The evolution of barcode technology has led to the development of faster, more intelligent scanners than anyone could have imagined when they were introduced nearly 30 years ago. Notwithstanding the numerous advances these scanners have undergone since then, they are rapidly giving way to more improved automatic identification technology such as charge-coupled-device (CCD) camera-based imaging. Several factors are driving this technology shift: CCD cameras are now cost-competitive with laser scanners; smaller modular units are now available for use in scanning tunnels; processing speeds are becoming faster; and the supplier base for CCD camera technology is growing.


Camera-based imaging systems offer dramatic performance improvements compared with conventional laser scanners as well as greater dimensioning, optical character recognition (OCR), side-by-side detect, image lift and archiving capabilities. These systems achieve better read rates of dirty or damaged labels. In addition, they deliver improved read rates through plastics and on glossy surfaces. The ability of CCD cameras to read low-aspect-ratio codes permits a 25% to 50% reduction in the size of the barcode label.


Unlike laser scanners, which are limited to reading barcodes, CCD cameras can be combined with artificial intelligence software to analyze the images they capture. Images can be saved or sent out over a LAN to be used to diagnose system or read-rate problems. Images of the address label contain both barcodes and human-readable information to provide additional sorting data. CCD cameras can provide address information to custom software for reading the human-readable portion or displaying it on a screen for key entry.


CCD cameras also accommodate video-encoding technologies that further reduce manual handling. Video-encoding systems incorporate CCD camera barcode readers that provide images of address labels and transmit them to key entry stations where operators can enter the required information to sort the package or print and apply a label for future sorting. OCR systems incorporating high-resolution CCD cameras allow items to be automatically read without human intervention even when barcode labels are not present or are unreadable.


Accu-Sort, which has been providing camera technology to the U.S. Postal Service since the mid 90s, is completing production and delivery of 500 cameras for the USPS AFSM 100 program for advanced flat mail sorting and anticipates a follow-on order to integrate the cameras into more than 300 flat-sorting machines. The company is also actively involved in the development of the next-generation small parcel and bundle sorter for the USPS.


It has been said that CCD camera imaging is the most significant breakthrough in automatic identification technology since the first laser beam was used to read a barcode. Advances in the technology and its deployment have improved read rates, reduced the cost and increased the flexibility of camera-based scanners. The advantages they offer in postal applications will be even further enhanced as they are integrated with robotic systems for automatic unloading of containerized and palletized parcel mail.


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