The Present and Future of Barcodes

 In 101

Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Technology - Collage Since their initial use in grocery checkout, barcodes have entered into an amazingly broad range of uses,  including:

  •  The full spectrum of consumer retail goods
  •  Manufacturing process tracking (WIP) of everything from light and heavy equipment and vehicles,  appliances,  subassemblies and parts
  •  The movement of all of the above in supply chains
  •  Access control of all sorts including buildings, sports events, concerts and performance events, train, aircraft  and cruise  ship boarding, private parking lot or community access
  •  Coupons, gift cards, drivers licenses, package tracking, postal envelopes and packages
  •  Drug manufacturing and medical device security including anti-counterfeiting and freshness/expiry systemscar engine assembled on the factory production line
  •  Asset tracking systems in businesses, schools, hospitals, etc. including tool room check-in/check-out
  •  Electronic records storage and retrieval
  • Matching systems in packaging lines, drug dosing, postal fulfillment
  • Lifecycle identification of critical parts and assemblies such as engines, weapons and other systems and major subassemblies
  • Apps for mobile data acquisition via marketing pieces using QR Code

Please comment if you know about other ways in which barcodes are being used.

How will barcodes be used in the future? Perhaps the first question is, will barcodes be used in the future? The demise of barcode technology has been predicted for a long time, during which time we have seen barcode adoption expand—not diminish. The above list of new and innovative uses is evidence of the expansion of barcode usage.

RFID tags

The AIM trade association and the AIDC 100 organization do not see barcodes being replaced any time soon. While other technologies, most notably RFID, have the ability to  perform the same functions as barcodes, nothing so far matches both the utility and the cost-effectiveness of barcodes for many if not most of its current usages.  Furthermore, there is no whole-cloth necessity to “replace” barcodes when they work so well in conjunction with RFID and other automatic identification technologies. RFID  will replace barcodes where it makes functional and financial sense to do so; barcodes will continue to do what they do best.

Besides RFID, what other technologies are emerging that may also have roles to play alongside of barcodes? Vision systems and recognition systems are not likely to replace  barcodes because they cannot isolate individuals of the same generic type—for example, one banana from another; nor can they distinguish expiration dates, batch or lot in case of a recall.

Electronic watermark systems such as Digimarc® and other covert marking systems, while they may replace visible barcoding as we know it, do not replace the need for the added cost of a special printing process and the additional time and handling required for line-of-sight scanning. Specially enabled scanners are also required.

Back to RFID technology for a moment, which has also been advancing.  Printed electronics is showing lots of promise in making chipless RFID much less expensive. Not to be confused with printed circuit technology which is actually a subtractive, chemical etching process, printed electronics is an additive process, adding circuitry and multilayer components using special conductive and semi-conductive inks to a non-conductive substrate such as paper. How cheap can chipless RFID be? Probably not as cheap as a square inch of ink for a barcode—but it’s not just about the cost of ink: that square inch of space can be pretty expensive real estate.

Your comments are always welcome.



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