“Bar code quality just isn’t a problem anymore—not nearly like it was back in the ‘80’s.” I hear this all the time. The rationale is often that print technology is so much better than it was, and this is certainly true. Beyond the fact that bar code quality is my passion and profession, there is a reality beyond the improvements in print technology that makes bar code quality more important than ever.
Bar code quality was actually less of a problem in the early days than it is now
In the early days of bar coding, the ramifications of a poorly performing bar code were relatively benign. Bar codes in distribution and the supply chain were not as yet ubiquitous; scanning problems or failures at point-of-sale were for several years more the object of humor and derision than charge backs. Poorly performing bar codes were an inconvenience, nothing more. The integration of bar codes into highly sensitive functions has made bar code performance, and therefore quality, an increasingly important factor—and there are other reasons.
Retail point-of-sale is still one of the least sensitive applications for bar codes, but that does not make bar code performance unimportant. Many retailers have installed self-checkout terminals to reduce the number and expense of staffed checkouts, and the trend will be to more self-checkout terminals in more retail stores in the foreseeable future. With few exceptions, most retailers cannot compete based on boutique product distinctions, they compete based on price, followed closely by consumer experience. Even big box and warehouse stores are expected to have good lighting and clean, wide aisles. Smart phone price comparisons might get me into a store but if checkout is a hassle I won’t be back—prices are notall that differentiated to make it worthwhile.
Bar code quality is more important today because of self-checkout and automated sortation in the distribution centers
Upstream at the distribution center, automated sortation lines rely on bar codes to direct packages to the correct outbound dock. If one retailer’s shipping container bar codes have a problem, they will quickly overwhelm the rework shunt and delay shipments. Disappointed consumers won’t return to a store where great prices were promised on an out-of-stock product.
These are scenarios of inconvenience—nothing more. What about when bar code performance is literally a matter if life and death? This is not hyperbole—it is happening today.
Bar codes help nurses make sure the right drug is being administered to the patient. This is done by matching a bar coded wristband with the bar code on the drug. If one of them doesn’t work right, at very least the administration of the drug will be delayed. Worse if it isn’t administered of all and disastrous if the wrong drug—or dosage—is administered in error.
The FDA is now in a review process of a new regulation for tracking medications from manufacture to pharmacy to patient. This not only secures the channel and assures doctors, pharmacies and patients they are getting the right drug, it also secures the channel against counterfeit drugs and “gray market” drugs. These are drugs that made their way through legitimate channels from manufacturer to prescribing doctor through a pharmacy to an individual who, for whatever reason, sold them to a “collector” who resells them to somebody without a prescription, usually at a huge mark-up.
Bar code quality can be a matter of life and death in drug distribution and dosing at the patient level
Bar codes in pharmaceuticals are used to identify and track the products from an Authorized Distributor of Record (ADR), and every time the drug changes hands, the bar code tracks the transaction.
Non working bar codes break the chain, allowing drugs of unknown source to infiltrate the channel. In some cases unsuspecting people may be improperly medicated or not medicated at all. The consequences could be dire.
While it is true that print technology has improved dramatically in recent years, and scanners are more aggressive and fault-tolerant than ever it is not true that bar code quality just isn’t a problem anymore—in fact bar code quality is more important than ever.