Changing the World with a Label

Last year on a camping trip Lisa Warden and her daughter Jessica stopped for groceries in an extremely small town. While shopping, Jessica kept hearing an unfamiliar noise and asked what it was, but Lisa was not sure what she was talking about. Because Lisa remembers the cash register age she did not realize Jessica had never heard one actually working in a store. When they were in the check out line Jessica pointed at the old cash register and told her mom that is the noise she has been hearing. Lisa laughed and tried to explain that at one time all stores had cash registers like this one. Jessica was born in the computer age and could not comprehend the thought of cashiers and baggers doing so much work.

Before bar codes, cashiers had to look at each price tag and manually key enter the dollar amount. This made the consumer have to wait in long check out lines, which did not make for a pleasant experience. Because the cashier was busy entering each item’s price, he or she did not have time to bag the merchandise. The retailer had to hire another person to put the products into bags, and this increased the prices. Ed Leibowitz reported that supermarket’s net margins were one percent in the more profitable times, but down six percent by 1970 (130). Their inventory control did not help their net margins because of the considerable time it took and their employee wages they paid. Consumers, retailers, and producers have benefited with the invention of the bar code by saving time and money.

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The bar code is a series of thirteen numbers written in a coded form of black and white lines that a scanner can read. The definition according to The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia is,

The printed code used for recognition by a bar code reader (scanner). Traditional one-dimensional bar codes use the bar’s width as the code, but encode just an ID or account number. Two-dimensional bar codes, such as PDF417 from Symbol Technology, are read horizontally and vertically. PDF417 holds 1,800 characters in an area the size of a postage stamp (Freedman 62).

The Universal Product Code (UPC) is thirteen numbers divided into three sections: the first five digits are the manufacturer’s code, the next seven digits are the product’s code, and the last digit is a check digit (Hartston).

The bar code currently being used is one-dimensional, but the appetite for including more and more detail in bar code messages seems to have no limit. An item’s label has limited space, and because of this, stacked bar codes, better known as two-dimensional bar codes have been developed. Explained in Using Bar Code–Why it’s Taking Over,

A symbology called Code 49, the first stacked bar code to receive widespread interest, was introduced by Intermec Corporation in 1987. The following year Laserlight Systems, Inc. introduced Code 16K as an entry in the symbology category. Since then, several additional stacked symbologies have been introduced. The stacked symbology of Code 16K is designed to contain from 2 to 16 rows of bars. Each row has a row designator (in UPC symbology) on each end of the row, and five message characters between them in Code 128 format. This gives Code 16K a message capacity of 77 full ASCII characters, or 154 numeric characters, within a very small label (Collins 38).

Two-dimensional bar codes are not yet in the mainstream of bar code technology. They do represent the direction in which the technology is headed.

Railroad cars used bar codes in the 1960’s to track each car to provide accounting reports for freight car rental. Bar codes were first patented in 1949, but it was retail that bar coding made its mark (Gowrie). Retail bar coding first appeared on a pack of gum at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, on June 26, 1974 (Glanz 9). “Bar code scanning is probably the single most revolutionary thing that has happened in retail sales in 50 years,” says George Goldberg, founder and former publisher of SCAN, an industry newsletter (qtd. in Gowrie).

Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard “Bob” Silver, mechanical engineering instructors at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology, overheard a supermarket executive trying to sell the Drexel dean on a research project to automate the checkout counter. The dean declined, but Woodland and Silver began pursuing the research on their own. Woodland left Drexel but could not stop thinking about the concept. He first thought of a code, and the only code he knew was Morse. Sitting on Miami Beach thinking of dots and dashes, he reached into the sand and drug his hand. He looked at the different size lines each finger made, and the bar code image hit him. Silver designed an electronic decoder for the scanning device Woodland created. Woodland then took a job at IBM, hoping he could interest the company in developing his invention (Leibowitz 130). Without the concept of a bar code, the busy world of retail would be a slower place. It is unbelievable how his persistence would effect the world.

This is how the bar code and scanner work according to Chuck Haga,

The heart of the scanner is a laser about the size of a pencil eraser. It shoots a beam of light that passes through a lens and strikes a mirror mounted on a spinner working at 6,000 – 8,000 revolutions per minute. The laser beam is swept in a circle and bounced off more mirrors, producing more than 2,000 scan lines a second, each zapping the label at a different angle. As the laser beam hits the bar code, it sees white spaces and black bars. The beam bounces back, and the scanner collects, measures and decodes the patterns of reflected light. It comes up with a series of numbers, a sort of product license plate, which shoots into the store’s database to find the price. At the same time, the transaction may adjust the store’s inventory records and even trigger replacement orders–all in less time than it takes to ask “paper or plastic?” (1A).

