May 24, 2021 

The History of Industrial Product Marking

Industrial product marking and labeling equipment

From the beginning of human craft, artists have sought to distinguish their products from one another. As created objects became commodities, it was even more important to have discernable markings on each item made. This wasn’t particularly difficult for most of human history, as individual crafters had their signatures, and guilds had their insignia and symbols. These could be used to ensure authenticity during a sale, as well as prevent people outside the guild from selling their work. 

However, when items were made by hand with simple tools, production wasn’t very fast, and forgeries were more challenging. There simply wasn’t much to track. 

That all changed during the industrial revolution. The rise of manufacturing sped up every aspect of production and allowed for a huge leap in output. This led to a greater demand for product identification, thus beginning the history of industrial product marking.

How Industrialization Necessitated Marking

Mass production enabled by the industrial revolution of the 19th century changed the way that manufacturers had to mark their products. While we can reference no specific time when this change occurred, it can be roughly dated to 1839 when James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer, which was built to shape large iron and steel components. From there, mass production became faster and less expensive, and manufactured goods were standardized and produced in identical batches. 

This coincided with and helped create faster shipping across countries and continents. Trains and steam engines made land and ocean travel faster and easier, and products could now be made and used all over the world. To ensure accurate tracking of the parts and goods that manufacturers were selling, every part needed to be marked for easy reference. This was the birth of industrial product marking.

History of Industrial Product Marking: Standards and Regulations

The changes wrought by the industrial revolution led to cheaper goods and greater global connections, but also to serious problems with worker safety and overall public health. This induced the release of numerous government regulations aimed at resolving the issues. 

This era, which began circa the 1890s and lasted through the Great Depression, solidified standardizations that were happening during the beginning of the revolution. Government inspectors were empowered to audit and track goods and products, so tentative attempts at marking were made. Marking also became important because the general public wanted to be able to establish an exact location and factory in which a product was made so they could ensure quality. 

New methods of industrial product marking were needed to keep up with demand, and this need quickly accelerated when America entered World War II. 

World War II and New Product Marking Methodologies

The Second World War transformed America from a growing industrial center to a brash industrial power. Many of America’s industries shifted production to the war effort, and logistics became essential in supporting war operations. This led to new methods of product marking, two of which are detailed below.

  • Steel stamping: hand stamps, dies, and other casts that could be impressed into hot metal, much like a brand. These could also be mass-produced and were made part of the assembly line. 
  • Electrochemical etching: A much higher-resolution marking method that employs an anodic dissolution process using electrical and chemical reactions.

While both of these processes proved instrumental at the time, they were only a stepping stone into future improved marking methods. 

The Plastic Boom, the Rise of Lasers, and the Possibility of Variable Marking

The post-World War II era could easily be described as the era of plastic. While synthetic products had begun to be developed in the late 1800s, freeing manufacturers from having to use natural materials, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that the promise of (and problems with) plastic was realized.

The rise of plastic use in manufacturing created issues with product marking. Steel stamping and electrochemical etching were processes created for marking mostly metals and weren’t the most practical way to mark plastic. However, this was also the era of lasers, and while they were still in their infancy in the 1960s, they quickly advanced to be part of the marking effort. 

Lasers have a few major advantages over steel stamping and electrochemical etching because they can mark products more quickly, reliably, and permanently. They also require little maintenance and can be easily programmed to move from one task to the next, ultimately saving manufacturers time and money. 

One of the most important advantages of using lasers to mark products, however, is their ability to etch repeatable, high-contrast markings. This allowed for fast production, enabling manufacturers to output a greater number of products. Factories could be flexible, fast, and ready for the next phase of the industrial revolution.

Industry 4.0 and the Future of Marking 

The present era of the industrial revolution is referred to as “Industry 4.0” and encompasses an envisioned future where marking and coding can become automated, smart technology and machine learning can be employed, and less programming will be necessary.

Marking is also becoming handheld, portable, and more flexible. This is extremely important as supply chains become more expansive and regulated. Everything will need to be marked and tracked. Being able to connect the entire supply chain with the marking tools and products will help companies stay ahead of regulations. 

The history of industrial product marking shows how quickly it has been evolving since the industrial revolution began. Future marking methods and technologies will need to become smarter and more distinguished as Industry 4.0 accelerates the changes of the last 200 years.

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C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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