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For release: 01/08/04
Release #: 04-004  

NASA-led research yields system for reading hidden identification codes through paint, other materials

Don Roxby, left, demonstrates magnetic hand-held scanner with Fred Schramm, right.

Research at the Marshall Center has resulted in a system for reading hidden identification codes using a hand-held magnetic scanner. The invention could help businesses improve inventory management, enhance safety, improve security and aid in recall efforts if defects are found.

Photo: Don Roxby, Robotic Vision Systems, Inc., left, demonstrates the magnetic hand-held scanner for Fred Schramm, Marshall Center Technology Transfer Department. (NASA/MSFC)


Research at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has resulted in a system for reading hidden identification codes using a hand-held magnetic scanner. It's an invention that could help businesses improve inventory management, enhance safety, improve security and aid in recall efforts if defects are discovered.

A team led by Fred Schramm of the Marshall Center's Technology Transfer Department, in partnership with PRI, Torrance, Calif., has developed a hand-held device that can read a special type of coded symbols -- even if covered by up to six layers of paint. Through a license with NASA another partner, Robotic Vision Systems, Inc., of Nashua, N.H., will sell the scanner on the commercial market. NASA continues to seek additional companies to license the product.

Two-dimensional Data Matrix symbols - letters and numbers permanently etched on items for identification and resembling a small checkerboard pattern - are more efficient and reliable than traditional bar codes, and can store up to 100 times more information.

Before this new technology was available, matrix symbols were read with optical scanners, and only if the codes were visible. But what happens if the symbols are painted over?

"Once painted, matrix symbols can't be read by an optical scanner," Schramm said. This creates problems for users such as the Department of Defense and the airline industry, for example, because almost every product eventually gets painted, Schramm said.

This latest improvement in digital Data Matrix technologies offers greater flexibility for businesses and industries already using the marking system, Schramm said. Paint, inks and pastes containing magnetic properties are applied in matrix symbol patterns to objects with two-dimensional codes, and the codes are read by a magnetic scanner, even after being covered with paint or other coatings.

The ability to read hidden matrix symbols promises a wide range of benefits in a number of fields, including airlines, electronics, healthcare and the automotive industry, Schramm said. Symbols have been applied to a variety of materials, including metal, plastic, glass, paper, fabric and foam - on everything from electronic parts to pharmaceuticals to livestock.

The portability of the hand-held scanner makes work faster and easier. It detects codes not only covered by paint, primers, laminates or other coatings, but under conditions that would render optical methods useless. It reads marks in darkness, under bright light that might interfere with optical reading of visible marks, and can detect symbols obscured by discoloration or contamination.

"This method is not only for routine marking," Schramm added. "There are many industries that would like to hide information on a part, so it can be read only by the party who put it there." For instance, the automotive industry uses direct parts marking for inventory control, but for aesthetic purposes the marks often need to be invisible.

The Data Matrix symbol was commercially developed in 1982. The Marshall Center began studying direct parts marking with matrix symbols in 1987 to track the millions of parts used in the Space Shuttle. Joint efforts by Marshall researchers and industry partners are aimed at improving identification technology as part of NASA's program to better life on Earth through technology designed for the space program.

Schramm noted that the flexibility, permanence and other advantages of marking with matrix symbols give that technology an edge over bar code labeling for many items. "For instance, where products are too small to accommodate sticky labels, or those to which the labels won't adhere," he said. Before Data Matrix technology was available, computer chip manufacturers had no way of marking products and counterfeit and stolen chips flooded the market.

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