs to be pleasing to the touch and not turn off the consumer with an annoying sound (remember Sun Chips’ compostable bag that had consumers saying, “It’s noisy as hell!”)? In fact, I tell my designers that they have one job and one job only—get the consumer to pick up the package, Because 85% of consumers who do this buy the product. Case closed.

To create great packaging, you need to study the “Natural Habitat” where the product lives. The same goes for cannabis brands. Right now, the dispensary is where cannabis products with THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects] reside, in all varieties of cabinets, counters and displays. But what will happen when federal legalization occurs? Will products be as visible, and touchable, as bottles on the shelf of your local liquor store? However it all shakes down, you can be sure a classic rule of thumb will apply—your labeling and packaging must be distinctive to break through the visual and sensory noise generated by its many neighboring brands.

When I think about shelf impact, a favorite example is Koffee Kult. The packaging and its messaging encourage you to “Be one of us.” Who can resist? This brand plays perfectly to the connoisseur mindset of the craft coffee drinker. One can only imagine how powerfully an exclusive club vibe like this would play to the cannabis devotee.

 

 

2. Shape, color, text—repeat after me…shape, color, text

These three priorities (in that order) are the building blocks of good package design. Remember, how it feels in the hand has a profound impact on purchase. So the shape should deliver on the promise of the product itself. The iconic Coca-Cola bottle is probably the best example.

Next, the color needs to express the brand’s personality, and the text gives it voice. Nobody does it better than Tiffany. The square peacock blue box is iconic and its statement single minded. The poetry of this little box says “You are worthy of this life-changing gift.” Granted, the Tiffany box does not compete on a retail shelf. But if it did, the shape, color and simple logo would make it a top seller every time.

Cannabis is another behind-the-counter item. The sales channel at a dispensary is through the bud tender. But already some brands are establishing their presence through powerfully focused package design. Kiva is one great example. The kraft substrate paired with the marijuana leaf image creates a warm, earth tone aura that is in sync with the whole eco-friendly nature of the product, making the package highly touchable. Like the Tiffany box, the design has an unmistakable signature.

 

3. Make the connection—embracing technology and social media

The traditional rule for packaging design is to make an emotional connection with the consumer where they live. Digital technology gives a whole new meaning to this principle—it’s called the connected package. Just by pointing a smartphone at a package, you can open online channels and get everything from “how to” videos, recipes, offers, club memberships and authenticity verification for luxury goods—the options are limitless.

Now apply it to cannabis and consumers can trace the origins of the plant, find out where it was grown, dosages, safety precautions, state regulations and even brownie recipes.

And, thanks to the photo-based formats of today’s social media such as Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest, your packaging can connect instantly with millions. Make sure your design plays well over these powerful, visual channels. Remember—it’s not just about running ads.

 

4. It’s easier being green—messaging and responsibility

Today, it’s nearly impossible to market and sell to younger consumers unless your brand can make credible claims around sustainability and social responsibility. This includes sustainable packaging (reusable, recycled materials, recyclable or recycle ready), sustainable farming techniques, organic and natural ingredients, and an overall clean ingredients list. There is no better proof of that than packaging. The cannabis world is already on top of this.

Witness Marley Natural, named after the king of reggae himself. The packaging tells a story about the brand’s advocacy for sustainable practices, as well as for people serving long prison terms for pot use. The mission of Marley Natural is to support sustainable farming and provide opportunities for former prisoners to get training and jobs.

 

5. Understand the consumer—know the generational cues

This means being mindful of the channels you deploy and the messaging you use. Boomers don’t like to be reminded of their age. Irony may work with Gen Xers, because of their cynical bent. Millennials, on the other hand, are all about authenticity, hence the move away from anything judged mass-produced to craft brands. When it comes to the support of legal cannabis, 62% of Americans are in favor, but that number jumps to 74% when you break out the Millennial demographic. When it comes to Gen-Z, they’ll be growing up in a world where cannabis is just as normal as social media is to Millennials.

