The Bridge Is Out

And Your Barcode Infastructure is?

I recently read about a bridge in California that was washed out.  The loss of this bridge meant an additional 200 mile a day commute for many was used by 20,000 people each day.  Believe it or not, this made me think about barcode.

When we start the day we make some assumptions that the core things we rely on will be there for us; heat, food, electricity, transportation, communications, jobs, etc.  Today, almost everyone in the world is positively impacted by another infrastructure that they do not think about, barcode.  It is everywhere. It is very important. It is how things work.  In many ways it is like that bridge, a link from one side to the other, the physical side to the digital side.  It is how we know what is going on. It allows us to exercise control and manage activities. Like the bridge, if we lose it we will really feel it.

Two observations

It works very well, thank you.

Forty years and 5-6 billion scans per day!  Most of that has been in retail food stores around the world.  It has been credited with the significant changes in the food industry during that time and is now set to make the food chain safer in the future.  Actually, many of the programs to improve healthcare, retail and manufacturing rely on using barcode.

It either works well or it doesn't work at all or somewhere in between

Yes, I meant what I said.  The only thing that is completely black and white about barcode systems is the bars themselves.  In reality, there is a lot of grey area.  Think about this; why is it that some items scan very easily with one quick swipe across the scanner while others require a few tries with slow and careful positioning.  In fact, most barcode systems are working in the grey area. Performance could be worse but it could be a lot better too.  This costs some extra time for each of those billions of scans.  It also means that some of the questionable barcodes cannot be scanned at all.

So what?

We use barcodes so much because it is inexpensive, fast and, most important, accurate.  It allows us to avoid manual key entry which is very inaccurate and unacceptable for even a backup method.  In the coming years, as barcodes are used to improve our food and drug supply chains, there will be a need to scan barcoded serial #'s at multiple points along the supply chain to maintain the traceability of these items.  At these points the scans will be performed using simple hand held scanners.  The people using those scanners will have a hard time with the questionable barcodes and this means trouble for the manufacturer.  Their products will be worthless if they cannot be scanned and tracked.  For consumer safety and regulatory compliance, they will not be allowed to continue on to the consumer.  Manufacturers will have to up their barcode game to stay in business.  Barcode will go from something that we did not think about to become an important item on the management dashboard.  They will have to be aware of and manage what they are doing to prevent the loss of a customer or a consumer.

Here are a few things they might ask:

  • Are you now in compliance with your industry specifications for barcode size, quality, position, etc.?  Ask for the details of how you stack up against the specs.  'We don't know of any problems' is not the answer you are looking for.
  • Is there a system in place to catch the out of spec packaging or labeling materials before they get out the door and cause big problems?  Does it work?
  • If you purchase packaging materials with barcodes, does your contract specify that the barcodes must be inspected by the manufacturer and be in compliance with industry standards and specifications?  Are you getting such assurances from your packaging suppliers?  In writing?