Barcodes: The History, Present and Future

 In Barcode Advice

All barcodes do the same thing…

All barcodes do the same thing: they store data. Whether they are 1D symbols like UPC and Code 128 or 2D symbols like QR Code and Datamatrix, they are all portable, disposable memory. They all have the same basic attributes:

  • Non-volatile—they cannot be reprogrammed
  • Inexpensive—they are nearly free
  • Virtually error-free—the error rate is minuscule compared to key-entry

1D and 2D barcodes do have some significant differences; data capacity is the most obvious. 1D barcodes are very limited while 2D barcodes can store well over 5KB of data.

The History of Barcodes

Woodland Patent

The barcode as we know it was patented in 1952. It was a solution looking for a problem, which arrived nearly 20 years later when the Grocery Manufacturers Association began looking for a way to reduce checkout errors. The Universal Product Code or UPC was the solution.  The solution gave birth to a new technology, which caught the attention and imagination of a wide spectrum of industries. The UPC solved problems.

One of the first industries to recognize the benefits of the barcodes was the US military. One can imagine someone in uniform, or perhaps a spouse, in a grocery checkout line when the idea struck. But the numeric-only UPC was too limiting: they needed an alpha-numerical barcode. In 1974, the invention of Code 39 responded to the need.

Meanwhile, supply chain operators recognized the potential benefit for identifying and tracking product movement. But the UPC and Code 39 were too small and sensitive to printing inaccuracy on corrugated cartons. The large and high tolerance Interleaved Two-of-Five or ITF barcode solved that. Barcodes now track inventory depletion and replenishment, virtually error-free.

Barcodes Today

Noticing these advancements, other industries needed barcodes capable of storing all 128 characters in the ASCII keyboard, resulting in the development of Code 128. All the while, barcodes were storing ever-increasing amounts of data. Barcodes were getting very long, exceeding the scan width of scanners.

One solution was the invention of stacked linear barcodes such as PDF417. These encode row upon row of linear data that a laser scanner can decipher, much like reading lines of text on a page. This extended the data capacity of a 1D barcode without making it too wide to read.

As barcode technology advanced, so did scanning technology. Imaging scanners with no moving parts began to replace lasers, making way for 2D barcodes. Toyota parts supplier Denso invented the QR Code to identify parts for manufacturing operations. Datamatrix barcodes soon followed. These 2D barcodes could contain thousands of alphanumeric characters, and could recover from partial damage with error-correction.

1D barcodes have a limited range of sizes, but 2D barcodes can be as small as 0.4mm square, or large enough to scan from a billboard.

Is there a Future?

In spite of predictions to the contrary, the future of barcodes is bright, for several important reasons:

  • Barcode technology is highly adaptable to very high speed printing systems
  • Multicolor barcodes add an additional layer of data encoding
  • Barcode printing is increasingly accurate and inexpensive
  • Barcodes “play nice” with other technologies such as RFID
  • New, important uses are still being discovered

Barcodes will likely be around for many more years for two important reasons: they are relevant, cheap and they solve problems.

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