Most users of bar codes rely on both speed and accuracy to improve their operations.

In the beginning consumers were leery of the accuracy of the bar code; Carol Tucker Foreman, therefore, started an anti-bar-code crusade. She was on Phil Donahue’s talk show and asked his viewers to send money to the Consumer Federation, and they would use the money to stop the use of bar codes, revealed in Smithsonian (Leibowitz 130). The crusade did not like the idea of their products lacking a price tag and feared the stores would over charge them. Emphasized in Discount Store News, price checks at 1,033 stores in thirty-six states found that, on average, twenty-nine out of every thirty items tested scanned prices accurately, proving crusaders’ fears were unfounded (Rankin 14).

In the retail business, the bar code has shortened the check out lines, making the consumer’s shopping trip a happier adventure. The cashier is more cheerful with the customer because he or she does not have to concentrate on the price of each item. The customer’s most bought items will always be on the shelves because of the efficiency of the bar code updating the daily inventory. “Every night the exact number of grocery items sold that day is replaced by the distribution center, and the store’s shelves can be replenished the next morning” (Collins 13). Because this process is so exact, marketing products has improved, satisfying the customer and increasing the merchant’s profits.

Used in all types of businesses the bar code is a very helpful tool. United Parcel Service started using them to help keep track of their customer’s air packages. When a person or a company sends a package they want to know where that package is at all times, especially if they send it with a more expensive service such as next day air or second day air. To satisfy their customer’s needs, United Parcel Service decided in 1989 to start using a bar code on their next day and second day air labels. At first the scanned information was only available to United Parcel Service employees, but the customer could call and find where their package was. Two years later United Parcel Service created their own web site. If a customer needed to know where their package was all they needed to do was to log on to the web site and key in the tracking number from their package’s label.

Larry Pontinus offered, that if United Parcel Service would have known the importance of the bar code they would have demanded their customers use them on every package shipped. This is were the company would like to be by September 1, 2000, and have three facilities already testing “smart packages”. The facilities use less man power and more technology to distribute a package from point A to point B. A smart package is a package that has a bar code on its label and the United Parcel Service hub’s scanners are able to read them and then sort the package accordingly, claimed Hub 2000 PSG Manager, Mark Casseday (Video). If the received package does not have a bar coded label, there are employees who enter the label’s information into a computer and the computer creates a bar code label. This new label is machine and human readable. After the label is affixed to the package it is reentered into the system. After reading the package’s label, the system uses an arm on the conveyor belt to push the package to the conveyor belt that goes to the truck for delivery, disclosed Operations Planning Manager, Greg Campbell (Video). The system reads the smart label to fasten a presort label. This presort label tells the employee where to load the package onto the truck. The system takes all the information into account: the weight, the destination and the truck’s route before issuing it a spot on the truck. Each spot on the truck has a color and a number. If it is a heavy package it has to be on the floor of the truck. If it is going to a place that is one of the driver’s first stops then it has to be in the back of the truck. Each label has a color and a number as well as the truck and the person loading the truck knows immediately where the package belongs, assured Package Project Manager, Al Chavez (Video). The presort labels will help tremendously with vacation coverage. United Parcel Service will not have to have highly trained employees for the vacation replacement, theorized Package Project Manager, John Olsen (Video). The money spent to utilize this technology is nothing compared to the money it will eventually save.

Another service industry using the bar code is the health care industry. Joseph Shapiro reports that a new survey from the Institute of Medicine estimates that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans a year die from preventable mistakes made in hospitals by physicians, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. Hospital errors rank as the nation’s eighth most frequent killer. More than 7,000 Americans die because of drug mix-ups (60). These mistakes obviously need correcting.

Bar coding is helping hospitals and doctors as explained in U.S. News and World Report,

The VA hospitals are making clever use of bar-coding technology to avoid medication bungles. Prescriptions are typed into computers, not handwritten. And bar-coded labels, attached to a patient’s wrist and a nurse’s charts, are scanned each time a patient gets a pill, to check against mistakes. The idea came from a nurse at the Topeka VA hospital who, returning a rental car one day, noticed the wireless scanner used to check in her car. The system will be in place in every VA hospital by June (Shapiro 60).

Julekha Dash estimates that using handheld devices and bar code scanning technology could reduce errors in administering medication by as much as 85 percent (1).

