Bar Codes: How Lines & Spaces Make Modern Logistics Possible

Bar codes are everywhere. Every book on your bookshelves, every item in the grocery store, and every package you order online has one. These disctinctive strings of lines and spaces pop up in all kinds of places. You can even create them using free online tools, like I just did…

Sample bar code
Sample bar code

As simple as they appear, bar codes are incredibly useful. In many ways, bar codes are the linchpins of modern logistics. In this week’s post, we’ll be talking about the history of bar codes, their uses, why they are so important, and how your business can use them to your advantage.

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What are Bar Codes Anyway?

Strip away all the practical uses of bar codes, and the concept itself is simple. Bar codes are strings of numbers rendered as lines of varying widths. These lines and the spaces between them can be read by machines using an optical scanning device (a bar code scanner). Most bar code scanners automatically enter the numeric information into the computer, eliminating data entry.

There are a bunch of different types of bar codes. The one you see pictured above is a UPC-A code. It’s used a lot in commerce. You may also see QR codes, which are the ones you can scan with your phone. Each different type of code has a different way of encoding alphanumeric characters.

Let’s take UPC-A codes for example. They are simple because all they need to encode are 12-digit strings of numbers from 0 to 9. More complex code systems, like QR codes, can contain letters and other characters. We’ve taken a screenshot from the Wikipedia page on UPC bar codes to show you how these digits are encoded.

This is a really simple way to encode numeric information. But that doesn’t explain precisely why you would need to do that.

How & Why Were Bar Codes Invented?

The idea of a visual Morse code has been around since 1949.  It wasn’t until 1974 that the idea really started to take off. Grocery stores started using the UPC system as did IBM and the Boston and Maine Railroad company.

Why did it take 25 years to catch on? What changed in the world that made industry titans take notice of the developing and almost-forgotten technology?

Look no further than your local grocery store! The grocery industry had grown rapidly over the last few decades, necessitating an automated inventory system. Can you imagine trying to keep inventory records by hand for an industry that handles so many perishable goods? It would be incredibly difficult to do.

How Can You Use Bar Codes?

Since their widespread adoption in the 1970s, bar codes have been used for a variety of different industries.  For example:

  • Grocery stores for speedy checkouts and inventory tracking
  • Healthcare and hospitals for patient identification, medication, and supplies
  • Books (ISBN codes)
  • Airport security and airplane tickets

In pretty much any situation where you need a unique number to be associated with more valuable information, you can use a barcode. During my employment at a hospital as a Systems Analyst, I even used bar code scanners and Excel spreadsheets to track influenza vaccination data.

Even small businesses can use bar codes to their advantage. You can freely create bar codes for internal use online and scanners cost only $15 on Amazon.

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How Bar Codes Make Modern Logistics Possible

We’ve written before about the beauty and complexity of logistics. To refresh your memory, logistics involves materials handling and production, packaging, transportation, inventory, warehousing, and eventually fulfillment. Items change hands a lot between the time of their manufacturing and the time of their final delivery. Knowing where a given item is at any given time would be impossible without an automated system to track them.

This is where bar codes come in handy. Almost every item will have a bar code printed directly onto the packaging. This unique bar code is registered with an outside agency, one of which is the GS1, which allows every unique kind of item in the world to have its own bar code which no other item shares. Warehouses use these codes to scan items in and out. The same principle applies for retailers as well.

When items are bundled together into a package to be mailed, that package will have postage applied. The postage will contain a unique bar code. This code will allow the postal carrier, whoever they may be, to issue a tracking code which allows both the sender and the recipient to know where an item is at any given time. When a package is scanned in at a new location along the postal carrier’s designated route, the information is updated online.

Even large freight shipments of entire pallets of goods use bar codes. Freight shipments require waybills which spell out details about the items being shipped. At the top of most waybills? You guessed it – a bar code.

5 Practical Tips for Your Business

Naturally, you want to know how to apply this information in your business. It’s one thing to understand how bar codes work. It’s another thing entirely to understand how you can use the technology in your own business.

With this in mind, here are some practical tips you can take away:

  1. Before you buy a single bar code, make sure you are getting the right kind for your industry. UPC-A is the most commonly used, but some industries have different standards, such as books which use ISBN bar codes.
  2. For every variation of an item you have (such as T-shirt size/color combinations), you will have a unique SKU. Every unique SKU should have its own bar code. Understanding this early on will save you a ton of money!
  3. Register each unique bar code with an outside agency such as the GS1. If you cannot afford the fees to register directly with an agency like that, at least find a reputable bar code reseller.
  4. Consider using bar codes for your own internal business processes. In particular, this can be helpful for tracking inventory.
  5. Don’t be afraid to get creative! There are all kinds of business applications of bar codes, particularly marketing.

Final Thoughts

It may seem a humble arrangement of bars and spaces, but bar codes are the engine of complex business processes. The ability to visually represent unique strings of numbers in a machine-readable way has proven incredibly useful for tracking complicated data. Indeed, these bars and spaces have brought the world together by making it easier to send things where they need to go!

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