Why Barcodes Survive
The recent article about the longevity of barcodes triggered a range of responses. One comment referred to barcodes as the “weakest link” in the supply chain. There are many links in the supply chain and quality is the strength and resilience of each one. Barcodes do fail. But they also prevail. Here are some additional reasons why.
Barcodes are hierarchical. They can identify classes of items. In North America every can Coca Cola© of a specific type (flavor and formulation) is identified by the same GTIN12. A particular GTIN 14 can distinguish an inner carton, a master carton, or a pallet of a specific product or collection of products in a shipment.
Barcodes are scalable. As in the example above, a barcode can identify a member of an identical group. They can also identify an individual: a product manufactured on a specific date, at a specific location, from a particular lot or batch, with a specific expiration date.
The Line of Sight Advantage
Identifying an individual among a collection of diverse items is easy with a barcode, because it is line-of-sight scanning. In some circumstances, this is a limitation of barcodes: RFID, for example, can penetrate opaque or obscuring packaging. A barcode scanner must be able to “see” a barcode directly. In other situations, this is an advantage of the barcode: it can be difficult to control which tag the RFID scanner is seeing.
Because they are visible objects, it can be easier to diagnose and fix barcode scanning problems. A host of problems can inflict RFID scanning, virtually all of them invisible: electromagnetic noise, read range, antenna location and cable length for example. When a barcode fails, the reason is often obvious.
Automatic identification, which includes barcodes, RFID and other similar technologies, are subject to quality issues. Identification may be automatic but quality is not. When barcodes are the weakest link in a supply chain, there is a reason and a resolution. When trading partners communicate and enforce their requirements, expectations are clear and links in their supply chain are robust. This applies to the product in the package and the barcodes on the package as well.
Quality: You get what you Enforce
Barcodes have a long history, a ubiquitous presence and a promising future. Many valid reasons explain this. Confidence in the technology can be overstated.
Quality is the only assurance of ongoing system performance. Barcodes can survive significant abuse and neglect but there is a breaking point. Someday something even better and more robust will probably emerge.
When barcode problems disrupt a process, it is time to remember that the identifying marks that move product through the assembly line, fulfillment, packaging operation or supply chain are as important as the product itself.
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