Fingertip reading

Rows and rows of raised dots, up to six in each rectangle. This is the tactile writing system developed by a 16-year-old Frenchman ­almost 200 years ago. The system is called Braille and is now used by ­visually impaired people all over the world.

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Braille is read with the fingertips. Most visually impaired people read with both hands. Characters are formed within the framework of Braille cells, the size of which is the same virtually worldwide. Each cell comprises a rectangle with up to six raised dots, two across and three down. The rectangle is no bigger than a fingertip. A letter or character is formed by one or more raised dots in the cell.

The dots are about a millimetre in diameter. By combining the dots in different ways, 63 different characters can be formed. On a Braille display linked to a computer, each Braille cell has eight dots, increasing the possible number of characters to 255.

One of the advantages of the Braille system is that it can be adapted to any language, even ones that don’t use the Roman alphabet, such as Chinese and Japanese, where Braille is then based on sound instead of characters.

When punching Braille onto paperboard packaging, the Braille tool is integrated into a standard punching tool.

“We use punching tools by Marbach of Germany,” says Leif Holmberg, product optimizer at packaging company Eson Pac, Sweden, which makes packages for pharma company AstraZeneca, among others.

“The challenge is in the choice of paperboard. Braille needs a high-quality paperboard as it’s subject to heavy strain and mustn’t crack.”

Leif Holmberg, product optimizer at Eson Pac

The tool is based on the interplay between ‘male and female’ dies. The female dies are cast in hard plastic and come in different sizes, with varying numbers of rows and characters depending on the size of the package. The male dies, which emboss the actual characters, are made of steel. In the embossing process, the male is pushed up into the paperboard, whereupon the dot characters are pushed through the holes in the female, which is on the top side of the paperboard.

When the sheets have been through the printing press, they are transferred to the punching department where they are punched, embossed and folded in the same machine, Holmberg says.

Before large-scale punching takes place, quality control is carried out using a special vision system which measures the dots to make sure they reach the approved height: between 0.15 and 0.20 millimetres. A transparent film is also used to make sure all the dots are there.

“The challenge is in the choice of paperboard,” Holmberg explains. “Braille needs a high-quality paperboard as it’s subject to heavy strain and mustn’t crack.”

The history of Braille

When 3-year-old Louis Braille was helping his father in the saddlery, the young French lad accidentally poked himself in the eye with a sharp tool. The eye became infected, and this led to young Louis going blind in both eyes. That was 1812, and the boy’s future prospects were bleak, to say the least.

But his parents made sure he could go to school with seeing children, and since he showed such great talent he was allowed to carry on his education at a school for the blind in Paris.

In 1821, Louis came into contact with a former officer who had invented ‘night writing’ – a code consisting of 12 raised dots and lines that would enable soldiers to communicate with one another in the dark on the battlefield. Louis Braille developed the officer’s idea, and at the tender age of 16 he presented a system for the Roman alphabet. He eventually evolved the system to also include musical notes and advanced mathematical symbols. The alphabet for visually impaired people was named after Braille, and it has now been in use for nearly 200 years.



Since 2005, all pharmaceutical packaging sold in the EU must have certain information in Braille: the product’s name, the strength per dose, and in certain cases whether it is intended for babies, children or adults.

The EU directive means that the information leaflet must also be accessible for blind and visually impaired people at the request of patient organisations.

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