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COVER STORY – It’s all in black and white

A current television ad for Radio 4 runs an extract from the comedyes really do make sense. They also make sound commercial sense. And they’re 25 years old. This month, the bar is the star. programme, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue. In it, the bar code is described as a black-and-white striped patch on groceries, which the checkout girl waves in front of a scanner. She then holds the item up in the air and shouts, “How much is this?”

It’s 25 years since the bar code was introduced by IBM, and 20 years since it was first used in a British supermarket. They have come a long way since then. They are now an integral part of much of commercial life, and are being used in more and more imaginative ways.

The importance of bar codes to commerce is demonstrated by the recently announced merger between the Article Numbering Association (responsible for – you guessed – administering the product identity numbers that are the core of bar codes) and the Electronic Commerce Association.

Research group Frost & Sullivan says that the bar coding equipment market was worth almost $1bn in 1997, and will rise to $2.75bn by 2004.

It’s important to remember that a bar code generally does nothing other than identify the product. The up-to-date price information is usually stored in a central computer. It’s the scanning process which then checks the product code against the database which generates a price at the till.

Last year, for example, a special issue of The Banker magazine was priced at #9.95, rather than the normal price of #7.50. Unfortunately, either someone forgot to inform the magazine distributors or to update the database at WH Smith: when scanned at the checkout, the price came up as #7.50 – an expensive mistake somewhere in the distribution chain.

More recently, couriers such as DHL have been using bar coded stickers to track the progress of documents from despatch to signed-for receipt.

Portable scanners carried by delivery people are used to zap a package as it is delivered. The data is then transmitted to the central system, which also allows customers to track their package’s progress, via the Internet.

Huge paper handlers such as the Inland Revenue and the utilities use bar coded tax forms and bills to allow office staff to call up the correct customer details when necessary. Such a system can also be used to enhance security: no bar code, no access.

Portable Software has used this idea to develop a simpler travel expense management system. Staff complete their expense account filings on computer, which are then transmitted electronically to a manager for authorisation (a mouseclick to approve, query or reject). Once approved, the file is passed electronically to the accounts department. The staffer also prints off an expenses sheet to which they attach their various receipts, and passes that on to the accounts department. When satisfied that the receipts match the expenditure, accounts staff can zap the bar code, calling up the proper claims file and approving it for payment by bank transfer, once the manager’s sign-off is received.

Some supermarkets now have trolleys with bar code readers attached to them, to allow shoppers to scan their groceries as they select them, then pay for the lot without having to queue at the checkout.

In 1993, one of the strangest toys to emerge from Japan used grocery bar codes to “feed it”. Bar Code Battlers was a Game Boy-style electronic shoot-’em-up game with a built-in bar code reader. Why? Before players could go to war with other Battlers, they had to ‘charge up’ their machines with points. The bar code reader would read the bar code from any product and convert it into a score, using a complicated algorithm. The bar code for a standard sized can of Heinz beans, for example, might have been worth 40 points, while the bar code from a packet of Persil soap powder might have been worth 75 points.

Of course, using a game to zap your groceries after you’ve brought them home may have been an odd way to make commercial use of a bar code. A similar – but more serious – project is being developed by an American software company in conjunction with 3Com, manufacturers of the Palm Pilot electronic organiser. The basic idea is that the biggest problem with home shopping is having to scroll through a screen-based list of thousands of items, looking for the few dozen products that you want.

Instead, the plan is that consumers would zap the bar code on the packets of cereal, soap and so on, when they are nearly empty. The information can then be transferred to a PC and e-mailed off to the supermarket.

Others are developing small, pen-sized scanners that could be used with home shopping catalogues that display bar codes and pictures.

Even cameras have used bar code readers to get the right exposure settings (scan “backlit subject” for just the right amount of fill-in flash) – a novel way of using bar codes to deliver instructions to electronic equipment.

Instantly-generated bar codes have their uses. Lottery operators Camelot use bar coding to identify individual tickets. When the punter’s coupon is inserted into the ticket machine, the details are transmitted to the central computer which then allocates an individual transaction code, which in turn is relayed back to the ticket machine which prints a unique bar code. Winning tickets are scanned and verified, with the machine being instructed to display how much cash the customer has won.

In manufacturing industry, bar codes are used for components, warehousing and inventory, asset identification and management (eg, computers), and to co-ordinate the delivery of the right parts at the right time along an assembly line. Even hospitals use bar codes for tagging babies, and there are reports of bar-code-based systems for tagging prisoners.

