Blog Data Matrix

Data Matrix code is a 2D barcode made of individual dots or squares, which is printed as a rectangular or square symbol. Multiple dark and light square dots, also called cells, are arranged in a grid of matrix. One side of the code has an L-shaped pattern, and it is this finder pattern that aids the scanners to locate the code. A data matrix code can encode variable length data and it can be read from any angle. The size of the barcode will depend on the amount of the data encoded.


Data Matrix codes can offer high density data in smaller sizes, which makes them best to be used on products that have a limited surface area to print on. Also, datamatrix codes have error correction capabilities, which unlike standard 1D barcodes, means that the data can still be read even if the code is partially removed or damaged.

While a Data Matrix code can encode the information in alphanumeric and numeric characters, a QR code can include Kanji and other multi-byte character sets and is ideal to be used with non-European languages.


Because pharmaceutical unit packages and labels are commonly small, Data Matrix codes have become a great option for the pharmaceutical industry. Data Matrix codes are also the only 2D codes approved by GS1 for regulated healthcare items. Therefore, to become compliant with most track and trace regulations worldwide, datamatrix codes have become the norm. Check out the different regulations here.

Note: In the pharmaceutical industry, it is also usually recommended to have Human Readable Interpretation of the codes and their associated data. Typical conventions place the primary information, such as the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), in the human readable data underneath the barcode.


In order to maintain production performance, it is important that codes are easily read when they are scanned. And, to ensure codes can easily be read, their printing quality must be good. This is how the term ‘grading’ has been established in the market. Grading establishes the baseline quality of printed codes to increase the chances of successful barcode scans.

Barcode grading provides a score (number or letter) that quantifies the multiple barcode attributes against the different known standards. For most pharmaceutical markets, a ‘B grading’ is recommended and achieving this entails meeting a series of criteria, such as symbol contrast, modulation, fixed pattern damage, clock track regularity, axial non-uniformity, among others. Non-compliance with this parameter can, in more extreme cases, lead to the packaging being discarded.




It is the ability of the grader to read the barcode. The passing grade is A or 4. In case the decode fails, it shows that the symbol is not constructed as per its symbol specification.



A barcode is checked for the difference in the light and dark dots in the barcode. It is measured on the basis of the level of reflectance between the dark and light.



Modulation is the difference or variation in the contrast throughout the barcode. In case the contrast varies, barcode will get a lower grade.


Fixed Pattern Damage

It is the quality of the dots forming the parameter of the barcode and the presence of the quiet zone surrounding the barcode. The perimeter pattern of every Data Matrix is the same.


Unused Error Correction

It is the indication of the amount of error correction in a symbol. Higher the amount of error correction, lower the grade.


Three marking technologies are commonly used to print data matrix codes – Thermal transfer, Inkjet and Laser etch.

  • Thermal Transfer: In thermal transfer, the heat is transmitted on a ribbon that is a tape coated with specially designed ink. The image on the ribbon is transferred to the label. This is one of the best suitable technologies for printing DM codes as it is capable of printing up to 600 DPI.

  • Inkjet: Inkjet printing doesn’t involve the contact between printer and substrate. In this printing technology, tiny drops of ink are poured on the substrate for creating the symbol. There are two types of inkjet printers – Continuous Inkjet and Thermal Inkjet. Continuous Inkjet prints the code in dot matrix, so the quality of DM codes are not very good and clean, manufacturers who use CIJ for printing DM code face lots of reading errors. Thermal Inkjet is one of the most popular technologies in the pharmaceutical industry as it is capable of printing high resolution codes in up to 600 DPI.

  • Laser Etch: Also called laser engraving, it uses lasers to engrave or mark a barcode on the product. In this type of printing, a computer is required that uses a series of lenses and mirrors to focus the laser. Laser etch method is suitable only for laserable materials.


The GS1 system is the most widely used identification system worldwide. It is built on parameters including identification keys (such as GTIN) and attributes (such as expiry date/batch number/ unique serial number etc.) to meet the unique needs of the healthcare industry. The identification and marking on pharmaceutical and medical devices can have specific needs such as:

  • Encoding of large amounts of data including serial number, lot number, expiry date etc.
  • Regulatory and global legal requirements
  • Traceability requirements

While some of these requirements are met through GS1 – 128 or GS1 DataBar, there are certain applications where GS1 Data Matrix is adopted as the solution. Counterfeiting, medication error, ineffective product recall and supply chain inefficiencies are some of the areas where Data Matrix is used.


Traceability is the key to improving the pharmaceutical supply chain and consumer healthcare. Data matrix codes allow for reliable traceability throughout the supply chain – from the manufacturer to the point-of-sale (POS).

Other than allowing manufacturers to store a large amount of data in a small footprint, the design of the data matrix codes inherently contributes to the robust nature of the code. For instance, data matrices codes have in-built redundancies in the codes, which allow readability even when whole chunks of the code are damaged. Overall, the error correction rates in 2D matrices are higher than that of standard barcodes and QR codes.

Moreover, data matrices are relatively cheap to produce once the suitable systems are in place for proper labelling, including the redesign of label artwork and introducing the serialisation technology to packaging lines. Plus, the systems that can read the 2D data matrices can also read the linear barcodes, further improving the flexibility for trading partners.

The results? Increased security, safety, and reliability in the product distribution and the overall supply chain.

In a nutshell, the main reason why the pharmaceutical industry has switched to 2D data matrices is that they’re more reliable, efficient, and better at error correction than their linear and QR code counterparts. As a result, the global pharma supply chain is slowly shifting towards data matrix normalisation. So much so that this data coding format will become the standard a decade down the line.





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