How Are Barcode Standards Developed?
Where did ISO15416 for linear barcodes come from? Or ISO15415 for 2D symbols? What is the process that culminates in the development of an international standard? It is a fascinating story that varies by industry, with some shared aspects between different industries. The largest commonality is that of problem solving. Barcodes exist and continue to be useful because they solve problems. The same is true for standards.
The process that led to the UPC symbol is well documented. Numerous applications and forms of automatic identification had been in use in other industries. A bullseye barcode was patented in 1949. A scanner to read the color-coded barcodes on railway cars was invented 1961. The development of the HeNe laser in 1969 made barcodes a viable way to identify items. Grocers saw these developments as applicable to problems they wanted to solve in their stores. Their industry trade association, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association played a critical role in developing the Universal Product
As barcode technology gained attention, many companies recognized the opportunity to get involved. Competing developments made it obvious that the viability of the technology as a solution depended upon standardizing not only the scanners to read them, but the barcodes themselves. In 1971, the Material Handling Institute formed the Automatic Identification Manufacturers (AIM) association to hammer out standards for the fledgling barcode. In 1986, AIM became an independent association.
AIM has become the defacto step on the path to the international acceptance of most barcode standards. An important, little-known component of that process is the fact that these are open standards, as distinguished from closed or proprietary standards. Industry-wide or global systems must operate on open standards. All attributes of the barcode are disclosed in the standard—there are no secret, proprietary attributes. In addition to its formidable problem-solving capabilities as an inventory management tool, the open standard was key in propelling the UPC into a global symbology.
This same trajectory is how most global barcode standards evolve. In some cases, the players are different, but it always starts with a problem seeking a solution. A consortium of key leaders, often competitors, commit to developing a designated solution that will benefit the industry in a non-preferential way to individual companies. Not
all standards come through AIM and and become ISO standards, but many do.
Whatever the path, the goal is the same: a standard upon which member organizations can agree, and with which they can comply.
Compliance implies consequences for non-compliance. Non-compliance extends beyond the printed barcode. There are also standards for how scanners should perform. For example, a scanner should be able to read a barcode of a specified type, with bars and spaces that are neither smaller nor larger than a specified size, reading from a specified distance and angle.
When barcodes or scanners fail to perform as specified, operations are disrupted:
- A manufacturing sequence is halted because the right part cannot be identified
- An order cannot be fulfilled and shipped because an item cannot be picked
- A shipment cannot be sent, tracked or received
- An inventory cannot be replenished because a sold item is not debited
- A patient cannot be dosed because the wristband does not match the medication
- A patron cannot enter an concert or other entertainment venue because the ticket cannot be validated
These, and innumerable other consequences, have costs, in both financial and experiential terms. Paused manufacturing and uncompleted fulfillment means late deliveries. Delayed shipments can cripple assembly lines and other time-sensitive functions. Missed medications or incorrect dosing can delay recovery, cause further injury or even death. Crowd control depends upon getting patrons into sports, concerts and other mass audience events.
Barcode standards are developed to solve problems and prevent consequences that range from inconvenient, expensive, disappointing or infuriating to life-threatening. They are relevant when they are created because they solve a problem.
Once created, standards are not static. They remain relevant by changing. An update to the ISO standards for barcode quality was recently released. It was the result of work done by a working group made up of barcode industry member companies.