The End of Barcodes
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The monthly newsletter Amazon Science recently published an article on how they are working to eliminate barcodes from their distribution centers. The Thomas Industry Update suggests this is the sign of the end of barcodes. Others will follow—it’s a sensational attention grabber as old as the barcode itself.
Fact: Amazon is considering ending the use of barcodes just for their DC’s.
Rationale: robots do a bad job of reading barcodes. and the items on their shelves are so carefully organized, a robot needs only to pick from the right location. Computer vision does an adequate job of confirming the accuracy of the pick.
Rationale = Rational?
That doesn’t extrapolate to the death of the barcode, but it’s an exciting headline.
Amazon has not stated that it plans to stop using barcodes—yet. They are studying it. If amazon decides to stop using barcodes for product picking, is this the end of barcodes? Let’s map this out.
- Cameras and AI may be able to distinguish one type of orange or apple from another, but they cannot discern freshness or source. A recall would involve the entire inventory of oranges or apples. Barcodes can make the distinction easily.
- Using computer vision to identify products requires those products to be photographed to populate the database. Inventory in a distribution center is ever-changing. Photographing new products, even if automated, is an additional step. That takes time. That’s an expense that source-marked barcodes eliminate.
- Computer vision can easily pick the right box from a shelf of identical part and model numbers, but the customer receives a device with a specific serial number. Procut registration, warranty, tech support and returns require identification of a single individual, not a product class. If Amazon doesn’t capture that at picking, it must be captured in a separate operation. There are still barcodes to be scanned, not eliminated.
There are efficiency improvements that could be implemented to barcodes currently marking many products. Consumer point-of-sale barcodes (UPC) only identify the brand and item type. While this does distinguish Fuji apples from Gala, Courtland, McIntosh, Spartan, Red Delicious, Winesap and other red apples, it does not contain a sell or use-by date. The UPC does not individualize otherwise identical products by their serial number. But they could. The obstacle is the limited data capacity of the symbology. This is a solvable problem. QR Code is an obvious solution—and there are other candidates.
Amazon will do whatever makes sense for them but eliminating barcodes for product picking in Amazon DC’s is no bellwether for the rest of the barcode scanning universe. Barcodes are here to stay at least for now.
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John helps companies resolve current barcode problems and avoid future barcode problems to stabilize and secure their supply chain and strengthen their trading partner relationships.