 

6. Authenticity and brand voice—be yourself

If you’re an indie, you’ve got the leeway to create your identity. But if your brand’s personality is already established, it needs to be integrated with your cannabis offerings. Imagine how phony Budweiser would appear if, in an attempt to market a line of cannabis products, they suddenly adopted a “groovy psychedelic” look! Established iconic brands, like Budweiser, need to be true to “who they are” and “who their consumers are,” and build on that heritage. The example of the American themed bottle cans is a great execution of this strategy.

The marriage of a potentially revolutionary product with the traditions established by legacy brands may result in whole new ways of conceptualizing the cannabis experience…but be authentic!

7. Don’t think of cannabis as an exotic category—consumer behavior is still in play

Cannabis/marijuana (TCH or CBD/cannabidiol) is a regulated product, and so it’s subject to government oversight. However, when you think of all the products that include cannabis, it almost covers all the major product categories. The spectrum goes from inhalants (buds/vape oil) to edibles, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, confections and snacks, even creams and oils for pain relief.

In fact, it’s just another ingredient layer and so, each iteration needs its own TLC when it comes to communicating the THC.

For edibles, sensory testing should be part of the branding strategy. If you’re marketing a baked good, like a brownie, is the flavor profile and texture competitive with non-cannabis brands, or does it disappoint? It must look delicious, include flavor cues and be made of wholesome/clean ingredients. It’s not just about the CBD or THC.

As the legacy brands begin to enter the cannabis marketplace, competition for consumer loyalty is going to get fierce. Do your homework. You might find that the tried is truer than you expect.

 

10 pack redesigns earn honors in Nielsen competition

Winner-Cup-stock-image

Outstanding packaging design—or, more properly, “redesign”—is the focus for the Nielsen Design Impact Awards. The annual worldwide competition attracts entries from brand owners and designers that have redesigned packages for food, beverage, personal care products and homecare items.

The 2019 competition considered redesigns that launched between January 1, 2016, and January 1, 2018, looking at factors such as the redesign’s effect on sales, consumer brand perceptions and brand trial. Ten winners emerged, including five from North America.

Here are quick explanations of the winning redesigns. For in-depth descriptions, download the “Global Edition: Nielsen Design Impact Awards 2019” report below.

Nice! by Walgreens (U.S.): More than a nice try

Walgreens’ packaging redesign for its expansive Nice! private-label brand incorporates health/wellness information and appetite appeal as well as trustworthiness, friendliness and approachability. Walgreens worked with design agency Soulsight on the redesign.

 

M&M’s (U.S.): Redesigned pack stands up on-shelf

By switching to a stand-up pouch for M&M’s, Mars Wrigley Confectionery has created a brand billboard on-shelf. The front of the pouch faces consumers, something the previous package, a bag, could not do. Consequently, consumers now enjoy an easier, faster shopping experience.

 

 

Icelandic Provisions (U.S.): New Skyr package is eco-friendly

In creating a new package design for its Skyr cultured dairy product, Icelandic Provisions worked with design agency Moxie Sozo.The redesign, which includes an easy-to-recycle cup made with less plastic than the previous package, sets the Skyr brand apart from competitors and has significantly improved sales.

 

Hess Select (U.S.): The lion still roars

The Hess Collection Winery engaged Retifex to redesign labels for the Hess Select tier of wines, with the goal of updating the design without losing brand equity. The redesign includes larger labels, a refreshed Hess lion icon and updated colors.

Alpura (Mexico): Milk pack redesign is a natural

Mexican dairy cooperative Alpura takes good care of its cows, and that care and quality come through on its redesigned milk packaging. With an emphasis on naturalness, the redesign features photos of Alpura’s own cows and pastures. Alpura collaborated with Mexico City-based agency Foic Lecanda on the new design.

