What Are Barcodes and Why Do They Exist?

 In 101

Symbol LogoDr. Jerome Swartz, former CEO of Symbol Technologies is credited with having defined barcodes as “…portable, disposable memory.” Someday I hope to confirm or refute that in a conversation with him, but if I were Dr. Swartz, I would take credit for it—it’s a great definition. A barcode accompanies an object, which could be a product for sale, a part or subassembly in a manufacturing process, a package, substance or device whose movement must be tracked and controlled, a document which must be archived and retrieved, an access control key-card, a marketing piece with a website link…the applications where barcodes have utility are still being discovered and the possibilities are limited only be our ability to conceive of them.

While the preceding paragraph pretty well answers the question posed by the title of this article, the story of how and why barcode technology was created Antique cash register in a coffee shopand rose to these challenges is a fascinating one.  The rationale most of us know about is a good place to begin: the grocery store, which is in fact the place where barcode technology was born. A consortium of grocery manufacturers heard about Woodland and Silver’s invention and recognized its potential.  Kroger volunteered a Cincinnati store to test the feasibility, and the rest is history. This is a literal example of Mr. Swartz’s definition: the proliferation of new products was making it impossible for a grocery checker to remember the SKU code for every item. The grocery manufacturers were also concerned about losses due to the high rate of keying errors.

Coincident with solving grocery industry problems, the proliferation of scanning stores also introduced barcode technology to a vastly wider audience, including the US military and automobile manufacturers, who recognized the potential for solving some of their own logistical and process challenges. The special requirements of some of these early adopters led to the development of new barcode symbologies that could do things the UPC symbol could not–for example, encoding alphanumerical data. A special symbology was developed that could successfully survive the low contrast and undulating surface of corrugated shipping containers.

Containers at Bangkok commercial port Today barcodes could be described as the glue that holds whole supply chains and security systems together. Although the internet enables trading  partners to transact, track and secure the movement of goods on a global scale, it is still the lowly barcode that makes it work.

I believe that Dr. Jerome Swartz gave us the best possible definition of barcodes—they are indeed portable, disposable memory. But the range and scale of  what  barcodes are doing in today’s world was beyond anyone’s imagination, and I believe there are uses for barcodes yet to be discovered.



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