What Are Barcodes and Why Do They Exist?

 In AIDC Founders Series

Symbol LogoDr. Jerome Swartz, former CEO of Symbol Technologies is credited with having defined barcodes as “…portable, disposable memory.” Someday I hope to confirm or refute that in a conversation with him, but if I were Dr. Swartz, I would take credit for it—it’s a great definition. A barcode identifies an object. It could be a product for sale, a part or sub-assembly in a manufacturing process. It might be a package, substance or device whose movement must be tracked and controlled. A document which must be archived and retrieved, an access control key-card, a marketing piece with a website link, these and more could be marked with a barcode. he applications where barcodes are used are still being discovered. The possibilities are limited only be our ability to conceive of them.

Barcodes were invented 30 years before scanning was possible

The barcode concept was invented and patented decades before the technology existed to use them. It waited nearly 30 years before the laser was developed, and it provided a practical method for scanning. A group of grocery manufacturers heard about Woodland and Silver’s invention and recognized its potential.  Kroger volunteered a Cincinnati store to test the feasibility, and a barcode was scanned for the first time in a store in 1974. This was a perfect example of Dr. Swartz’s definition: the proliferation of new products was making it impossible for a grocery checker to remember the price for every item. The grocery industry was also concerned about losses due to the high rate of keying errors.

While it was solving grocery industry problems, the barcode and its advantages  was introduced to the world. The US military and automobile manufacturers recognized the potential for solving their own supply chain and process challenges. The special requirements of some of these early adopters led to the development of new barcode symbologies that could do things the UPC symbol could not. For example, encoding alphanumerical data. Other barcode types were invented in response to other problems. A special barcode was created to meet the requirements of corrugated shipping containers.

Containers at Bangkok commercial port Today barcodes could be described as the glue that holds supply chains and security systems together. Although the internet enables trading  partners to transact, track and secure the movement of goods on a global scale, it is still the lowly barcode that makes it work.

Dr. Jerome Swartz gave us the best possible definition of barcodes—they are indeed portable, disposable memory. But the range and scale of what barcodes are doing in today’s world was beyond anyone’s imagination. There are uses for barcodes yet to be discovered.



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