Arawana Oil (China): New design tackles ergonomics

Chinese cooking-oil manufacturer Arawana redesigned the packaging for its sunflower and rice bran oils. The new sunflower oil package features a more ergonomic handle. And a subtle shift in color on the rice bran oil package reinforces the product’s premium quality.

MAQ (South Africa): Redesign brings brand family together

For the South Africa-based MAQ brand of homecare products, a packaging redesign unifies a product family that includes dish, laundry and surface cleansers.

Playboy Deodorants (South Africa): Aerosol redesign highlights fragrances

Also in South Africa, Playboy redesigned packaging for its aerosol deodorants to give each fragrance a distinctive identity while also communicating the identity of the larger brand family. A structural package change that lets consumers lock the actuator eliminates the need for an overcap.

 

Prestígio (Brazil): Candy bar packaging gets a makeover

In Brazil, modernized packaging for Nestlé’siconic Prestígio candy bar successfully communicates “naturalness” without sacrificing brand recognition.

 

Satis! (Brazil): New seasoning packs showcase product benefits

In redesigning the packaging for its Satis! seasonings, brand owner Ajinomoto do Brazilchose graphics that better communicate the products’ benefits and practicality to consumers, and also differentiate the product line’s three functional tiers.

 

These were quick explanations of the winning redesigns. For in-depth descriptions, download the “Global Edition: Nielsen Design Impact Awards 2019” report.

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Ecommerce/Supply Chain

Revised 2D barcode offers potential in beverage, distribution, ecommerce markets

Revised 2D barcode offers potential in beverage, distribution, ecommerce markets
A DotCode symbol printed with square dots, encoding “Dots can be Square!” Graphic by GW4, compliments of AIM Inc.

The long-awaited July 2019 revision to DotCode—the barcode symbology adopted for track-and-trace by key manufacturers in the tobacco industry because of its ability to be applied at speeds of more than 1,000 codes per minute—makes one expert wonder if beverage and other high-speed packaging and distribution operations can be far behind in implementing the symbology.

DotCode symbology, revision 4.0—recently ratified by AIM Inc., a trusted global authority on automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technologies and original publisher of many of the world’s dominant barcode specifications—has been adopted by global standards organization GS1 in a rare mid-year GS1 General Specifications update.

Little-known and previously unhearalded, the potentially revolutionary public-domain DotCode symbology is a two-dimensional (2D) matrix barcode “language” designed by Andy Longacre, Ph.D., and originally published in 2009 by AIM. A distinguishing characteristic of DotCode is its discrete dot pattern that accommodates high-speed and other marking applications where a precise alignment or connection of individual dots or cells may be problematic.

The revised DotCode specification defines expanded symbology-specific print quality assessment (verification) parameters based on a more granular scale (1/10 of a point) to conform with the current SC31/WG1 international committee work to similarly revise ISO/IEC 15415, the standard covering 2D barcode print quality assessment and grading.

Most importantly, the updated specification defines a fundamental encoding improvement based on extensive new testing of the original encoder algorithm and real-world experience in printing and reading DotCode in anticounterfeit and traceability implementations in the European tobacco industry over the past several years.

International Symbology Specification—DotCode (Rev. 4.0) and associated encoding and mask scoring source code files are available for purchase from AIM at www.aimglobal.org. A podcast on this subject is also available on the AIM website.

DotCode encoding

GS1 DotCode encoding a unit packUnique Identifier (upUI) comprised of the new GS1 Application Identifier AI(235) for Third-Party Controlled, Serialized Extension of GTIN (TPX), followed by AI(01) Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), and AI(8008) Time Stamp to YYMMDDhh precision.

DotCode dot array is 63 x 16. Stipulated minimum dot size (X-dimension) is 0.015 inch.

The array dimensions are therefore 0.945 x 0.24 inches PLUS the required 3X Quiet Zone on all four sides for a total symbol area of 1.035 x 0.33 inches. (Image has been enlarged so you can see it better.)

