Reducing Errors with Automated Date and Lot Code Inspection

Package expiration dates and lot codes serve to protect consumers from expired food and medicines and provide manufacturers with a method of tracking and tracing their products, so error-free label inspection is key to remaining within regulatory compliance, protecting consumers and guarding brand reputation, especially for manufacturers in highly regulated industries such as food and beverage and pharmaceutical processing. Fortunately, advanced, automated label inspection systems are available to minimize errors and ensure that only the safest, highest quality products reach consumers.

What is a Lot Code?

Lot coding is a basic, but important concept in which a manufacturer marks each batch of product with a code that differentiates it from other batches. Lot codes may be based on the time and location where the batches were produced or indicate a particular feature that sets one batch apart from another or other identifying information. Lot codes often contain information about expiration or other key dates, as well.

The most important reason to employ a lot code system and expiration date, especially for food and beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturers, is to maintain and protect the health of consumers. Not only do these codes alert consumers to potentially expired product, but the ability to use the lot code to track and trace particular batches of product throughout the supply chain makes it easier to identify unsafe product in the event of a recall.

Because a coding system is the most effective and efficient way to track down batches of compromised product and alert retailers and consumers, regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly enforce the use of lot coding and expiration dates in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries. The coding system used must align with FDA standards.

In addition to ensuring public health and safety, lot codes also help manufacturers differentiate one product from another as many batches include small, but important differences. In these cases, using lot codes helps factory and warehouse workers identify one product from the next. These same lot codes can also be used to track inventory trends so manufacturers can determine whether a product is successful going forward.

4 Advantages of Using Automation for Label Inspection

Date and lot codes, batch codes and expiration codes combine long chains of symbols, text, manufacturing dates and expiration dates. And, often, these codes are printed on packaging – especially in the food industry – that is transparent or flexible, which can make the codes difficult to accurately read when relying on human vision.

To promote error-free inspection of packages containing date and lot codes, many manufacturers are turning to advanced automated label inspection systems that can accurately and reliably detect the presence or absence of lot codes and expiration dates and verify that the identifying chain of numbers, letters and symbols is correct, even on flexible, transparent packaging, such as cling wrap.

These error prevention tools allow manufacturers to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of quality inspections, which must verify that the codes are present and printed correctly to ensure traceability and permit easier management in the event of a product recall, while also keeping manufacturers compliant with FDA regulations.

The following are the four most significant benefits of using an automated label inspection system:

  1. Regulatory compliance: Because food and beverage and pharmaceutical producers are subject to the highest regulatory and quality standards, compliance with FDA mandates regarding date and lot codes is essential. Automated package label inspection provides consistent, accurate, reliable and traceable quality control to ensure compliance.
  2. Minimize human error: Automated label inspection systems enhanced with vision inspection tools are more accurate than the human eye, are more capable of detecting miniscule defects on labels and can more easily decipher the long strings of random letters, numbers and symbols contained in lot codes to provide higher levels of quality and safety while minimizing the risk of human error.
  3. Maximize efficiency: Using human employees for quality inspection of labels, date and lot codes is time consuming and not guaranteed to be error free. However, automated label inspection technologies not only provide higher levels of accuracy and consistency, but they also perform the inspections at a significantly faster rate than is possible with human workers.
  4. Enhanced traceability: Advanced automated label inspection systems can generate detailed reports, providing a clear record of quality inspections, which is a necessary component of government regulatory requirements. The ability to provide these reports quickly and easily further enhances efficiency. In addition, the ability to track and trace products throughout the supply chain according to date and lot code increases the efficiency of recalls in the event one becomes necessary to prevent widespread illness or health risks.

What to Look for in a Label Inspection System

The benefits of using an automated label inspection system are obvious, but they are only possible when using a system that is capable of accurately detecting and reading date and lot codes and identifying defects or missing codes on a variety of package types.

The most advanced systems, such as the In-Sight 3800 Vision System from Cognex, employ optical character recognition (OCR) and optical character verification (OCV). These features allow the system to detect the presence or absence of lot codes and expiration dates and can verify that the chain of numbers and letters is correct.

AI-powered OCR and OCV tools can accurately detect, read and verify codes that are very challenging, including those that are laser-engraved, dot peen or chemically etched and those that are applied to transparent or complex packaging such as wraps and films where contents can be seen through the wrapper. These advanced error prevention tools decipher deformed, skewed and poorly etched characters, as well. In addition, a pre-trained, omni-font library identifies most text without additional programming or font training, further increasing efficiency.

To learn more about Cognex’s label inspection systems and how these error prevention tools can help ensure regulatory compliance, as well as the integrity and safety of your products, please contact Sensors Integration, a Tavoron company today.