Just When Everyone Said Bar Codes Were Dead....

...here comes a new linear bar code symbology that can be stenciled on raw wood or even drawn with a marker.

As crazy as that sounds, the need for it is quite real—and one that might have application in your own facility or, possibly, in the future of the supply chain.

The symbology is called Ultracode®, a public domain "next generation linear bar code" symbology, the standard for which has just been finalized by AIM Global's Technical Symbology Committee (TSC). (Following approval by the AIM Board, it will be vetted for public review prior to final publication.)

It was developed by Dr. Clive Hohberger, VP of Technology Development for Zebra Technologies, in response to a 1996 request issued by the Red Army Barcode Lab, Moscow (Russia) which stated, "Needing Cyrillic barcode that can be stenciled on a wooden crate by 17-year old conscript using can of spray paint, having better than 95% first pass readability after crate sitting outdoors 5 years at Army depot in Siberia."

Oh, sure. Piece of cake.

If you ask Clive why he developed it, he'll tell you because it was an interesting challenge. And because he saw the benefit of a slot scanner readable symbology that could withstand considerable damage and dimensional printing distortions. These qualities make it ideal for ink jet printing directly on fiberboard and in other applications where high quality printing is unlikely and/or damage is quite likely.

Although described as a linear bar code, Ultracode is really a first-of-its-kind hybrid symbology. Whereas a typical stacked bar code (2D bar code) has horizontal layers (or rows), Ultracode is made up of vertical "tiles" (or columns). In other words, you start at the top of a column and read down, then move to the top of the next column and read down.

Why is this significant? Because a conveyor has slight movement variations which produce horizontal dimensional variations in ink jet printed symbols. This can be problematic for multi-width, edge-to-edge decodable symbologies such as GS1-128 Ultra decoding, which is insensitive to small variations in horizontal widths.

Since Ultracode decoding relies only on the relative bar widths in each column, not in adjacent columns, the dimensional variations from conveyor stick/slip essentially disappear.

As additional features, symbols have a clock track (to ensure proper timing), is character self-checking (meaning a single error will not produce a different valid character), and includes Reed-Solomon error correction plus a number of other bells and whistles.

Ultracode could be used effectively for direct marking on surfaces such as lumber, stone, concrete, rubber, steel coil, metal fabrications and even, using fluorescent inks for aesthetics, on direct mail or architectural glass.

Taking the requirement to encode Cyrillic one step further, Ultracode is designed to use the Unicode 5 character set, making it highly efficient for encoding any natural language and, in fact, providing the highest efficiency for encoding Chinese.

It may be 2008 before Ultracode is "officially" sanctioned and printing and reading equipment is generally available. But that just gives you time to think about all those really nasty labeling needs you have and how Ultracode could solve them.

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

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