Encodation: 2355vBZr-AjR8!5'S:m0101234567890128800819052001
Scanner output: ]J12355vBZr-AjR8!5'S:m 0101234567890128800819052001
where “]J1” is the required ISO/IEC Symbology Identifier; is the required Group Separator character that delimits the end of the TPX data from the AI(01) application Identifier preceding the GTIN. NO separator character is used between the fixed-length 14-digit GTIN and the AI(8008) Application Identifier.

NOTE: The TPX is comprised of any of the 82 characters in the ISO/IEC 646 character set, including punctuation and other special characters.

Graphic by GW4, compliments of GS1; printed by Domino.

Firmware requirements

It is rare (but not unprecedented) for any AIM or ISO/IEC-standardized barcode symbology specification to be revised in a way that is not backwardly compatible with earlier versions. In this case, the AIM Technical Symbology Committee (TSC) determined that a simple but fundamental change to the symbology encoding algorithm was warranted to prevent the occurrence of rare but seriously flawed symbol patterns. This means printer firmware and barcode design software based on any DotCode specification prior to version 4.0 must be updated.

As for the installed base of barcode scanners/decoders that already support DotCode, the brilliant solution devised by the TSC team—elegant in its simplicity—means that no change to the decoding algorithm is needed. DotCode symbols already in circulation that were (and those which for some transition period still will be) produced using “legacy” software are just as scannable as they always were. And as the DotCode revision notice makes clear, “existing readers can [also] decode symbols generated using the revised encoding method” without any modification or loss in performance.

Speed benefits

Unlike any linear or other 2D barcode symbology, DotCode was envisioned and engineered from the outset to be reliably printable by high-speed marking technologies such as continuous inkjet (CIJ) and laser ablation. These coding and marking processes, when operated at very high speeds, can be far less accurate than at slower speeds.

What is very high speed? Bottling lines for soft drinks, water and other high-volume consumer beverages can exceed 1,000 bottles (or cans) per minute. And in cigarette manufacturing, line speeds are routinely benchmarked at 1,000+ packs per minute.

In fact, the need for a robust and economical-to-apply machine-readable barcode data carrier—encoding a unique, serialized track-and-trace/anticounterfeit identifier applied at very high speed—is perhaps nowhere more urgent than in the global tobacco industry. The European Union is taking the lead.

Protecting public health is a principal concern; but so is criminal activity and lost tax revenue. Thus motivated, the World Health Organization adopted the “WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control” (WHO FCTC) and the European Parliament promulgated Directive 2014/40/EU, both of which are intended to “eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products” in the words of a GS1 document on the subject. More recently the European Commission published Implementing Regulation (EU) 2018/574 on technical standards for the establishment and operation of a traceability system for tobacco products.

DotCode encoding a unique 12-character alphanumeric code: SZVCHQUXB8HV

Partial front, side and bottom panel of a pack of cigarettes manufactured for the French market prior to 2019 during initial market testing of DotCode laser ablation printing technology. The mandatory black box warning is translated “Smoking Kills.” Graphic by George Wright IV

GS1, the global standards organization that administers the EAN/UPC (GS1) barcode system and the GS1 Gen2 Electronic Product Code (EPC) Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system in more than 100 countries worldwide, is at the forefront of the development of the globally standardized (or at least broadly interoperable) approach to address this tobacco coding and marking application.

DotCode is the symbology specifically designed for such an application. As GS1 said in October 2016, in General Specification Change Notification GSCN 16-160, High Speed Barcode Printing (HSBP) Solution, “Without a new barcode standard, GS1 members producing tobacco in high volumes declare that they would be unable to comply with the…WHO FCTC…and [European Parliament] Directive 2014/40/EU.”

Far-sighted GS1 Global Office staff, dedicated committee members from dozens of GS1 member organizations (countries) and a variety of supply chain sectors, and visionary AIDC experts understood well before 2016 that DotCode was the robust 2D symbology uniquely suited for printing at very high speeds. The requirements set out in (EU) 2018/574 are based in considerable measure on the years of work and significant contributions from these stakeholders.