Robot-RX is a centralized system that automatically dispenses bar coded medications to drawers designated for each patient. In the five years of using Robot-RX no drug delivery errors have occurred. Unfortunately, drug manufacturers have several bar code formats, which makes it hard to implement handheld readers that track which care giver gave what drug (Dash 1). Explained in Computerworld,

Tom Smith, administrative director for pharmacy and oncology at Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, N.C., said he hopes drug manufacturers will soon adopt a standard bar code on their drug label. “I think with the national initiative, the [Food and Drug Administration] is going to mandate that [all] drugs will have to conform to a universal bar code,” Smith said. “Until that happens, [drug manufacturers] won’t do it.” (qtd. in Dash 1)

Let us all hope the Food and Drug Administration does mandate this and soon. As mentioned before, there were zero errors with the installation of bar coded label on medication.

The universal bar coding of medical products and the use of scanners to analyze reams of data is inevitable. Announced in Journal of Health Care Finance,

As managed care drives providers to reduce inventories, better understand utilization rates, and reduce costs, it will generate new databases out of necessity. One of these databases, and the focus of this article, will be generated from electronic scanners that will scan or read bar code from the myriad of packaged products any provider will utilize (e.g., gauze pads, aspirins, foam pads, disposables of all kinds, etc.). This new database will not be developed to improve clinical pathways, neural networks, or care paths, although these can hopefully be integrated at a later date. The provider-generated database, as in the case of supermarket scanner data, will revolutionize inventory management, allow precise utilization to be measured, and allow health care and medical products manufacturers to know their market shares and the effectiveness of promotions (Fox 44).

The installation of this database should help reduce a patient’s hospital bill, because there will be an accurate inventory control and no excess medical products.

There is a software program that works with a bar code scanner to read aloud descriptions of tens of thousands of items for blind people. Bragged in The Associated Press,

SCANACAN was developed by a Manchester, S.D., couple whose Ferguson Enterprises develops products to assist the blind. To use the program, a scanner reads the bar code and a synthesized voice provides information the user requests–a simple description of the product or, in the case of food, how to prepare it. The program allows users to create more databases and will hold up to 2 billion bar codes, though that number may be limited by the memory available on the computer. SCANACAN also can benefit newly blind people who are not fluent in Braille or people whose fingers have lost the sensitivity needed to read Braille. For now, customers must manually enter descriptions of products whose codes are not already in the program. But the Fergusons are seeking databases from more manufacturers to expand the software’s usefulness (Barrett 1D).

This bar code program has made a world of difference in the blind’s accessibility. It can be used for their clothes by sewing on a bar code and entering a description, including its color. Then when it is time to get dressed they will not mix plaids and paisleys. It also helps keep track of their food inventory. Blind people tell the computer there is one less of a particular item after they use it all. Then when it is time to make a grocery list they do not have to remember what they used throughout the week.

No longer needed are the manual cash registers of yesteryear. Bar codes have revolutionized businesses with better inventory control and helping satisfy their customers needs. Twenty-five years of using bar codes in the retail industry has only improved with age. It has moved on to bigger and better objectives, along with staying where it originated. It is hard to believe such a small thing–in size–could change the world in such immense ways.

Works Cited
Barrett, Steven. Software Helps the Blind Keep Tabs. The Associated Press 16 Dec. 1999, D1.

Collins, David Jarrett and Nancy Nasuti Whipple. Using Bar Code–Why it’s Taking Over. Duxbury, MA: Data Capture Institute, 1990.

Dash, Julekha. It Can Reduce Medical Errors. Computerworld 33.51 (1999): 1.

Fox, Kenneth. Can a Hospital Be Like a Supermarket? Better Data Will Provide Cost Controls, Efficiencies, and Income Streams. Journal of Health Care Finance 23 (1997): 44-45
Freedman, Alan. The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. New York: AMACOM, 1999.

Glanz, William. Black, White and Silver; Museum marks 25 Years of UPC. The Washington Times 30 Sept 1999, B9.

Gowrie, David. Making its Mark in Bar Coding. The Record 8 Dec. 1999, all ed., B3.

Haga, Chuck. From Orwellian to Ubiquitous: Happy Birthday, Dear Bar Codes. Minneapolis Star Tribune 22 June 1999: 1A
Hartston, William. Good Questions: Cracking the Solution to the Supermarket. Independent 24 Jan. 1994, sec. misc: 30.

Leibowitz, Ed. Bar Codes: Reading between the Lines. Smithsonian 29.11 (1999):

Pontinus, Larry. Personal interview. 1 June 2000.

Putting it to the Test–Creating Smart Packages. Dir. Jack Blaisdell. Narr. Russ Easley. Videocassette. United Parcel Service, 2000.

Rankin, Ken. Sometimes the Customer isn’t Right. Discount Store News 38.3 (1999): 14.

Shapiro, Joseph P. Doctoring a Sickly System. U.S. News & World Report 13 Dec. 1999: 60

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Changing the World with a Label. (2018, Sep 21). Retrieved from