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Data Matrix Technology Set to Benefit Pharmaceutical Industry

As the pharmaceutical industry faces high production rates of fake drugs—the counterfeit pharmaceutical market alone is worth 17% of the total counterfeit industry—businesses and governments are aggressively fighting back, streamlining serialization technology and standards.

The pharmaceutical industry is now pushing for the adoption of integrating data matrix serialization into all medication flowing through the global supply chain.

A data matrix is classified as a 2D barcode, a two-dimensional combination of geometric shapes and patterns that are permanently etched onto a product, either via ink-jet, dot-peen marking, laser marking or electrolytic chemical etching. Data matrix codes specifically consist of black and white cell arrays arranged in square or rectangular modules.

Data matrix codes are more advantageous than linear serial barcodes, because they can store more information. This makes it more difficult for fake drugs to penetrate a supply chain, as the slightest mismatch in data, such as the medication’s serial number, manufacturer’s ID number, lot number, production time and date and line number will be detected on the pharmaceutical online database. While linear barcodes can hold no more than 150 characters, data matrix codes can hold thousands more.

World governments have also joined the fight against counterfeit drugs, taking steps towards streamlining standards for data matrix serialization across national borders for greater supply chain integrity.

In partnership with pharmaceutical companies, global dialogue and efforts have culminated in the GS1 Data Matrix, with countries such as the United States and organisations like the European Union having already enacted it into legislation.

GS1 Data Matrix guidelines for the pharmaceutical industry specify that the total dimensions range from 0.64cm to 1.2573cm, allowing them to fit on all medical packaging, irrespective of bottle size, and even extremely small surgical devices and equipment. Pharmaceutical companies have opted for GS1 square matrix codes, over rectangular ones, as they have a character capacity of 2,334 alphanumeric characters versus 71. Moreover, they are omnidirectional, meaning they can be read from all angles. And error correction codes allow the overall information to be read even if certain cells are damaged, making them much more secure and reliable than linear barcodes.

With the standardisation and enforcement of GS1 Data Matrix standards and technology, pharmaceutical companies can continue to mass produce legitimate medication without slowing down production lines and distributors can efficiently maintain transparent supply chains, irregardless of the location of transit points in the world.

In recent years, Asia has lagged behind western countries in terms of integrating GS1 standards into its pharmaceutical supply chains. But as awareness and advocacy on the issue of fake drugs continue, countries like Japan have mandated GS1 barcode serialization for all medication sold in Japan in 2021. With GS1 standards recognised by the International Organization for Standardization, the region—and the world—should see more stringent, universal requirements make it harder for fake drugs with subpar imitation barcodes make their way into patients’ hands.

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