A Real Solution to a Real Problem

Amazon has just done something nobody ever thought they would do—they announced plans to open a brink-and-mortar store. The first of what could evolve into many stores will be located in Seattle and is scheduled to open in 2017. Already you are probably doing what I did when I read this unexpected news—I though that Amazon was taking another step in their market wars with Google, and why a BnM store? Obviously to notch up their competitiveness to another level in the race to deliver faster.
Well, not so fast. That is not what Amazon is doing, although they are getting faster in a different way—a way that actually solves a real problem in retail: checkout. Not long ago we opined about two so-called checkout solutions that, although highly touted, delivered a solution to a problem nobody really cared about all that much. In both cases the so-called solution to the so-called problem was to speed up the checkout process.
One of those non-solutions was the Datalogic Jade X7. We saw it in action at a local Cosmopolitan Marketplace store that recently opened (and just a quickly closed) in Aurora, Illinois. I don’t think the Jade X7 was the reason the store didn’t survive, but it certainly didn’t create any sense of excitement because if anything, it was slower than a conventional checkout.
The other non-solution was Digimarc invisible barcode technology, which was “shown” (to the extent that anything invisible can be “shown”) as barcodes all over a box of cereal. This reported speeds up retail checkout by eliminating the need for the checker to locate the barcode on the box. The accompanying promotional but rather boring video shows a checker even more robotically than usual moving a fictitious customer’s purchases across a scanner at lightning speed. Considering how efficient most checkers are (around here at least) one can only imagine how many seconds this barcoding breakthrough must have saved—maybe 30 seconds? But consider the poor checker whose job just went from “routine” to “suicidal”.
Neither of these technologies have addressed the real problem with retail checkout which is not how long it takes to scan everything. The real problem is all the redundant package handling: once from the shelf into the cart, once again from the cart onto the conveyor, then from the conveyor into the bag, and finally the bags back into the #%&! cart. Digimarc has wisely refocused their marketing strategy on deploying their invisible barcode technology into supply chain security rather than retail checkout.
What Amazon is doing is a real solution. They call it “Just Walk Out” technology. No queue, no registers: load the cart and leave the store. It works with a new Amazon Go app which the user installs on their smart phone—but the phone isn’t used as a scanner. It identifies the user with a QR Code that gets the customer into the store through a turnstile. Amazon explains that Just Walk Out uses a combination of artificial intelligence, computer vision and data technology gathered from multiple sensors embedded throughout the store.
How will it detect and prevent theft or fraud? Amazon hasn’t commented. But the experimental store will undoubtedly reveal these and other challenges and problems—and perhaps opportunities to make this truly exciting and truly problem-solving concept a reality—finally!


Isn’t Barcode Verification Obsolete? A Case History

Scanners are increasingly better at reading low quality barcodes. Barcode printing has also improved: higher resolution, better control over line width and gain. Haven’t these advancements finally rendered barcode verification an expensive and redundant waste? Consider a current case history.

Company XYZ (name changed to protect identity) distributes clothing using offshore contract manufacturers. They utilize warehouses and 3PL’s all across the US. This year they have been paying chargebacks on a monthly basis so they contacted a major barcode verifier reseller, looking for a solution.


Barcode Scanner vs barcode verifier

Ironically it seems that the more important and prevalent barcode quality becomes, the more frequently we encounter situations where barcode scanners are being considered and used instead of barcode verifiers. It is a puzzlement and a concern, and it reminds me of oddly related wisdom my father shared with me about motorcycle riding. “There are two kinds of riders,” he said to me shortly after I traded my first bike for a larger, nicer, faster bike. “There are those who have experienced laying the bike down at high speed, and there are those who haven’t experienced that—yet.”  We’ve written about the mission-critical difference between scanners and verifiers before, and this learning curve still rules: there are those who have experienced charge-backs and those who have not—yet.

A barcode scanner has one purpose in life: to capture a successful scan of a barcode. A barcode verifier also has one purpose, albeit a very different one than a scanner: to find a problem with a barcode. What, in the case of a scanner, is a “successful scan” of a barcode? Basically it is a “beep” which signals that it captured—something. Conversely, a “successful scan” of a barcode with a verifier provides the information necessary to predict whether or not that barcode will work correctly, regardless of what scanner technology is used to scan it. A verifier can also be used to make sure that the data encoded in the symbol matches the human readable interpretation and complies with the industry application standard for how that data should be structured. The scanner just “beeps”.

Risk management is an important aspect of barcode verification. When barcodes don’t work as expected, there can be significant liabilities, starting with chargebacks at the low end and escalating to damaged trading partner relationships at the high end. If the ”test device” was a scanner or somebody’s smart phone, there is very little defense in that difficult conversation with a concerned, disappointed or angry customer. They expected more and you thought you had delivered more. Everybody is unhappy with a product that failed to deliver on promises made, promises broken.

Consider a scenario that started off similarly but ended very differently. We have provided testing services to a client whose customer uses their barcode labels in a blood sample testing machine. The labels are affixed to a small, plastic cartridge containing a diabetic patient’s blood sample. The machine tests the blood and an embedded scanner logs the test sample to the patient’s medical record. When the customer received a batch of labels that did not work in their machines, their concern quickly climbed the supply chain through the label supplier to us, the test lab. Our records documented the test device as well as the test results—the labels were compliant. We were called into a meeting and retested the samples that had been pulled as defective; we retested them on the spot and our earlier test results were corroborated: the labels were compliant.

