Chain of Thought

No Toying with Bar Codes

It's pretty easy to get an infant's attention. Just wave something bright and shiny in front of it and the rest of its world disappears. We media types are like that, although sometimes I think the bigger the media outlet, the bigger the baby.

A few weeks ago, one of the biggest—The Wall Street Journal—latched onto a bright shiny toy that many of us less pampered kids in the trade press got used to a long time ago. Bar codes.

I'm not saying bar codes aren't important toys. Let's just say they're mature, and other toys have captivated the trade press in recent years—things like image-based bar code reading and QR codes. But just as some toys never die (Slinky anyone?), bar codes aren't going anywhere. In fact what got WSJ's attention were the more “arty” bar codes marketers have been putting on consumer packaged goods lately—making funny pictures out of the functional lines in them.

“The barcode, the style runt of product labeling, is getting gussied up,” WSJ enthused. “Beer, granola, juice and olives are sporting barcodes that integrate famous buildings, blades of wheat and bubbles into the ubiquitous black and white rectangle of lines and numbers. Consumer-goods companies hope these vanity barcodes will better connect with customers.”

Meanwhile, further out in those consumers' supply chains, manufacturers are just hoping the bar codes they use will help them track and trace those products at every stop along the way to the consumer. So the bright, shiny toy we in the trade press are fascinated with is the supply chain itself, because it's always changing. There's no such thing as a typical supply chain, so automatic data collection has to be flexible enough to change with the chains it's applied to.

There are also many different permutations and combinations of parties involved in these chains, on the regulatory side as well as the sales side. That complexity will grow as more companies expand their markets outside the U.S. and more parties will need access to the information in those chains.

For a while it looked like radio frequency identification (RFID) tags would replace bar codes to track products down to the item level. Then complications like cost and technical bugs tarnished RFID for a while and bar codes started looking good again. Shippers started asking GS1, the international standards body, whether they could do as good a job tracking and tracing with bar codes. Sue Hutchinson, director of portfolio strategy at GS1, didn't see why not.

“We started this process with RFID because that's where it made sense at the time but very quickly the users came back and said we like this visibility but I can't guarantee RFID everywhere in the supply chain,” Hutchinson told me recently. “They asked if they could accomplish the same thing with bar codes. We said as long as you can get a serialized identifier in there and get me a time/date stamp and you're using a good identification scheme like a global location number to talk about your locations, there's no reason you can't do this with bar codes.”

So bar codes are getting shiny and interesting again for supply chain managers, but not for the reasons that got WSJ's attention. Instead of looking for funny and clever pictures you can make out of them, now industries are getting excited about replacing their old EAN/UPC bar codes with the much smaller but more data rich GS1 DataBar symbols. If you're as excited about the potential uses for these bar codes as we at MH&L are, there's nothing infantile about that. Just a bit nerdy.

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