Happy Birthday to Barcode Technology

Every couple of days I head to the shops, as I walk in the door in the modern COVID world I scan a QR code to check-in and provide traceability if there should be a COVID outbreak in the area. Once checked in, I go about my business, selecting products that I need, milk, bread, meat etc. Once done, I then walk to the self-serve checkout and dutifully scan each item, tallying up my purchase. Once all items are scanned, the checkout prompts me for my rewards card, I open up an app on my phone to display a barcode, scan it and finalise the transaction with payment.

Walking over to the coffee shop, I again scan in using the QR code at the entry and take a seat at one of the outdoor tables. On the corner of the table is another barcode with the words, “Check out our menu, order here” printed underneath. I again grab my phone and use the camera to scan the barcode. This takes me to a web page showing me a menu of available items, each with a picture and description of mouthwatering meals and options. I select a coffee, bypass the amazing food, there is no need to add further to the waistline, COVID already has dibs on that it seems, then proceed to finalise payment. A couple of minutes later my coffee of choice arrives and I sit in the warm Australian sunlight, reflecting on my morning so far. When exactly did barcodes take over our life? Now, I have worked in the logistics industry for 20+ years and in software for the past 6, so the concept of barcodes is not at all foreign to me. In fact, I can get downright geeky talking about barcodes, their formats, and their applications in a commercial setting.

A little bit of history

Not many people know it — but this year marks 70 years since the barcode was first patented. I will let that just sink in for a moment. 70 years ago, can you imagine the size of the computers that would be needed to scan a barcode? Certainly, not something you could just pull out of your pocket.

The idea for the barcode started a couple of years earlier in 1948 and was seen as a way to read product information during checkout in the retail industry. The original concept was inspired by Morse code: one of the inventors Bernard Silver drew his first barcode in sand using thick and thin lines.

The first commercial application of the barcode was in the early 1960s and was used in the railcar industry. The system, called KarTrak, used Red and Blue reflective strips and needed a device the size of a refrigerator to scan it.

By the mid 60s the National Association of Retail Chains began a project with RCA, who owned the patent for the barcode, which back then was round like a bullseye. IBM saw the potential and began developing their own concept of the barcode, developing what is now the globally accepted format of product codes: UPC A, B, C, D and E.

On the 26th of June 1974, the very first product was scanned: a 10 pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. Today, the barcode is something that we just take for granted and like most things, necessity is the mother of all invention, or at least the driver of mass adoption. We integrate barcodes into almost everything we do across the globe, from tracing luggage in planes and airports, to mail and parcel delivery, to use on white and brown goods for traceability and warranty tracking, as well as almost everything in a retail setting. Barcodes make our lives easier and allow us to price check and manage our own purchases. They are also frustrating. Tell me I am not the only one who seems to pick up the one item on the shelf that has lost its barcode and sends me into a flurry to run back and grab another so I can scan it.

What is in a barcode?

The barcode is both basic and complex, simple, and confusing, a significant answer for improving productivity, accuracy, and traceability, but also a hindrance when it does not work correctly.

In business, how do I get the most value out of adopting barcodes?

Let us start with some basics. There are over 70 different barcode formats, with approximately 30 that are in widespread use and a subset of around 10 that are in general everyday use. Some of the most frequent questions I get are, “what sort of format can our solution support?” or “which format should we use?” Barcodes ultimately fall into two distinct groupings, 1D and 2D formats. Each type has its pros and cons and is more suited to specific industries or applications.

The 1D (One Dimensional) barcode is what we are most used to seeing. It is on almost every product we buy and is instantly recognizable. This is also known as a linear barcode and is the familiar format for use across various enterprises to make inventory workflows more efficient and save time. The linear barcode is a collection of varying width and spacing of parallel lines. The size, or length of the barcode, is directly tied to the amount of data that the code contains.

