NASA Barcode Concept

Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) pioneered compressed symbology as a method of tracking Space-shuttle parts. Bar-coding is now seen daily in the marketplace, from Automobiles to toothpicks. Configuration management needs at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center necessitated a more powerful two-dimensional marking system, called compressed symbology.

No Room for Error

The space program understandably needs the utmost in quality and safety in the products used in its programs, therefore tracking parts has to be done every sequential measure along the way.

  • Where the item was manufactured
  • The personnel involved in the hands-on fabrication
  • The handlers in transporting them.
  • When the product was made.
  • When the thing was installed
  • Who did the installation
  • Where was it put in place

The Scope of the Situation

NASA must keep inventory of millions of parts: from the coin-sized to the mammoth rocket launching peripherals. Bar codes introduced in the 1980's have been predominately utilized for this endeavor, and the automatic entry from the paperwork has saved millions of dollars yearly. The problem lies with certain criteria:

  • Too minature to receive marks
  • Not enough surface adhesion reliablity
  • Contamination results from glue and paper
  • Necessary cleanup arises from contamination
  • Spaceflight environment unfriendly to bar-code labels
  • Time consuming (several months) manual tracking after finished product
  • Human error on 1 out of 200 characters
  • One out of 10 part numbers resulted with incorrect data

Back to the Think Tank

Compressed Symbology Laboratory was established at Marshall Space Flight Center, AL in 1991. Purpose:

  • Investigate marks
  • Equivalize marks to barcodes
  • Make them permanent

Two-dimensional matrix

The adopted method had these improvements:

  • Stores 100 times more information than linear one
  • Square, checkerboard design
  • Read by charge-coupled-device (CCD)

The Testing Program

  • Thirty marking methods analyzed
  • 60 varieties of materials checked
  • Automated

    On Metal

  • Computer -controlled direct marking using
  • Gold marked by layers of platinum
  • Ceramic, Mica and Graphite Products

  • Application of permanent inks
  • Marking with Ceramic-based coatings
  • Textile Products

    Facilitated by automated-embroidering
  • Clothing
  • Parachutes
  • Tent Materials
  • Other items
  • Non-Automated


    Applications to transfer patterns from film sheets to surfaces of parts

  • Photographic transfer process
  • Computer-driven cutter/plotters
  • Direct hot ink transferring Techniques

Commercial Non-flight Compressed Symbology

The Marshall Space Flight Center decided in 1996 to release the work that had been accomplished in this identifying technology to the public for sale, even though it could not hold up to the hostile space item's requirements, and still could not be resolute on minature material. The very next year this led to a business venture with CiMatix a Robotic Vision Systems (RVSI) company to market the CiMatrixTM patented commercial version. This allowed continued research and development to hopefully reach NASA's strict goals.

Data MatrixTM Success to Date

80 Different Materials have received this marking technology, and the application process can be adapted to fit.
  • Metals
  • Plastics
  • Glass
  • Paper
  • Fabric
  • Ceramics
  • Others

Methods to Materials

  • Rubber - stenciled
  • cloth - Embroidered
  • Advantages Over Bar Codes

    • Smaller
    • Permanent
    • Easily read by CCD video camera

    Commercial Applications

    • Automobile Parts
    • Mustard jars
    • Deodorant sticks
    • Vitamin jars
    • Packs of photography film

    Future Needs in the Marketplace

    6 Techniques are being developed to make possible:

    Identification marks readable under coatings

    Reading within assemblies

    Creation of portable devices

    What It all means to NASA

    15 years of development will reach fruition in this beginning of the millinneum where stress critical hardware can be marked. A couple of NASA publications have been released :
    • NASA Technical Standard 6002, Applying Data Matrix Identification Symbols to Aerospace Parts
    • NASA Technical Handbook, Application of Data Matrix Identication Symbols to Aerospace Parts using Direct Part Marking Methods/Technologies

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