Dr. David Allais, Barcode Inventor and Pioneer
Dr. Allais is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of bar coding and automatic identification. As chief executive officer of Intermec Corporation from 1973 through September 1987, he built the company from a small startup into the leading manufacturer of bar code printing and reading equipment. Dr. Allais has created five bar code symbologies, including CODE 39. In 1989, Dr. Allais founded PathGuide Technologies, Inc. The company provides warehouse management systems, consulting, and systems integration services for industrial clients.[Taken from AIDC100 Members: David Allais]
An Interview with Dr. David Allais
BCT: How did you get interested in AIDC and barcoding in particular?
DA: The Plessey Company inquired whether Interface Mechanisms could print their bar Code. Plessey had altered IBM electric typewriters so they could be used to print their bar code on book labels, but the machines were slow and broke down frequently. They inquired through Harvey Ulijohn, our distributor in the UK, whether the Dual Image printer might be adapted to produce their bar code labels. The Plessey Company needed a reliable device to print proprietary bar code labels to exacting tolerances. Intermec needed a product with a future.
“THE FUTURE” was 1974–Dr. Allais was doing this in 1971
BCT: What was your first major project involving barcoding? When and where was that?
DA: I then embarked on an intensive six-week project to re-engineer the Dual Image printer. Aided by Todd Glover, Intermec’s skilled machinist who planted precision steel bars in the Dual Image wheel, I developed a primitive bench model that produced near-perfect Plessey bar code symbols. These symbols were printed on the paper tape normally used for Dual Image. I journeyed to Poole, England with a proposal and print samples in hand. A Plessey technician took my printed samples into the lab and emerged shouting, “These really scan!” No other potential supplier had done this. Based on its Plessey contract, Intermec raised new capital, completed development of the Plessey bar code label printer, and the company was reborn. This all took place in late 1971 through 1972.
BCT: Where did you think barcode technology was going?
DA: A year and a half after building the Plessey printer breadboard, the US Supermarket industry announced the UPC standard and it became obvious that bar coding would become widely adopted.
Dr. Allais conjectures about the future of barcoding
BCT: Where do you think barcode technology is going now and in the future?
DA: Bar code will be in widespread use for a very long time. RFID offers a complementary technology not a replacement technology.
BCT: What barcode development over the last 40 years have you found to be the most surprising?
DA: The proliferation of QR codes to bring up websites on mobile devices.
BCT: What are you most proud of in your work in the industry?
DA: This would be founding and growing PathGuide which provides productivity solutions to nearly 300 distribution centers and supports 20 plus employees and their families.
The Invention of Code 39
BCT: Is there any event or occurrence that stands out as “the most” whether that is the most humorous? Or the most ridiculous? Or most important?
DA: I like to recall going to the black board and conceiving Code 39 in front of an audience of Boeing engineers. On December 19, 1974 several representatives of the Boeing Company were seated around Intermec’s secondhand conference table in Mountlake Terrace, WA. I was at the blackboard (yes, a real black board with dusty chalk) explaining bar code using Codabar and Interleaved 2 of 5 as examples. One of the Boeing team explained that they would not be able to use bar code because their part numbers contained both letters and numbers. Being an impulsive young man, I said that’s no problem; we’ll develop a new bar code for you. I proceeded to illustrate a symbol character using the side of the chalk to draw the wide bars.
After the Boeing people departed, I explained my insight to Ray Stevens, who responded, “I thought we could only print up to four bars”. I replied that five should be ok if we kept the printed character width under one tenth inch. That evening in his motel room, Ray took a quad-rule pad and sketched a logical code chart for code 39. Intermec immediately began developing a Code 39 printer and decoder.
One of our first customers was Mitre Corporation under contract to the US Air Force. Many manufacturing companies recognized the utility in Code 39 and began buying sample quantities of printers and readers. And yes, in time Boeing became one of Intermec’s largest customers.
BCT: What are you doing now that is most exciting and satisfying to you?
DA: Continuing to do projects for PathGuide.