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Data Identified: The Evolution of the Ubiquitous Barcode

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1-D Linear Bar Codes

Although a good fit for its application, the UPC had limitations. It only contained 11 characters (expanded in later versions) plus an additional checksum digit to ensure reliability. More important, it could only encode digits. These constraints meant that it could only identify parts; it required the computer database to deliver useful information.

A more detailed solution came soon after. In 1974, Intermec engineers developed Code 39, a variable-length bar code symbology that included letters, numbers, spaces, and even certain symbols. In contrast to the 11 digits of the UPC, a Code 39 bar code could include an information-rich string of characters several times as large, allowing it to support more sophisticated applications. Taking the technology one step further, in 1981, Computer Identics released Code 128, a symbology capable of encoding all 128 characters of the ASCII character set.

TL Ashford entered the market in 1983, after the U.S. Department of Defense adopted Code 39 for its Logistics Applications of Automated Marking and Reading Symbols (LOGMARS) program and the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) wrote its bar code standard around Code 39. TL Ashford’s software allows manufacturers to easily create bar code labels to meet the requirements of the marketplace—not just Code 39 and Code 128, but also any of the dozens of other standards that have been developed.

Data in Two Dimensions

As useful as the 1-D bar code was, users began to need more than simply a pointer to an entry in an external database. They wanted the bar codes themselves to become databases. The only way to significantly increase content without excessive size was to expand to two dimensions.

In 1987, Intermec invented Code 49, which consisted of a stack of up to eight 1-D bar codes. The pattern could still be read out raster-fashion by a standard laser scanner but it delivered a multifold increase in information capacity. Five years later, Symbol Technologies released PDF417, another stacked code formed with as many as 90 rows. Instead of 40 or 50 characters, users could now encode 1.1 KB of machine-readable data with not only identification information but also biometric data files such as photographs, fingerprints and signatures. When General Motors standardized around it in the late 1990s, it triggered widespread adoption. PDF417 remains one of the most widely used bar code systems today.

To assist with tracking and distribution, UPS developed Maxicode, a 2-D symbology designed to be read off of packages traveling past a sensor at high speed and in random orientations. Released in 1992, Maxicode consists of a pattern of hexagons with a central bull’s-eye fiducial, and delivers high data density—1-square-inch symbol can contain up to 100 characters. One of the most interesting 2-D matrix codes is the quick-response code (QR Code) developed by automatic identification systems supplier and Toyota subsidiary Denso Wave. QR Code was designed to track parts during assembly so that Toyota had a record of the constituent elements of each vehicle. Today, the QR Code has become a key marketing tool, allowing smartphone users to jump to websites at the tap of a screen. Some retailers feature QR codes on the shelves next to products so customers can see detailed images or view the product in action. Marketing teams can use the content capacity of the QR Code to deliver discounts at point-of-sale or capture demographic data for market research.

The Future of Bar Codes

Some of the most beneficial bar code applications are only just emerging as the technology matures. Bar code systems have an important role to play in controlling healthcare costs, for example, in the switch to a paperless system. An information-dense symbology like Data Matrix can encode patient identification information as well as data on diagnosis, treatment, etc. The information stays with the patient throughout treatment and can be extracted in a flash, allowing healthcare to become faster, more accurate and less expensive.

In industry, bar coding informs inventory management and even assembly. Bar code systems can make warehouse operations faster and more efficient while reducing error, cost and the need for human intervention. The automated, guided vehicles that prowl warehouses and manufacturing floors can scan bar codes on the aisle floors and on parts bins to assist with stocking items or retrieving them for assembly.

It’s a powerful technology but not without its challenges. In today’s market, vendors may find themselves presented with industry bar code standards or a customer-specified symbology like Maxicode. The question is how to comply without squandering engineering resources that should be focused on their core value proposition. TL Ashford has an entire department devoted solely to compliance.

“These specifications are intimidating but this is what we do for a living,” Schuett says. “Over the years, we’ve constructed a compliance library of around 5,000 templates for 500 different companies. We have compliance labels already designed. The customer calls us and says, ‘I’ve got this new specification from company X.’ We send them the template and they change the label to use their database, and that’s it.”

“Deriving the greatest possible benefit from bar coding systems requires organizations to look beyond mandatory compliance to address needs unique to their company,” says Keith Suedkamp, technical support manager at TL Ashford. “You’ve got some customers who only want to use bar codes because they’re forced to,” he notes. “Then you have companies that want to know how do we move product within our company most efficiently? How do we gather data so that when our customers dial a call center, we have that information handy? How do we get information to management to make better decisions?”

It all boils down to the same question: How do you make the company as a whole as efficient and cost-effective as possible? The answer is bar codes. “In general, if you see something that benefits your company, you can build it on bar codes,” Schuett says. “It’s the simplest, easiest way to make your company money and make it more efficient.”

Kristin Lewotsky is a freelance technology writer based in Amherst, N.H.

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