A Brief History of the Barcode

The beep heard around the world.

On June 26th, 1974, at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, USA, a clerk passed the UPC barcode on a 10 Pak of Wrigley’s chewing gum over the scan window of a Datalogic Model A barcode scanner. Datalogic made history that day by producing the first commercial barcode scan and the now well-known good read “beep.” This first “beep” signalled the beginning of the automatic data capture industry.

Since its first scan, the barcode has revolutionized the retail industry and caused fast-moving adoption of barcode technology to improve productivity and advance inventory management while, at the same time, reducing pricing errors and the physical strain on cashiers. The same benefits have been realized upstream through the supply chain, from the factory floor to the retail outlet, while also creating huge waves in other industries such as manufacturing, transportation & logistics, and healthcare.

Bar Coding 101

Barcode symbology is best described as an “optical Morse code”: a series of black bars and white spaces of varying widths printed on labels to uniquely identify items. The information translated in the barcode is decoded by a scanner, which measures reflected light and interprets the code into numbers and letters that are passed on to a computer. There are many commercial software’s available for encoding data into a barcode. Most are fairly easy to use for activities such as building text strings into certain types of barcodes or printing a series of incremental numbers. Reading the barcode and passing the data along to where it is needed is more complicated. However, sophisticated scanners and support software have made this relatively easy since the hardest part (decoding) is completed by the scanner, not the user. The primary benefit barcodes provide is quick, simple, and accurate reading and transmission of data for items that need to be tracked or handled. Since barcode labels are easily affixed or can be directly printed onto virtually any material (i.e., mailing tubes, envelopes, boxes, cans, bottles, packages, books, and more), they are the most cost-effective and accurate solution for capturing data.

When barcodes are used on a widespread public basis, such as printed on an internationally sold item, it is important to register the symbology in order to protect the data, especially from product/code copiers. However, if the barcode is for in-house use, it does not need to be registered. An example could be a patient’s unique barcode obtained during hospital admittance and used throughout the duration of the stay. Registering a barcode is a simple process performed through third-party online sites or global barcode organizations such as GS1.

Automatic Identification Barcode data collection is part of a broader category called Automatic Identification, or AutoID. AutoID encompasses automatic recognition, decoding, processing, transmission and recording of data. This is most commonly achieved through printers, scanners and software by reading the information embedded in the barcode and using databases and supporting software to automatically identify and make use of the resulting data. Indeed, AutoID turns data into useful information. For example, anyone can read the “human readable” numbers printed under a barcode at the grocery store – this is called “data.” However, the scanner and associated point-of-sale (POS) terminal, POS software, and lookup tables provide the item description and price – this is called “information,” or data that has meaning to the people using it.

The emergence of AutoID solutions has significantly increased the speed, efficiency and accuracy of data collection and entry. As a result, the early applications of barcode scanning such as retail POS checkout, item tracking and inventory management have been expanded to more advanced applications in more industries, such as work-in-process, quality control, sorting, order entry, document tracking, shipping and receiving, controlling access to secure areas.

These solutions have measurably increased productivity by linking production, warehousing, distribution, sales and service to management information systems on a batch or real-time basis. Consequently, opportunities to improve operational efficiencies and customer responsiveness have developed for retailers, transportation and package delivery companies, manufacturers, wholesale distributors and service providers.

New barcode symbologies are enabling users to respond to the requirements of “chain of custody” tracking, the capability to identify where something came from and every step of progression along the way. For example, blood banks need barcodes to track and identify the blood donor, the collector, the site of collection, the test lab where the blood went to, where it was stored, and finally, where the blood was sent. Another example is customer loyalty cards at grocery stores. AutoID is making it possible for retailers to target specific customers with coupons and special discounts or rewards.

Why barcodes exist today

It might be hard to conceive of going back to the days before barcodes. There are thousands of places where barcodes play an invisible role in every facet of our daily lives. Today any business that buys, sells, ships or manufactures products can gain operational efficiencies and competitive strength through the application of barcode technologies. By using barcodes as a solution, you may achieve the following benefits:

Fast and reliable data collection: a barcode scanner can record data significantly faster with better accuracy than a skilled typist can. In fact, barcodes have 10,000 times better precision than manual data entry, which creates an average of one error in 300 keystrokes. For industries such as healthcare or manufacturing, these mistakes could be life threatening and damaging to any business.

Reduced costs and losses: reduced labour costs and losses from data entry errors are the most obvious advantages of barcode data collection. In most companies, it does not take many data entry errors to amount to a great deal of lost revenue. In addition, using barcodes to keep a tight handle on inventory is also an excellent method to save on capital costs.

Better management and decision making: managerial decision-making often occurs as a result of automated data collection. A barcode system can easily collect information that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to gather. By collecting data automatically, managers will benefit greatly from real-time information. They can make faster, fully informed decisions and respond quickly to new opportunities with more information.

About the author