We’re not immune, either. Visitors to trade fairs are almost certain to be given an ID badge with a bar code, allowing exhibitors to scan delegates’ badges, collecting vital contact details. But only in the realms of science fiction will we get a bar code tattoo at birth.

So where did these things come from?

Although the retail bar code has only been in use – as we know it today – for around 25 years, the concept of optically-read product identification systems actually dates back to 1932. A group of Harvard students devised a system of punch cards which shoppers selected from a catalogue of products. The checkout operator simply fed the chosen cards through a reader, and the merchandise would be delivered, an itemised bill sent and store inventory updated. But the machinery needed was cumbersome and noisy, and the idea never really took off.

In 1949, the fathers of modern barcoding, Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, filed a patent for a system to identify products with unique printed patterns, based on a combination of Morse code (with the dots and dashes stretched downwards) and movie soundtrack encoding. But there remained the problem of how to read the codes reliably and automatically, a problem that only lasers and integrated circuits could solve much later.

So it was not until 1966 that bar codes gained a commercial foothold when the National Association of Food Chains in the US called for technology to speed the checkout process. But the first operating scanner installed at a Kroger supermarket in Cincinnati in 1967 failed. The code looked like a bull’s eye, and was simply too hard to scan. The Association of American Railroads had also tried to use a barcoding system in 1967 for labelling carriages and goods cars, the first industrial application of optical product identification. But like many organisations on the bleeding edge of technology, the AAR had to scrap the project after nearly ten years.

To overcome the Kroger problems, the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code was ratified in 1970, and the standardised bar code symbol was set in 1973. The first live use of a bar code and scanner, at a Marsh supermarket in Tory, Ohio, in 1974, was for a single packet of chewing gum. But take up was slow, and by 1978, only 1% of US stores had a scanner. That year, a packet of teabags became the first UK bar-coded groceries.

Today, there are dozens of different types of bar codes. The longest known is a two foot long proprietary code used by the US Army to identify boats in storage. (How big is the scanner?)

The Universal Product Code (UPC, for the US) and the European Article Numbering (EAN) system provides the standard codes for most purposes, and now operate the global EAN/UCC (Uniform Code Council) standard.

These can be the simple retail variety or more complex codes which can also hold alphanumeric information. The standard EAN codes have an extra number for the country of origin, and some other forms of retail bar code also have numbers for the weights of unpackaged produce. (Try comparing the bar code on loose mince with that on pre-packaged containers in the supermarket.) But all bar codes have the same principles at heart.

To make a basic retail bar code in Europe you use 13 numbers. There are lines which mark the beginning and end of the code – so the scanner doesn’t read it backwards – then a country code, a six-digit manufacturer number and a six-digit product identification number including – a checksum, a number which confirms that the scanner has read the other figures correctly.

Each number, in a basic code, is made up of four strips, two white and two black. Each strip can have three different widths, so the number “9” (in UPC bar codes) is a three-width black strip, a one-width white strip, a one-width black strip and a two-width white strip; a “1” is double black, double white, double black, single white.

Although companies were fairly slow to adopt bar codes in the 1970s, as we near the millennium the cost-effectiveness of the technology is increasing almost exponentially. The fact that, 25 years on, there are widely adopted standards for labelling certainly helps, but it’s advances in technology which have really heralded a breakthrough.

For a start, the hardware is getting cheaper. For as little as a couple of hundred pounds, a company can buy a bar code label printer and scanner.

But it’s the back office technology which has made the biggest difference.

Modern datawarehouses can actually make sense of the mountain of data produced by bar-coded transactions and allow managers to find new ways of cutting cost or maximising sales. And when complex, timely point-of-sale information is allied to enterprise resource planning systems, an entire industrial process can automatically be put in motion by the swipe of a scanner – or changed to meet situations as they happen.

The future of the bar code is less certain. In the short term, the IT infrastructure that backs up any bar code can continue to get more sophisticated, ensuring the black and white stripes will be omnipresent for a good few years. But looking further forward, incredible advances in the way we construct microchips may change everything. For example, scientists are experimenting with “spray-on” chips which could contain even more information about a product, but which are actually attached to the packaging, not in a database.

But for mass produced goods, these developments are some way from fruition, and any new system is going to have to get much less expensive and much simpler before it displaces the cheap, cheerful, useful and universally accepted bar code.

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