Has the Barcode Met its Match?

October 22, 2015

4:00 pm

The traditional barcode everyone has come to accept on packaging consists of 12 horizontal lines, usually on a white background. This set of bars is also known as the Universal Product Code. Bars of varying widths encode data. This information could be product, ingredients, location or a host of other types of information. The bars represent a one-dimensional image of the information. A special scanner reads the bars, interprets the information and passes that to a computer or other machine for analysis.

In 1952, two colleagues, Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, were attempting to find a solution to tracking inventory in the grocery business. Their first attempt was using a set of symbols similar to a bull’s eye. This presented problems when trying to apply the symbol to products. Smearing was a regular occurrence. Once Woodland and Silver developed a code using a series of parallel bars, the UPC was born. On a June day in 1976, in Troy, Ohio a grocery store used the first scanner to scan the first product. A pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Use of the barcode was slow to catch on. Marketers did not want to invest in printing the code on products until the use of scanners evolved. Shop owners were skeptical about investing in scanners unless all products were labelled. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that the use of the one dimensional barcode exploded.

Reading a barcode requires a special scanner. This barcode scanning system must be attached to, or in close proximity to a computer in order to send the information scanned. The computer receives the information and processes it according to a predefined program.

Toyota manufacturing was using barcodes in their manufacturing process when they discovered they were about to reach the limit of the barcode’s capabilities. A way to store more information was needed. One of their subsidiaries, Denso Wave, developed a two-dimensional code that could store 350 times the amount of information as the classic barcode. Thus, in 1994, the Quick Response Code was born.

Using a series of black and white pixelated squares, the QRC stores information such as a company’s URL. The codes are read by smart phones, computers, tablets and dedicated QRC readers. Once read, the QRC is capable of opening a website, providing product coupons, or playing a video.

So which type of code should today’s business use? Both types of codes have benefits and drawbacks, but the QRC offers some distinct advantages over the traditional barcode.

The typical one dimensional barcode is very inexpensive to print, it can easily be printed during the manufacture process while on the conveyor systems. Scanning these codes are extremely accurate and there is basically no training needed to operate the scanner. For most businesses who are only looking to track inventory or capture numerical data, the barcode is more than adequate. But who wants to be adequate?

QR codes are read by smartphones, computers and tablets. As a matter of fact, smartphones now come with a QC reader already installed. This was a huge boost to the QRC use. Reader apps were available via a free download in the past but people did not rush to download it. Being pre-loaded has greatly increased its usage. Using a smartphone instead of a special scanner equates to a potential cost savings for your business.

Today’s consumer has little use for the typical barcode. Retrieval of the coded information on a barcode has limited use to individuals. Instead, they want websites. They want interactive videos. The QRC brings a world of information to consumers. Business owners can place an infinite amount of information in the QRC about their company history, products, research, etc.

If a company wants to keep their competitive edge, they need to embrace the newest technology. Any business not using QRCs risks being viewed as lagging behind the times.

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Dennis Hung is an entrepreneur and product analyst specializing in mobile technology and IoT. He’s spent most of his career consulting for businesses in North America.

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