In the fast-paced world of IT, what decades-old technology shows no signs of being put out to pasture? That would be bar code technology. First put to use in the 1970s, it's still the dominant automatic identification and capture (AIDC) capability for supply chain and manufacturing applications, despite the introduction of numerous alternatives.
The bar code, which has remained relatively unchanged, remains the leading technology for existing applications in retail, replenishment, warehouse management and shipping, experts say, and is even being put to work in new use cases in transportation, logistics and on the factory floor. This is despite the lure of newer AIDC technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID), which promises benefits that include the ability to store more in-depth product information as well as removing the requirement for line-of-sight scanning.
With all of these notable benefits and AIDC advances, what gives the bar code such staying power? The answer, according to AIDC experts, boils down to a pretty simple value proposition around simplicity and cost. "The reality is the bar code is the standard, and it has been for a long time," said Simon Ellis, practice director of global supply chain strategies at IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass. "It's established, it's ubiquitous, it's cheap, and for the many things it serves, it is more than sufficient. There are newer approaches and technologies that have attempted to usurp its dominance, but they haven't ultimately brought value to the situation."
Bar code technology passes test of time
For decades, bar code labels have served as a way for products to be identified quickly and largely without error as they move through the manufacturing supply chain, and they continue to serve that role more effectively than other technologies, according to Ellis. "Whether that means scanning a case of products upon receipt into a distribution center or store, or scanning a location or pallet in a warehouse to initiate a pick slip, [bar codes] serve as a way to automate product capture in a way that, for many use cases, is quite sufficient," he explained.
It's not just on a retail shelf or warehouse floor where bar codes can be effective. Experts say that anything that can be identified as product or a work in process can be identified and tracked with a bar code, whether it's an ingredient used in process manufacturing or a component used by a discrete manufacturer.
The cons of bar code technology
On the flip side, there are some inherent disadvantages to the bar code. For one thing, the technology requires human hands, since the bar code label needs to be physically placed in the line of sight of an radio frequency (RF) scanner in order to be read. Some products have historically not been able to be tagged with bar codes due to their materials composition or, for instance, if the bar code wasn't readily accessible so it could be read by the RF scanner, according to experts. In addition, bar codes are not "intelligent" AIDC technology -- meaning they can't link to other information. While bar code technology can identify an item as a bottle of laundry detergent, for example, it can't go as far as to determine the specific bottle of laundry detergent being tracked, experts say.
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Some of these limitations are being addressed as bar code technology evolves, particularly with the advent of new 2D capabilities. "There's been an incredible evolution from the old linear bar codes that were damage-sensitive and contained little data to the new 2D bar codes," noted Steve Halliday, president of High Tech Aid, a consulting organization specializing in AIDC technology. "The revolution in the type of bar codes is helping to address scanning accuracy and to put a lot more data in a limited space."
There are also new abilities to place bar codes where they couldn't be placed previously, Halliday said, citing bar code technology that can be directly marked on parts, including metal.
Thanks to the increased readability and the ability to store more data, the newer 2D bar codes are paving the way for additional use cases, including manufacturing line process tracking used to monitor work in progress (WIP) on an individual line, said Don Ertel, senior vice president of operations at CDO Technologies, a large-scale system integrator specializing in AIDC technology, and a member of AIM Global, an industry association for automatic identification (AutoID) and data collection technologies.
New advances aside, though, it's the tried-and-true bar code that remains the go-to technology for McGraw Hill Education. "Bar code applies to everything for us," said Michael Torch, the company's vice president of operations and manufacturing. "Our products are bar coded; there is bar coding on all of our shipment labels; we're using bar codes to track product around the warehouse. It's not a big deal -- it's just part of everyday business."
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