Suddenly the atmosphere in the room cooled; voices softened, volumes were turned down, pointing fingers retracted into anxious palms. What was wrong? Where did the fault lie? What next? The root cause of the apparent barcode failure was not uncovered immediately but within a few weeks it was discovered. The onboard scanners had not been serviced as specified by the manufacturer, and several of them had begun to fail. The barcodes themselves were fine; the blood sample testing machines were at fault.

Barcode verification can not only protect you from a devastating error that could be made in your shop, it could help your customer identify a more serious problem while absolving and protecting you and your important customer relationships.


QR Code Update

I love QR Code—probably not for the same reason you do. It is a rich resource for incredibly creative, incredibly terrible barcodes. In the barcode testing business, that translates into fun. Here is a small sampling of hundreds of breathtakingly bad QR Codes we have found in the past few months, with some help from our friends. Just a fun walk (for us) through the amazing smorgasbord of bad marketing decisions, bad design, and bad execution. Maybe not so fun for those who really want to use QR Code for marketing. For the former, enjoy! For the latter, learn.

unsquareAren’t these things supposed to be square?

Verification report: ISO FAIL due to Axial Nonuniformity


Aren’t these things supposed to be square?

Verification report: ISO FAIL: Fixed Pattern Damage (quiet zones infringed with all those extra perimeter pixels that make it so…interesting, and unreadable.


multicolorColor makes such an important design statement. Why doesn’t this thing scan?

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE




screened-backgroundA little light screen in the background, no problem, right?

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE (both symbols)


tech-innovationThis company’s motto is “Where Technology Meets Innovation” but when the QR Code technology meets the logo innovation….it doesn’t work.

Verification report: ISO FAIL: 0% Unused Error Correction caused by logo, ISO D Modulation and ISO F Reflectance Margin


unsquare-2These are supposed to be square, right?

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE


misregistered-printWe printed it twice–one right on top of the other. Saved paper that way. No extra charge.

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE



lost-qrYou want me to scan your QR Code to find out more about….where is it?.

Verification report: ISO FAIL: Modulation,Reflectance Margin and Fixed Pattern Damage. X dimension is 8.6mil

Comment: The QR Code is .25″ x .25″ in a half-page ad–nearly invisible.




qr-quiet-zones-1Let’s put our logo in the QR Code–it makes it look so much better!

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE. Symbol too damaged by logo.




costcoFor location nearest you, scan our QR Code! Or just check the phone book since the QR Code doesn’t scan. Or go elsewhere…

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE


qr-quiet-zonesSee the great features of Ocean City’s finest hotel…or go to a competitor whose QR Code really works.

Verification report: ISO FAIL: Unused Error Correction  13% due to damage from logo, Reflectance Margin and  Fixed Pattern Damage (quiet zone infringement)




philly-adbuilder-1And finally, our favorite, both from the classified ads in the Philadelphia Inquirer, from our growing “Aren’t these supposed to be square?” files.

Verification report: ISO FAIL: NO DECODE due to Axial Nonuniformity (we just guessed about that).






About the Featured Image…it does decode (URL http://azon.biz/1TN)…but earns an ISO FAIL for just about everything: Unused Error Correction 18%, Symbol Contrast 31%, Modulation, Reflectance Margin and Fixed Pattern Damagecharlotte


DPM Barcode Basics: Cell Modulation

The increasing use of DPM barcodes in a variety of applications is also giving rise to questions and concerns about why they do not always work as expected. Isn’t the whole point of direct part marking to enable these symbols to be imaged onto virtually any surface and still be scanable? The simple answer is—no.

Think about how a scanner works (this is not rocket science). The scanner captures a digital image of the entire symbol. In DPM usage this is usually a Data Matrix Code. The collected data is analyzed by a decode algorithm that is looking for reflectance differences between the symbol and the background. This is no different than linear barcodes and laser scanners of 3+ decades ago: it’s all about reflective difference.

Now think about some of those DPM substrates: iron castings, engine blocks, aluminum sub-assemblies, plastic housings, circuit boards—almost anything you can imagine. An important key consideration of those substrates is whether the reflectivity is uniform. For example, a cast iron part is a lunar surface of bumps and crevasses; light reflects on all directions off the top surface of the bumps and reflects variably off the crevasses that encircle the bumps. DPM barcodes are imaged on a machined area, not onto the unimproved cast areas, to create a substrate with uniform reflectivity.

Printed circuit boards also present unique challenges. By the time the 2D symbol is ready to be scanned, the surface has been coated with a laminate—often a bright green, the PCB has been populated with its various components, sent through a high heat wave soldering operation which may have changed some of the surface coloration, the components themselves create a sort of canyon landscape at the bottom of which the symbol is positioned. Whether that symbol was imaged onto the bare, pre-assembled circuit board or as a final operation after the board is completed, the substrate should be uniformly reflective.

Ideally what the scanner captures has sufficient reflective difference between the symbol and the substrate to quickly and accurately distinguish one from the other. When the reflectivity of either is non-uniform, there is trouble. Even with DPM technology, there is a range of acceptability or tolerance for the high reflectance or light value. In other words, the light reflectance value—often the substrate or background beneath the symbol—should be uniform within a defined range. Defined by whom? In the case of DPM, the AIM-DPM (ISO 29158). Likewise there is a tolerance for the low reflectance reflective or dark value: the returning reflectivity signal to the scanner should be uniform within a defined range.

What causes these values to exceed these defined ranges and fail to scan? A visual inspection of the symbol with low power magnification will usually tell the tale. Sometimes the cause is more subtle. Recently we received a heavy casting with a dot peen Data Matrix code in a machined area. Although the substrate had significant machining marks, proper lighting negated those reflective differences: the symbol failed simply because one corner was located too close to the edge of the machined area, violating the quiet zone.