Barcode Quality Redefined: Part 2

 In 301

When you think about what is happening in the quality community as ISO 9001 and other quality protocols evolve into a risk management standard, you appreciate the unique perspective we have as professions in the barcode industry. In the early 1970’s an ad hoc committee of grocery industry executives got together to find a solution to store front-end and inventory count errors, and it was decided that an automatic identification method was needed to solve these problems.

In a very few years scanners were installed in hundreds of stores because the solution was promising and already paying off.  Barcode technology made it possible to create a business model based on low cost due to new  controls over the second most expensive part of commodity businesses–distribution and logistics: only the cost of the commodities themselves was more expensive than moving them around and putting them in front of the consumer.

But it was also becoming evident that barcode quality was a very important part of the success of the system, and soon quality specifications were written and adopted, initially in the U.S., starting in the AIM industry trade organization, making their way through the ANSI organization and in time into the worldwide ISO system. Barcodes had become an essential tool in the supply chain and quality was critical to barcode performance.

This was the new-normal in barcoding for many years. Barcoding was mature technology. Code 128 was solving some of the new alphanumeric data and storage capacity requirements when RFID first burst on the scene, promising a revolution and a super-cheap tag that has never materialized. Then matrix symbologies began to rise, giving new life to old barcode systems and possibilities in new applications that couldn’t live with RFID costs and control limitations. Higher data capacity Data Matrix and other 2D symbols were the perfect solution: smaller, less obtrusive and yet more error tolerant and higher data capacity than a UPC or Code 39; very cheap to include onto anything with a label or package, secure and not magnet or RF sensitive. Some higher capacity 2D codes could contain enough data to identify all essential attributes of its host: no database lookup required.

But as 2D barcodes—or more accurately, “symbols”—have evolved into ever more mission critical roles, the definition of quality has also evolved.  The definition of quality of older linear barcodes was limited to quality of the printed image; the data was so simple, you could check it visually. Newer 2D barcodes, even though they are more tolerant of image quality problems, are no more tolerant than 1D arcodes to data structure problems. Data structure can be very complicated even on something as mundane as a coupon code, with “buy one of these, get two of those for 20% off, but before the expiration date of YY/MM/DD …” and a myriad of other conditional offerings.

As a consequence, barcode quality is being redefined as risk. Assuring the quality of the printed image is no longer sufficient to avoid catastrophic failure of the supply chain and devastating financial and reputational consequences for anyone involved. That’s the bad news.

In the light of  recurring problems with offshore manufacturing, the good news—and there is a lot of it—is that smart risk management is what identifies and propels manufacturing success in the new risk-averse world. As Issue #27 CERM Risk Insights Emagazine states, “’Made in the USA is reestablishing its brand equity.’”

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