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Ask About Bar Codes

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By | May 26, 2012

Dear Toolkit,

I've got a product I want to market to retailers, but I've been told I first need to get a "bar code." Can you educate me on what these ubiquitous little symbols are, who dreamed them up, and how I might acquire one of my very own?

Codeless in Seattle

Dear Codeless,

Those ubiquitous little symbols, made up of parallel black bars and white spaces of varying widths, are a language unto themselves. They're designed to communicate with scanners for the purpose of automatically gathering data about the individual identity of whatever item they're attached to. Think of them as "laser language" or "scanner-speak." Go to your pantry, pull out a can of soup and contemplate the bar code as you read the rest of this column.

The most ubiquitous dialect in the U.S. is UPC (Universal Product Code) or UPCA (version A), seen everywhere in your local grocery and other retail stores.

Take a look at your soup can. Its UPCA code consists of two halves of 6 digits each. The first digit is usually 0. The next 5 are the manufacturer's identifying code numbers that are assigned by the Universal Code Council (UCC). The next 5 are the individual product's code numbers that the manufacturer assigns. (UPCA gives a manufacturer 99,999 possible product ID choices.) The 12th digit is a "check digit" to see if the first 11 were scanned properly. This verification is done via an algorithm that only a math geek would want to hear about. Trust me, it works! And the codes are laid out in mirror image so they can be read in any direction as a clerk swipes them with a laser beam.

To get your own UPC for retailing in the U.S., just call the UCC (937-435-3870) to apply for your manufacturer's number or check out their web site. This not-for-profit organization is responsible for administering the Universal Product Code (UPC) for the entire U.S. retail consumer industry. Note that there will be a fee based upon your company's sales volume.

There are several scanner-speak dialects in addition to UPC. HIBC, for example, stands for Health Industry Bar Code, and it's what you get on your little wrist bracelet when you end up in the emergency room some Saturday after tangling with a runaway hedge clipper. There's POSTNET Code that you'll see on most envelopes delivered to your mailbox. FedEx and UPS have their own special code systems. And even the Department of Defense uses one of the most popular alternatives to UPC, called CODE 39 (or sometimes called "3 of 9" because three of the nine code elements are wide and six elements are narrow stripes.) This code has 43 characters instead of UPCA's 12. It has 0 to 9, A to Z, 6 symbols and 1 space. As you can imagine, this expanded number of stripes and spaces greatly enhances the number of product code choices.

And a superset of UPC is EAN (and EAN-13), standing for European Article Number system. EAN-13, for example, is used for non-U.S. products and has an extra pair of digits to symbolize the country of origin. (EAN is also used for books, even within the U.S.)

As of January 1, 2005, North American retailers had to adjust their scanners to read the new global standard 13 digit bar code. (The European countries have always used 13 digits.) The technology standards organizations for EAN and UPC are becoming a single global group as well. EAN International, located in Brussels, and the Uniform Code Council, now based in Lawrenceville, N.J., was merged into an organization is called GS1 as of August 2005.

As for who dreamed up this idea of automatic identification technology and symbol selection, we need to go back Philadelphia in the late 1940s. Two Drexel Institute grad students, Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver, worked to develop a code that could be read automatically. They took the Morse code and extended the dots and dashes downward--dots becoming thin stripes and dashes becoming thick ones--separated by spaces. They attempted to "read" the code with the old De Forest movie sound system. In 1949 they filed patent applications.

They couldn't seem to interest anyone in pursuing their dream since there were so many impracticalities. Keep in mind that in those days computers were in their primitive infancy and lasers didn't exist at all. Woodland and Silver were way ahead of the available technology. Woodland finally took a job with IBM in the hope he could convince them of the value of the invention. Woodland and Silver's patent was granted in 1952, but by the time IBM got around to considering a purchase of it in the late 1950s, they didn't offer enough, so our two dreamers sold their idea to Philco, which later sold it to RCA. Silver died in 1963 and Woodland remained with IBM.

Around this time, an MIT grad named David Collins was working for Sylvania on developing applications for their computers. He developed a coding method for identifying freight cars and later tried to convince Sylvania to invest in other industrial applications for his idea. They said no thanks and he said goodbye, leaving to form his own firm named Computer Identics Corporation.

As the '60s turned into the '70s, and as the original Woodland/Silver patent was expiring, Collins took advantage of the increasingly effective and affordable laser technology and developed a very successful bar code system for General Motors. Collins' contributions pushed the technology to the point where economies of scale could eventually be realized, making bar coding systems available to more and more industries over the coming years.

RCA came into the game in the early 1970s by developing a type of bull's eye bar code system for the grocery industry. IBM saw how they were missing the boat, and they called upon their employee, Norman Woodland, inventor of the original bar code system, to catch them up to RCA. Woodland went on to develop the basis for UPC and its subsequent iterations (UPC-A, E, etc.). He stuck to the parallel stripes which, unlike RCA's bull's eye format, were more forgiving of printing limitations and therefore more accurate. Woodland and IBM's UPC was officially standardized in 1973, although Woodland never really cashed in on his historic creation.

So it was due to the entrepreneurial efforts of Woodland and Silver and Collins, all of whom initially labored in basements or on kitchen tables using rudimentary tools and materials, that our modern solutions to retailing, inventory and a thousand other identification problems were born. (Collins is still at it. Take a peek at his Data Capture Institute site). IBM and Sylvania did not share their visions, but these guys persevered and succeeded anyway. Go thou and do likewise!

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