Bar Codes Are Boring

I’ll admit it. I rather miss the “good old days” when bar code vendors battled it out by constantly announcing flashy new scanners and reading technologies, new symbologies, new data collection devices and new operating system options.

These days, whether in the media or in conversations at the water cooler, most of the attention is focused on the “sexy” new technologies. Even the “hot” news on most vendors’ web sites, with few exceptions, concerns WiFi solutions and RFID products.

Compared to those topics, bar codes seem, well, dull.

Of course, that’s the good news.

When it comes to any technology you have to rely on every day, dull, boring and predictable are good things. You can translate “dull” and “predictable” to “reliable” and “proven.”

So, every once in a while, it’s good to step back and reassess where we are in the state-of-the-art, especially as it relates to the state of your facility.

Even the most enthusiastic RFID proponent will admit that we’ll see bar codes on products and shipping containers (which means they’ll be in your warehouse or distribution facility) for a long time. Why? Because they’re already there. And because they’re inexpensive. But mostly because they work.

Yes, it’s enticing to think about racing a lift truck down a warehouse aisle to take inventory with an RFID reader. And the idea of positively identifying every item on a pallet as it comes off a truck at the receiving dock is really attractive. Even more exciting is the notion that RFID could take human interaction out of the equation and drastically reduce or even eliminate human-induced data collection errors.

And, yes, someday someone will write a column entitled “RFID Is Boring.” But, polishing my crystal ball, I predict that that’s not going to happen for quite a while.

For today’s workplace, bar codes still make a tremendous amount of sense. Without much fanfare, bar codes have been integrated into an ever-increasing range of ERP, WMS and other software and hardware products that can make inventory and receiving records virtually as accurate as what RFID promises. It’s easier than ever to implement bar codes following EAN.UCC or other coding and marking standards. For in-house use, from access control and time-and-attendance to location marking, bar codes are still the cheapest and most effective AIDC technology available for many applications.

Let’s remember some of the benefits of bar codes.

Bar codes are cheap. They can be easily produced on a shipping label or paperwork at virtually no additional cost.

Bar codes are easy to produce. Bar codes can be printed on virtually any type of printer. Most bar code printers can be driven directly from a PC spreadsheet or database program or, through middleware, from legacy mainframe programs. For more demanding applications, bar code label design and production software are widely available.

Bar codes are accurate. With reasonable print quality, accuracy is still better than 99%.

Bar codes are easy to learn about. Over the past 20 or so years, so much has been written about bar codes that there’s more information available than anyone would want to read.

Bar codes are stable. While there are still advances being made in reading technologies, the fundamentals of bar code printing, reading, data management and verification haven’t changed in the past five or so years. There are no significant changes under development or standards awaiting approval.

Bar codes are boring. No one is really concerned that bar codes are going to eliminate jobs or invade your privacy or track you from space — they’re pretty ho-hum from an employee and public perception perspective.

Are there drawbacks to bar codes? Of course. Bar code is still a line-of-sight, read-only technology. Print quality, environmental conditions and potential symbol damage are still major factors in readability and reliability.

Nonetheless, for all its “flaws,” bar code technology is still an effective, economical and reliable tool that, in many applications, gets the job done in a boring, unspectacular and thoroughly predictable way. And it will continue to do so for years to come.

Bert Moore, contributing editor

[email protected]

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