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The Ubiquitous Barcode

They’re everywhere! Whether they present themselves as zebra stripes or cryptically pixelated whorls, there’s just no escaping those pesky little patterns. They’re breaking up the beauty of artisan chocolate bar wrappers and ruining the designs on rococo tea boxes. Leave it to Mad Magazine to anticipate this abomination in the late 1970s and protest it by festooning one issue’s cover with an oversized barcode and the all-caps declaration that it “HOPES THIS ISSUE JAMS EVERY COMPUTER IN THE COUNTRY… FOR FORCING US TO DEFACE OUR COVERS WITH THIS YECCHY UPC SYMBOL FROM NOW ON!”

Yet despite such (ultimately minor) inconveniences, barcodes simplify life in many ways. They help stores oversee purchases while keeping the flux of products from shelves to customers’ homes as smooth as possible. They reduce errors from manual entry by astronomical proportions. And despite all this power, the concept of the barcode itself is really quite simple. The specimens may look complex, but they’re all basically machine-readable representations of data. What data, you might ask? Well, that depends on what needs to be recorded and tracked. It could be a serial number, a manufacture date, a product category, a URL, a person’s name, or a combination of these.

The nitty-gritty of how this data is encoded in a machine-readable symbol is what is known as the barcode’s symbology. There are several different symbologies, but they all have certain components in common. Each configuration must contain bars (or sometimes darkened squares) and spaces, start and stop markers, and what is known as a “quiet zone” – a mandated blemish-free space around the code to help readers locate it. Symbologies are standardized to minimize confusion. You probably noticed a sudden preponderance of 2D barcodes in the last decade or so, often meant to be scanned by smartphones. Two-dimensional codes, such as the Aztec Code and the QR Code, can hold much more information than their one-dimensional relatives.

Once a barcode-reading system is put in place, it starts to work its magic by helping to track and process objects (and sometimes people) without stopping the flow of the overall operation. Many toll bridges, for example, used to require all drivers to stop at a booth before driving across. (Some still do.)

When upgraded with barcode scanning systems, these same bridges can let most cars cruise along unhindered. What would have been a colossal bottleneck is now a breeze. You can get a taste of the inconvenience of barcode-free grocery shopping when you purchase certain items at a self-checkout stand, such as fresh produce, that need to be looked up manually in the system. Can you imagine what a pain it would be to buy groceries if all items needed to be looked up in this manner?

Interestingly enough, most grocery stores were initially quite reluctant to install barcode-scanning systems at their checkouts. It seemed like a costly effort with little potential for ROI. However, stores that did take the time to incorporate the fledgling technology got an unexpected reward. In addition to saving time at checkout, they were able to gather stockpiles of data on customers’ purchasing habits. Suddenly, it was a cinch to identify fast-selling products and put them in featured locations. Given the numerous benefits, the ROI for barcode systems implemented in the 1970s was over 40%.

Saving time and collecting lots of data are great gains, but perhaps even more important is the way that barcodes reduce errors. When a simple scan removes the need for workers to type in data manually, the likelihood of an error in that data becomes infinitesimal. This is of tremendous importance for the healthcare industry. Barcodes adorn every patient sample and the wristbands that patients wear in hospitals. Elaborate systems automatically generate new barcodes every time a nurse draws blood and follow the sample from the hospital floor to the laboratory. There are still some opportunities for human error, such as the possibility of putting the labels on the wrong blood tubes, but these constitute a tiny fraction of the errors that would occur without such a system in place.

So the next time you spot a barcode – and that’s likely to happen pretty soon – just think of the grand and intricate systems that have evolved around this humble entity and the role these systems play in improving your quality of life.

Would you like to learn more about barcodes? Watch our on-demand webinar explaining barcode basics here.

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