Among the updates included in the July 2019 revision to the GS1 General Specifications, support for the tobacco traceability application and the addition of GS1 DotCode are the most significant. (GS1 DotCode is the name assigned by GS1 to the DotCode symbology when the encoded data is structured according to GS1 syntax.) The global GS1 system is built on just a small subset of the many AIM and ISO/IEC-standardized linear and 2D barcode languages; to have another symbology added to the GS1 group is rare and speaks to the demonstrable advantages and potential of the new symbology.

As with all other GS1 symbologies, GS1 DotCode is designated for use at specific packaging levels within a supply chain. Moreover, the use of GS1 DotCode within the GS1 system is further restricted—at least for now—to one specific application: the marking of tobacco unit packs for compliance with EU 2018/574. See section 2.1.14 in the new GS1 General Specifications for details.

Potential new markets?

There is, as yet, no other application defined for GS1 DotCode. But can wine and spirits be far behind? And other applications within the GS1 sphere may be ripe for GS1 DotCode now that it is established within the GS1 system.

According to Scott Gray, solutions architect at GS1 Global Office, “With the ratification of the revised DotCode specification by AIM and the forthcoming release of updated printing systems, readers and verifiers to support the new standard, GS1 is looking forward to conducting additional empirical testing to determine exactly where DotCode may offer an advantage over other GS1 symbologies.”

Another GS1 application Longacre and others originally expected could benefit from the use of GS1 DotCode is “large dot” inkjet printing of case-level GTINs (Global Trade Item Numbers), serialized-GTINs and Serialized Shipping Container Codes (SSCC) directly onto corrugated or other packaging. More recently, the idea has been raised that the edges or ends of dimensional lumber might be directly marked with DotCode—and very effectively read—where linear and other 2D barcode have been less successful.

However, the DotCode symbology does not just support GS1 applications. Although DotCode is optimized for GS1 applications in a way that most other symbologies are not (with the exception of GS1 DataBar), DotCode is a robust, public-domain 2D matrix symbology that is increasingly supported by barcode printer and scanner manufacturers and by barcode label design and other software. Applications outside the GS1 system could potentially benefit from using DotCode, including proprietary applications within an enterprise—consider high-volume ecommerce and other high-speed sortation applications; or in other major supply chains with established non-GS1-based machine-readable marking requirements—including perhaps direct part marking (DPM) and dot peen marking in particular.

Another feature of DotCode not found in any other mainstream 2D matrix symbology is the flexibility of its shape. DotCode is printed or marked in an array that can be nearly square or more ribbon-like, that is, short in one axis and long in the other (see image below).

DotCode formats

GS1 DotCode: Two representative DotCode symbols, each encoding the same GS1 Global Trade Item Number, expiration date and lot number message "(01)00012345678905(17)201231(10)ABC123456", first in a 9-row format and then a 2:3 H:W aspect ratio. The parentheses are used in the human-readable interpretation (space and the application standard permitting) but never encoded, per the requirements for GS1-formatted data. Graphic by GW4, compliments of AIM Inc.

Encodation: 01000123456789051720123110ABC123456
Scanner output: ]J101000123456789051720123110ABC123456
where “]J1” is the required ISO/IEC Symbology Identifier.

With its unique discrete dot design with no connected dots and inherent tolerance of relatively poor-quality printing while maintaining robust “scannability,” DotCode may one day prove to be one of the significant contributions of the early 21st century to the field of automatic identification and data capture technology.

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MinnPack 2019 (Oct. 23-24; Minneapolis) is where serious packaging professionals find technologies, education and connections needed to thrive in today’s advanced manufacturing community. See solutions in labeling, food packaging, package design and beyond. Attend free expert-led sessions at multiple theaters around the expo.

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