2D (Two Dimensional) barcodes are becoming far more prolific and represent data using two-dimensional shapes and symbols. A 2D barcode can represent the same data that is within a 1D barcode but allows for much more data to be held in the same or smaller area. In addition to flat data, 2D barcodes in the QR Code format can contain tracking and marketing data and are seen not only in retail but in entertainment and advertising. Take for instance the aforementioned checking in and menu barcodes; these are a form of QR Code with an embedded address to take you to a webpage to continue. There are now even invisible 2D barcodes that can be placed on products and items where the information needs to be hidden or could possibly damage the brand image of an item. Some of these barcodes work through UV links and aren’t visible to the naked eye.

Mozart is quoted as saying, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between the notes.” The same concept applies to 1D barcodes, the data in the barcode is not in the dark lines that you can see on a barcode, but in the white space between the lines. It is particularly important, therefore, that the barcode is printed using excellent quality printers that produce crisp lines, that the ink will not run, and that the contrast between the dark lines and the background makes it easy for scanners to read.

One of the key advantages of a 2D barcode is that it is not as prone to errors. Depending on the extent, even a slightly damaged 2D barcode will most likely still scan; a damaged 1D barcode will not. But this does not mean you should rush out and change all your barcodes to 2D.

Barcodes for Inventory Management

There are many applications for barcodes within an industrial setting, all designed to provide fast, accurate, and timely recording of activities. The barcode reduces human input error and speeds up transactions. One of the major keys to operational efficiency is the effective use of barcodes across the operation. An operation achieving better than 99.9% on-time and in-full deliveries (OTIF) and inventory accuracy does so through the systematic use of barcodes to ensure that the right product is in the right place in the right quantity at the right time.

So, what type of barcode should I use?

There are many factors that should be considered when looking at what type of barcode to adopt. At this point, I should provide a quick introduction to GS1. GS1 is an organisation that develops and maintains standards for business communication. One of those standards is the barcode. For most industries, there is a standard or a working group that is developing and defining an industry approach to standards for business communication. Examples of this would be Apparel and General Merchandise, Retail Grocery, Foodservice and Healthcare, to name a few.

Let us keep things a little simpler to start off with and provide a brief overview of the following key points. Whilst there are in excess of 70 global formats for barcodes, we will limit the discussion to the most common that we see in operations.

Does your product need to be scanned at a retail POS?

Barcodes that are placed on products for retail consumption generally follow a set format enabling global application of the standard. You will hear 3 terms to describe the barcode that is used more than any other barcode and has its roots back in that original pack of Wrigley’s gum:

  • EAN — European Article Number

These barcodes are used to identify any type of trade time, at any point in the supply chain. They consist of 3 parts, the GS1 Company Prefix, the Item Reference, and the Check Digit.

The GS1 company prefix is a reference number that is assigned to a company and is used on all product barcodes to identify that company as the manufacturer of that product. All product for a company should have a common GS1 Company prefix making it traceable to that company.

The Item Reference is a unique number that is assigned to an individual item for trade or retail sale. In order to maintain the traceability and identity of the individual item, these numbers should not be re-used. If an item is sold in different units of measure (UOM) then each UOM would have its own, unique item number. Take soda for instance. In the supermarket, you can buy a soda can, a 6 pack, or a case of 24. Each UOM level would have its own barcode defined that makes it identifiable for what is being sold.

Finally, a check digit is used with this type of barcode. The check digit is a calculated value and is the last number in the barcode. It uses a simple algorithm based on the other numbers in the barcode and ensures data integrity.

Will your barcodes just need Numerical data, or do you need Alphanumeric?

In line with global formats, barcodes that are Numeric usually use UPC, EAN and Interleaved 2 of 5 formats, whilst Alphanumeric barcodes may use the Code 39, Code 128, PDF417, Data Matrix or QR Codes.

Selecting the most appropriate format for the data set you want to scan is the first step. Looking at where the business may be in 3, 5, 10 years may change the thought process and scalability of approach.

As part of our delivery efforts, we spend a bit of time working with the customer to explore how best to implement a solution and the barcoding required to support this.

