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Keeping track with barcodes

Graphic Products (Duralabel) : 08 February, 2013  (Technical Article)
Norman Joseph Woodland, who with Bernard Silver invented the barcode, passed away in December of 2012. Steve Stephenson of Graphic Products explores how worlds of information can now be stored in a small pattern.
Keeping track with barcodes

While there were many people Norman Joseph Woodland involved in the perfection and adaptation of barcode technology, Woodland is credited as the first person with the idea to use parallel lines to communicate information automatically. His initial concept was a kind of optical Morse code. A famous anecdote recounts how, in 1948, he was at the beach, contemplating how automatic scanning might be accomplished, and he raked his fingers in vertical lines through the sand. This was his eureka moment, giving him the idea for the barcode pattern so familiar today.

Put simply, a barcode condenses a lot of information into a tiny space and allows that information to be easily read by a computer. It is a simple idea and a powerful one, which explains the barcode’s presence in so many industries and applications. The traditional pattern familiar to all is called a 1D barcode; 2D barcodes have also caught on in many industries. 2D barcodes arrange data in two dimensions, as opposed to the single dimension of traditional barcodes. This allows them to store more data.

Asset tracking and management

The most well-known use for barcodes is for “asset tracking,” which is just a fancy term for keeping track of where items are. An organization can track any items it wants to—products, packages or equipment.

The most well-known example of asset tracking is your supermarket’s system for scanning product barcodes during the checkout process. Warehouses also rely heavily on barcodes to keep track of the ebb and flow of their product inventory. The Department of Defense (DOD) has something it calls the Unique Identification Program (UID), which mandates that expensive and important products and equipment have a specifically assigned 2D barcode. Graphic Products serves many military contractor customers, who use our printers to create UID barcodes for the products they supply to the military.

In the same way a company can track products, it can also track shipments. Shipping companies like FedEx and the United States Post Office place barcodes on their packages for tracking. Companies can also use barcode tracking to keep track of internal deliveries. For example, law firms often put barcodes on important document folders; scanning the barcodes whenever the folders are moved allows them to keep a record of who uses them and where they go.

Related to tracking inventory, barcodes can also be placed on warehouse storage locations like shelves and bins. Barcodes at these locations speed up the logging of product picking and placing, and allow warehouse employees to quickly learn the details of a stored product. This is another major use our customers have for our printers and software; our Premium Vinyl label material is great for creating durable barcode labels for warehouse storage. 

Another type of asset management involves placing barcodes on equipment. Facilities can store digital information about specific pieces of equipment and associate that information with a barcode. A company could place barcodes on printers, construction tools, desks or any property they wanted to keep track of. If an item was found out of place, a quick scan of the barcode would give all necessary information about the equipment, such as what department it belongs to and who is responsible for it. In industrial facilities, barcodes can also store more in-depth and technical information. For example, a piece of machinery could have a barcode that contains its parts list, or dates for when maintenance was last done. Labeling equipment is also a popular use for Graphic Products labels and printers.

Newer barcode uses

A more recent development in barcode use is communicating important information to in-the-field workers. This is accomplished with the use of mobile devices carried by the workers, either dedicated devices or apps on a smart phone such as an iPhone or Android device. A petroleum pipeline company might place barcodes on its externally-located equipment. A scan of a barcode with a technician’s mobile device would display the relevant information about the equipment, such as its maintenance schedule, instructions for maintenance procedures or information for contacting relevant personnel.

This would work just as well at an indoor industrial facility, giving technicians more in-the-field information at their fingertips. This instant access to information reduces the time spent researching problems, decreases worker error and increases efficiency.

Barcodes are also being used as part of a robotic warehousing initiative. Barcode labels on the floor can be read by automatic robotic vehicles that pass overhead, giving the central program information about where the vehicle is located in the building.

What are those square bar codes you see everywhere?

Another new use for barcodes is in marketing and advertising. QR (“Quick Response”) codes are a specific type of 2D barcode that are most popular for this. The goal of a company using a QR code is to target smartphone-using customers. Smartphone users using a QR app are able to scan the code and be immediately connected to a company’s website, video or other online message. QR barcodes can be placed on products, posters, shop windows, trucks, or any location where a customer might like to learn more about a company or product. Apps for reading QR codes (iPhone and Android) can be downloaded for free.

The standalone Toro printer with LabelForge software has the ability to print QR codes and other 2D barcodes. Vinyl QR labels are perfect for sticking on store windows and other outdoor locations where longevity is important.

Creating barcode labels has always been easy; this is one advantage barcodes have over more complex technologies like RFID (radio frequency identification). With modern software and printers, users can input barcode data and print custom barcode labels in seconds. When combined with a barcode-tracking system, having a thermal transfer label printer offers extreme flexibility for companies who want to implement asset tracking to improve efficiency and accountability. At Graphic Products, all of our printers come with free dBest barcode creation software.

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