What's Next for the Barcode?
by Maureen Perroni, on December 27, 2019
Barcodes are everywhere. They’re on every product you buy, and on every component or sub-assembly of those products as well. You find barcodes on cattle tags, on shipping containers, and some people have even gotten barcodes as tattoos. A number of fringe religious practitioners even believe that the barcode represents the biblical “Mark of the Beast.” The barcode, in other words, hasn’t just transformed commerce – it has captured the imagination.
With George Laurer, the co-inventor of the barcode, having recently passed away at the age of 94, we think that it’s time to revisit the idea of the UPC – what it is, what it does, and what’s going to happen next.
The First Barcode
Barcodes had a long journey from conception to realization. Although they first entered widespread use in the 1970s, they were originally thought of in in 1952.
Their story begins with a man named Norman Woodland. His college professor, Bernard Silver, mentioned that a local grocery store owner complained to him that it took a very long time for customers to check out because he needed to manually record their transactions with pen and paper.
Upon hearing this story, Norman was inspired to create a quicker way to speed up record-keeping for retail stores. His initial idea was to create a system inspired by Morse code, with varying sequences of dots and dashes representing each product in a store.
One day, while sitting at a beach, Norman had an epiphany. Instead of using literal dots and dashes, he could use lines of different thickness to represent different numbers. By arranging these lines in a series of concentric circles, like a bullseye, you could scan these lines from any direction. Thus was the first barcode invented and patented.
Not Exactly a Bullseye
The problem with the bullseye barcode wasn’t that it didn’t work – it did – it was that scanning technology wasn’t up to par.
The first iteration of the technology required users to scan the bullseye code under a large incandescent light. Unfortunately, the size of the scanner involved made it impractical – no handheld scanners in the 1950s. Therefore, the widespread adoption of the barcode had to wait until newer technology was developed.
In 1966, Kroger – one of the world’s largest grocery chains -- issued a request for proposals related to an optical scanner that could read prices and automatically create a bill for supermarket shoppers. RCA, which at that time held the patent for the bullseye barcode, realized that they had a potential winner on their hands. What’s more, the time was right – two separate technologies had matured in just such a way as to make the barcode viable:
- Microcomputers that could calculate bills and inventory
- Miniaturized portable lasers that could read the barcodes themselves
RCA even got as far as piloting their bullseye barcode system at a Kroger store, but they ran into a problem. The printers of the time were unable to consistently render a circular barcode label. If the inks of the label ran at all, they would damage the readability of the product code. This created an unacceptably high error rate.
George Laurer Steps In
At this time, the focus of our story moves to George Laurer. Born in 1925, Laurer was World War II veteran who had studied as a TV and radio repairman before being convinced to go to college and study as an engineer. He ended up working for IBM for his entire professional career, from 1951 to 1987. Although he worked at IBM at the same time as Norman Woodland, he independently created the barcode system that would rectify the flaws of the original bullseye.
George Laurer made two significant contributions to the development of the barcode that we know today. First, he reorganized the bullseye into the pattern of thick and thin vertical lines that we recognize today. This means that if the ink on a label printer bled, in most cases it would extend the barcode pattern vertically, preserving its readability. More importantly, he created a simple cross-shaped sensor that would be able to read this barcode pattern from any direction.
Laurer’s improvements dramatically reduced the barcode error rate while improving scanning time. His scanner eventually became so accurate that it was even able to read labels when they were tossed over it from across the room.
This level of speed and accuracy rivaled and eventually exceeded that of RCA’s bullseye barcode, and eventually a team of MIT evaluators met with the Ad Hoc Committee of the Universal Product Identification Code (a group of manufacturers and retailers that had sprung out of Kroger’s initial RFP) and informed them that IBMs vertical barcode was the more effective version.
The matter settled, IBM’s barcode technology was piloted at Troy’s Marsh Supermarket in Troy, OH, on June 26, 1974. The first item to be purchased using a barcode was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, chosen because the manufacturer wished to prove that it could print a barcode small enough to register on a scanner. It rang up flawlessly, ushering in a new era of commerce.
Where do Barcodes Go from Here?
In the years following 1974, barcodes began springing up in more and more places. First, they began appearing in massive stores and supermarkets, the kind of place where throughput is everything. Barcodes, in their way, enabled the rise of stores like Wal-Mart and Target – in a store where hundreds of customers may shop at once, getting them out the door is paramount.
In addition to higher throughput – as accompanying higher profits – companies found another, even more important benefit to the barcode. Barcodes made it that much easier to track inventory, unlocking many kinds of data. Companies could understand how long it took products to move through their supply chain, as well as what sold best once it finally got on the shelves. This kind of data created a process of continual optimization that enabled everything from just-in-time manufacturing to two-day shipping.
Lastly, barcodes have demonstrated incredible longevity in a constantly changing world. Things like RFID tags, near-field communications terminals, and QR codes were all supposed to replace barcodes, and all of those things have more or less gone by the wayside.
Here at Loftware, we understand just how far both barcodes and labeling have come. And, we know just how important your barcodes are to ensuring that your packaging and your labeling reflect all of the required content for shipping and distribution. We want to make sure that the barcode on your product or shipping label accurately reflects the contents of the package, and that it’s even easier to use barcodes to track your packages as they make their way around the planet. If you want to learn more about how Loftware can help you improve your traceability across a global supply chain and offer a barcode labeling solution to help you mange all of your complex labeling demands then contact us today!