Five Reasons Bar Codes Are Here to Stay
Bar codes have been around in one form or another for over 60 years and in present form on groceries and consumer products for almost 40 years. Other technologies such as RFID have begun to erode some of the territory that has been the exclusive domain of bar coding, leading some people to forecast the demise of bar coding. I disagree and believe that bar codes have a very bright future and will increase in prevalence and importance in the years ahead.
Some of this will be visible to consumers but much of it will take place in manufacturing and other non-public spaces. Recently we wrote about some exciting changes that are now taking place at Walmart that will make self-checkout faster and easier, and will rely heavily on bar codes on the purchased items and a special QR Code that will actually complete the transaction on the shopper’s smart phone.
- Scan and Go
Elevating customer services levels is the driver behind this move, and if Walmart’s “Scan and Go” system is successful, we will see more of this as other retailers adopt similar systems to protect and expand their market space. This system allows shoppers to scan each item with their smart phone as they put it into the shopping cart. At checkout , their smart phone communicates the transaction to the terminal, which produces a QR Code with which the shopper completes the transaction. No re-handling of the items, no checkout lines.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (AKA the Food Safety Act) was signed into law on January 4, 2011, giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to order recalls of contaminated food, a power it did not have before. While it is not yet clear how this will be effectively done, most foods are already bar coded, fresh produce and random weight items being the obvious exceptions. Because of this and the costs of other AIDC technologies, it is most likely that bar codes will be the means of identifying and recalling contaminated foods.
Industry researchers believe that machine-to-machine (M2M) and automation will be the largest area of growth in the use of bar code technology, not because bar codes have acquired new capabilities, but because engineers have started to understand bar code technology better and think of it in new ways. Traditional thinking has limited bar codes to a look-up function, but it is also a data carrier and a data capture technology that has exciting new applicability in automated manufacturing.
The Internet of Things is a new environment where RFID and bar codes will share space. Smart phones have enabled consumers to use bar codes to access price comparisons, product availability and product information to help them make health or ethical choices about those products.
Integrated into systems where small amounts of data must move through a process, bar codes can maximize productivity while minimizing data capture errors and the need for manual intervention. But isn’t this the perfect place for RFID? Not necessarily. Although RFID can make it easier to capture and store data in a way that bar codes cannot, RFID in close quarters can be hard to control. Radio signals can propagate outside their intended range and cause problems. If the need for line-of-sight visibility can be dealt with, bar codes are often a better choice.
Bar codes are already making significant inroads in health care with patient identification, electronic medical records management and medicine administration. Barcodes technology is also growing in commercial services such as event ticketing, access control and age verification. We don’t expect to see any other AIDC technology working as reliably or as cheaply in these applications.
Those who are forecasting the demise of bar coding may be correct in the long run, but the “long run” may be longer than they think. In the foreseeable future, bar codes will continue to grow in popularity and expand into more and more areas where their unique attributes make sense. For now, what is needed is more attention to integration of bar code technology into machine vision and other manufacturing automation technologies.