What material will you be printing the barcode on?

The quality and type of barcode can change quite significantly based on the material you will be printing on. The printed barcode needs to be scannable and suitable for the environment or use case. Many of us only think of barcodes being on retail products or the side of cartons but think of this in the many industrial settings. Surfaces that may need a barcode may include corrugated cardboard, poly piping, metal bolts, material tags, glass, or timber, to name a few. The chosen barcode format and placement needs to be suitable for the application.

How much space is there to print on the product?

Consideration of the size of the item and therefore the size of the barcode is especially important. There is a lot more space to apply a barcode on a carton of soft drink than there is on a tube of lipstick. The EAN 8 or UPC E barcode formats are specifically designed for small items such as cosmetics or packets of chewing gum. The larger EAN 13 or UPC A are more commonly found on retail products like soft drinks, eggs, etc.

Warehouse racking can have larger format Alpha Numeric barcodes that are generally Code39 format whilst packages for delivery will quite often utilise EAN 128 or PDF14 barcodes to allow for more information and data fields.

Use the most appropriate format that follows the accepted approach of the industry or GS1 guideline, that is simple to follow and will not bring extra burden or overhead to the business.

How much data do you need to hold within the barcode?

For many operations, a barcode holds more than just a single data element. When manufacturing operations in industries such as food or medical products look at barcodes, they are also considering traceability requirements. Sometimes large or complex data sets are sometimes required for different industries, and this can influence the barcode symbology selected. The use of Application Identifiers (AI) allows for a single barcode to be formatted with multiple data sets. This is commonly used with an EAN 128 format barcode and allows for a maximum of 48 characters in the barcode. A single barcode can use this approach to hold the Item Number, Weight, Date/Lot/Batch, and Serial number in a single barcode.

Think of the time-saving that this allows for as well as the traceability that is built into the system. If you look at 4 pieces of information in a single scan — if each scan is 1 second and you are doing 5000 units received, 5000 units putaway, picked, packed, and shipped a day — that equates to 25,000 movements a day. If you could save 3 seconds per movement through smarter barcoding and solutions, that is a savings of almost 21 hours a day. Let us round that down to 2.5 people. What does reducing your labour cost by 2.5 people mean to your operation?

What distance do you need to scan from?

This is one aspect that is too often overlooked. The devices that you are scanning with will affect the range at which you can scan. Some devices have short-range scanners, long-range scanners, Flexi (Short and Long-range) Scanners, or use the native camera of the device. The length of the data in the barcode will affect the size of the barcode: the more data, the wider the barcode if you are using 1D barcodes. The barcode also requires ‘whitespace’ on either side of the barcode so the scanner can determine the start and endpoint of the barcode it needs to interpret.

1D barcodes can be scanned from a greater distance than a 2D barcode. I had a client years ago that, despite us suggesting a 1D barcode for their locations, went ahead with a 2D barcode. I was doing a walkthrough prior to their go-live and asked them about the 2D barcodes. They proudly exclaimed that they had chosen a modern approach that would highlight their forward-thinking. I asked if they could scan the barcodes and they dutifully went and grabbed a scanner and demonstrated scanning the barcode. Long story short, they could scan the barcode from approximately a foot away, which was great for pickers, but many of their movements within the facility were full pallet, and when on a forklift, they were too far away from the barcode to be able to scan. They ended up having to relabel the facility with 1D location barcodes.

The moral of the story: test a sample in real-life scenarios before you commit to an approach.

There is a lot of thought and consideration that should be undertaken when looking at barcoding. It is not the magic bullet that will solve all your problems if it is not implemented the right way. However, when you get it right, it is a thing of beauty. It will provide you the launching place for productivity, traceability, and employee and customer satisfaction. When done right, with an Inventory Management solution that can take advantage of the barcodes, it will drive productivity and wider efficiency into your supply chain.

Cloud Inventory® is a cloud-based tool built to help companies digitize supply chains and optimize their inventories.