The Barcode Industry—Gone but Not Forgotten
May the barcode industry rest in peace. Last week at the National Retail Federation trade show in New York City, a bunch of us “first generation” (AKA old) barcode industry types ran into each other in the exhibit hall. After much reminiscing about the early days and catching up on more recent years, the conversation gravitated into the one thing we all shared in common—the barcode industry. Except that none of us could really say we knew what the barcode industry was anymore, we could only agree that is was very different than what it was in 1982 when the first Scan Tech convened in Dallas and “the barcode industry” was legitimized with its own trade show.
On the return flight I realized– there really isn’t a barcode industry anymore. There is a barcode business built up around verifiers, scanners and printers and POS systems of course, more than ever before, but no longer is there a discrete industry dedicated to barcodes. In part this is because of the rise of other automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technologies such as RFID. Remember all the hype about how RFID would eliminate the need for barcodes?
In actual fact, the merger of the barcode industry into AIDC wasn’t just the disappearance of barcoding as a discrete industry: it just expanded barcoding into a larger technology which has also lost its identity—AIDC exists today in name only; it is no longer a standalone industry. It has all been merged into other applications and functionalities with a broader perspective. It is quite ironic really: back in 1982 when barcoding was very much an emerging—perhaps even an exploding technology, it seemed obvious to refer to the “barcode industry”; but now that barcodes are everywhere, there no longer seems to be an identifiable barcode industry.
Maybe the answer is self-evident in the asking: ubiquity destroys identity. That is a double irony since barcoding is all about identity—but not of itself. But before I go off the philosophical deep end, what does any of this mean for barcode quality. If there is no longer a barcode industry, what does that herald for the importance of barcode quality? Is barcode quality also a diminishing concern?
Six apparently strong global companies dedicated to manufacturing verifiers would suggest otherwise, but it is impossible to garner any reliable information about how many retail front line or supply chain failures occur because of bad barcodes. Nobody is talking about bad barcodes but the lab at Barcode-Test is always busy.
There isn’t a barcode industry anymore because the technology is now woven into the fabric of other, larger industries and systems that serve them. This may be a bit unsettling to the pioneers who still remember the rush of an industry that soared like a rocket ride, made a lot of people wealthy, changed the way business is done and made a global marketplace possible. Now barcodes are also making it possible to protect our food and drug supply, make everything safer from airline travel and event security to bedside healthcare delivery.
This integration may have caused the disappearance of the barcode industry as we once knew it, but at the same time it has made barcode quality more important than ever. There may no longer be a discrete barcode or AIDC industry, but if an EPC RFID label is unreadable, it is the barcode that comes to the rescue so that one does not have to enter the 96 bits manually…if the barcode works right.