Everything Old is New Again

One of the advantages of being an “old guy” in the industry is that I know a lot of the background and standards that were developed over the past 20-plus years. One of the disadvantages (other than being an old guy) is that, what I assume is common knowledge, well, isn’t particularly so when it comes to barcodes.

I just got off the phone with someone who’s been trying to implement data identifiers (DIs) for a shipping label using one of the better-known label design packages.

This, to me, should have been a no-brainer. Simply select the “DI” option and enter the desired DI. But—surprise—there is no DI option (even though this product did have a DI option in the 90s). The only option for identifiers is for GS1 application identifiers (AIs). More surprising—or shocking—was that the company’s technical support people have apparently never heard of DIs.

The caller and I poked around the software options to figure out how to prepend the DI to the symbol data and suppress printing it in the HRI. All in all, it was a major PITA. And, it shouldn’t have been.

What was most surprising, the caller reported, of all his customers, this was the first time anyone had requested DIs on a shipping label. None of his other customers were using either DIs or AIs.

Overall, it was an illuminating experience— and not one of the good kinds. The fact that the very existence of DIs is not as universally known as I had assumed was rather disconcerting, especially since the DI Maintenance Committee continues to receive requests for new DIs (as recently as last November).

So, for those who are not familiar with DIs (or AIs), here’s a quick primer:

DIs were originally developed by the Automotive Industry Action Group standard in the 1980s. The idea was to allow the barcode to contain information about “the intended use of the data which follows.” These were typically a single alphabetic character—for example, “P” for part number assigned by the customer.

An ANSI data identifier standard was developed incorporating the requirement for many different industries and greatly expanding the assignments so that a DI can contain up to three numeric and one alpha character. EAN/UCC (now GS1) developed all-numeric AIs for the same reason. The Air Transport Association developed its threecharacter text element identifier for use in both EDI and barcode applications. All three systems are recognized by ISO/IEC 15418.

Regardless of the system used, the premise is the same: When multiple symbols are to be read, or there is a chance of reading the wrong symbol, identifiers allow barcode readers and systems to read only the barcode symbols having the required data to ensure the right data goes into the right field. In some applications, the reader might accept data from only one symbol, say, part number, then strip off the identifier before transmitting data. In other applications, identifiers would be transmitted with the data, and the system software would use them to parse the data before stripping them.

What’s clear from my phone call was, with so much focus on RFID these days, barcode expertise is on the wane. And, since barcodes will be with us for quite some time, that’s more than a little troubling.

While things are certainly easier than they were in the “old days,” people still have to know how to format and print good quality symbols, or at least have a list of phone numbers to call when they have questions. It’s something to think about.

Bert Moore
bmoore@MHMonline.com

Bert Moore is a 20-year veteran of the AIDC industry. He is director of IDAT Consulting & Education, Alpharetta, Ga.

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