The Expanding Use of Barcodes
It took over twenty years from the issuance of Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland’s patent for a printed barcode pattern (1952), for the grocery industry to recognize and adopt the technology (1973). It took another four years (1977) before scanners started appearing in grocery stores in any significant number–if about 200 store is considered a significant number.
As a side note, those of us working in this industry in those early days remember a loud and persistent outcry about barcodes as the tool of “big brother” in monitoring who we are and what we buy. It is for others to explain how and why these concerns have died down, but it is clear that barcodes are used in more ways today than ever before, and new uses are still emerging.
Whatever your opinion about the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) a key component is enterprise-wide barcode-based systems. Even now, before ACA is fully implemented, integration of barcodes into hospitals and smaller health care delivery systems is considered good business, and not just in tracking physical assets such as exam tables and computers. Barcodes are used in administration and records, medication monitoring by pharmacists, diagnostic equipment and hard assets, consumables inventory management and matching bedside dosing to patient both for medication accuracy and invoicing.
Barcodes will be the backbone of new FDA regulations that will improve food safety and security by making it easier to track expiration dates on perishables. FDA is also awaiting congressional approval of sweeping new regulations on pharmaceutical trace and track which will help prevent infiltration of counterfeit and past-date drugs into the supply chain.
The demise of barcodes has been predicted because of the rise of RFID. Now it is obvious that barcodes and RFID make great partners in inter-operational systems where each technology is used where its strategic advantages can be exploited. One example of this is the use of barcodes in automobile manufacturing and RFID to track finished automobiles in rail and dockside staging areas.
Barcodes have long been a part of airline bag tags and boarding passes; more recently they are showing up on event tickets. The biggest development is not the use of a barcode, but the ability to use a paperless image on the display of a smart phone.
Two-dimensional barcodes are now a common feature of consumer product packages, magazine ads and articles, directing users to special offers and product features at websites. This technology gives barcodes much greater data storage capacity and that is why barcodes now have new uses—for example to encode not only item descriptions but also lot and batch number, expiration dates, etc.
The current BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend, where everybody with a smart phone inherently also has a barcode scanner, is driving the adoption of barcode technology into ever more functionalities. One possible development is stores with no front-end scanners and no checkout lines. All that redundant product handling and rehandling at checkout could be eliminated, along with the expensive scanners, checkers and baggers.
Of course there will be challenges and problems to solve. But who would have predicted 40 years ago that every retail establishment would soon invest thousands of dollars at every cash register to do a little more quickly what those well-entrenched, consumer familiar and friendly cash register operators had been doing for decades? It was nearly unthinkable.