The barcode beeps its way to the future

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Four decades on, this revolutionary technology continues to withstand the test of time, writes Tony Repaci, Honeywell Scanning and Mobility Country manager, ANZ.

Forty years ago the sale of a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum marked a key milestone in history by becoming the first product to be sold using a scanned barcode. From that day in 1974, the humble barcode has travelled across the globe, initially revolutionising retail sales and then advancing its benefits into countless other industries and applications. It is a testament to the usefulness of this technology that four decades on, the barcode remains at the forefront of data capture within industries that heavily rely on innovation to boost productivity, efficiency and profit.

The barcode arrived on Australian and New Zealand shores in 1979 at Sims Supermarket in Victoria, which was the first barcode scanning store in the region. In the same year, the Australian Product Numbering Association (APNA) was formed. It is now known as GS1 Australia – a local arm of the global not-for-profit organisation that develops and maintains the most widely used supply chain barcode standards in the world.

By 1986, 90 percent of grocery items in Australia and New Zealand had a 13-digit International Article Number (EAN) barcode and 500 grocery stores had scanning technology. From there, the barcode was adopted at point of sale (POS) in successive Australian retail operations such as department stores, pharmacy and liquor. The barcode has become so entrenched in our shopping experiences that we now take it for granted that scanning devices will be used at POS for a fast and accurate transaction.

Barcode and scanning technologies have become an integral part of the entire supply chain industry, and have continued to evolve.

Evolution of the barcode and imagers

The original UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode introduced in the US was (and is) a 12-character numeric barcode. This was shortly followed by code 39, which started out in Europe, becoming the first alphanumeric barcode symbology that had the scope to be used globally. From there, other linear barcodes were developed. However, they were limited to an extent by the fixed number of characters and, in most cases, needed to be backed up by a database that linked the barcode with information about the product.

Meanwhile, the barcode printing and scanning technology was being pushed forward in speed and accuracy by organisations like Metrologic Instruments for scanning and Intermec Technologies for printing.

In the 1990s, came 2D imagers and barcodes, capable of encoding thousands of characters and paving the way for a much higher performing and versatile barcoding system. The 2D barcode was capable of independently communicating a range of information, which could explain the full history of a product (batch number, product ID, quantity, date of production etc).

Expansion into other fields

Just as barcodes and scanners have extended their capabilities, their recognition and application in Australia and New Zealand has also broadened from solely front-facing POS into an increasing range of back-end operations – from hospital patient care to warehouse inventory and transport and logistics – as a cost-effective solution best able to meet the demands of data capture. The beep of a barcode scan is now heard more than five million times a day in every country around the world.

The barcode’s presence throughout every stage of supply chains has been further spurred by an era of workers being tasked with doing more with less – such as the ability to collect more information and provide better documentation and traceability. This drive for increased flexibility and a better bottom line has sold the business case for integrating barcode and imaging technologies at all stages in the supply chain, first in order picking and more recently in receiving, put-away, replenishment, cycle-counting, accounting and value-adding functions.

The GS1 System of Standards is used by two million companies in more than 20 industries globally; resulting in 3.5 percent higher invoice accuracy for manufacturers, 21 percent shorter lead time for warehouse operators, 42 percent lower costs for distributions centres and 32 percent fewer out-of-stocks for retailers.

The need to integrate barcode technology from POS right through to the primary producer, is also being called for by government departments that are increasingly introducing regulatory requirements around the traceability of foods from ‘farm to fork’. Barcodes offer a single traceability process to allow all food to be traced on a global scale regardless of how many companies or growers are involved or how many borders are crossed at every stage in the supply chain.

Scanning innovation

Barcode scanning devices have also undergone much innovation. Honeywell Scanning and Mobility released its first hand-held laser scanner with built-in decoder in 1982, the world’s first omnidirectional hand-held laser scanner in 1996 and its first hand-held 2D imager in 1995. Current scanning solutions feature the ability to quickly and accurately read virtually all 1D and 2D barcodes as well as QR (quick response) codes and data matrix barcodes. Scanners can now take into consideration varying workplace challenges such as scanning at varying distances, in hard to reach places, as well as meeting the demands of high volume scanning and being rugged enough to withstand harsh operating environments.

What’s next for the barcode?

The recent rise and domination of the smartphone is taking barcode technology in a completely new direction, with smartphones used to both read and display barcodes for a range of purposes such as mobile retail apps, QR codes, boarding passes, electronic coupons, customer e-loyalty cards, event tickets and more.

It is clear that smartphone apps, social media, online shopping and other digital trends will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the barcode.

In support of these growing digital trends, particularly online shopping, supply chains will need to be ready to make investments in 2D barcoding software and scanners, which will become more widespread in the next five to 10 years.

Online shopping is already drastically changing the way supply chains operate – picking and delivering single items to individual addresses rather than just bulk picking for store delivery – and this transformation is only predicted to grow in scale.

With more complicated picking and delivery comes the need to have the right technologies in place. 2D barcodes and imaging offers substantial accuracy, portability and efficiency gains that greatly reduce the risk of error and help meet other consumer demands, including the need to be able to track orders throughout the supply chain and also for fast delivery.

As with the original UPC barcode, it is expected that the Australian and New Zealand grocery sector will be the leaders in moving to 2D scanning. This will in turn affect the entire supply chain as retail operators start to require that in order to supply to them or distribute on their behalf, supply chain operators will need to adhere to certain international barcoding traceability standards.

The barcode may be 40 years old, but it’s not showing any sign of slowing down.

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