From a doodle in the sand to the barcode

A beachside brainwave proved to be the inspiration behind a revolution in manufacturing and retailing

Technology has made it easier and quicker to perform many daily activities. Not only do we rely on it, it has brought massive changes to our lives.

Patient ID wristbands help avoid medical errors
Patient identification wristbands with barcodes helps to ensure the right patient receives the right treatment (Photo:

Smart devices and connectivity are prime examples. We rarely leave home without our smartphones. We use them to make payments and purchases, read news, work on emails, communicate with friends, manage smart home systems, monitor health and fitness and for a host of other activities.

As modern consumers, we have come to expect to be connected wherever we are, so that we can choose exactly when we want to do all these things.

An ingenious innovation for sorting the world

Another invention that has completely changed life can be found on most products today. The barcode is a discreet label which facilitates shopping and enhances the global trade of goods. Without it, many of the online systems and services we use for purchasing products or finding information would not exist.

Joseph Woodland was an American inventor and mechanical engineer. He came up with an efficient way of capturing product information at the checkout, with the goal of speeding up the checkout process at the point of purchase. In 1948, the idea came to him unexpectedly from a drawing he did in the sand, adapting the dots of Morse Code into lines. So the modern barcode was born on a beach in Florida.

Woodland and his associate Bernard Silver received a US patent for "Classifying Apparatus and Method" in 1952, but at the time, the technology was too expensive to develop the idea for supermarkets.

Over the years, the striped-scan system would be refined. It was first used with a trackside scanner in the 1950s to identify the ownership and number of railway cars, but only reached the retail sector in June 1974, when a packet of chewing gum bearing the universal product code (UPC) barcode was scanned at a till in Ohio.

Identifying and tracking things

In addition to automating supermarket checkout systems, other tasks performed by various types of barcodes have become known generically as automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). Serving numerous applications – product/item identification, point-of-purchase/use, track and trace and product distribution for healthcare, manufacturing, retail sales, service industry, supply chain and transportation – AIDC technologies are vital for global trade and among the basic enablers of e-commerce. By providing timely and cost-effective data, they improve processes that cover product life cycles, such as ordering, back office operations, manufacture, distribution, sale, use, repair, warranty and return of products.

Established in 1996, the work of IEC and ISO Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 1 Subcommittee (SC) 31, includes data formats, syntax, structures and encoding, as well as technologies for the process of AIDC and associated devices used in industry and mobile applications. The SC publishes International Standards for barcode symbologies and radio frequency identification (RFID).

Technology that keeps on evolving

One dimensional…

The barcode is a machine-readable way of representing data. The traditional one-dimensional (1D) version is a rectangle containing straight lines in varying widths and spacings. Barcodes contain information about the item to which they are attached, such as the manufacturer, owner, identification number and price. These criteria can change depending on the item and reason for use.

When scanned, barcodes link product information to the stock database held by the retailer or manufacturer. Over time, increasingly sophisticated software systems carry out other tasks (tracking and automatically reordering stocks when required) by using this information.

… to two

The two-dimensional (2D) matrix barcode is designed using geometric shapes (dots, hexagons and rectangles). Created in 1994 in Japan for the automotive manufacturing industry to enable components to be scanned at high speed, the quick response (QR) code has become very popular and adopted by many industries.

Radio frequency identification tags

RFID tags are also used to identify and track the items they are attached to by using radio frequencies. Line of sight is not a pre-requisite, unlike standard barcodes which require optical scanners to be held directly in front of the label.

From the warehouse to the hospital – many uses and benefits

In our global world, there is a growing need for tracking and tracing solutions. Barcodes continue to evolve because they are versatile. As well as storing useful product information, they can be attached to almost any surface, are inexpensive to design and print, easy to use, reduce human error risk due to very low scanning error rates, and can be adapted to the scale of business as it grows. Some of the many uses include:

  • Retail inventory management systems. These offer wireless, accurate, real-time access to inventory and enable automated reordering of stocks when they run low. Businesses save time and costs, since they require fewer employees who themselves need less training
  • Self check-out machines. These allow customers to process and pay for shopping faster
  • Advertising/payment QR codes. These enable retailers to boost sales by sending QR code offers to customers, who are able to compare prices and product information while in the shops. Other innovative smartphone apps allow shoppers to scan, create and save their lists and receipts, and pay by holding their phones over a QR code
  • Warehouse management systems. These help manufacturers and retail giants to work faster and more efficiently as a result of accurate, quick, automated product scanning, tracking and picking systems, improved product-to-market times and streamlined costs
  • Healthcare tracking solutions. Hospitals and medical centres use barcode labels to track medication, equipment and important patient details such as medical history and drug allergies so as to avoid the occurrence of medical errors. They also stop disease spreading by enabling users to know what equipment has been sterilized and is ready for use
  • Admission tickets. These save consumers time spent queuing at airports, museums and concerts. Customers buy tickets online and scan the QR code saved in their smart devices to board flights or gain entrance to events
  • Electronic luggage tags. These provide improved baggage handling and tracking. A state of the art airport baggage handling system streamlines processes by combining barcode and RFID technology with artificial intelligence and a robotic arm. Customers use machines to check in their own luggage, while behind the scenes, robotic arms load the luggage from a central area onto ramp carts and containers as needed. This technology is being used at Schiphol International Airport in the Netherlands
  • Building access. Employees access the workplace using badging systems and some companies use adhesive barcode labels on cars for those who drive, in order to improve security

Staying on top of the trends

The internet of things (IoT) and related technologies are increasingly important in our world and are changing how we live. More industries are adopting AIDC technologies such as barcodes, QR codes and RFID to improve their operations. RFID is one of the primary sources of IoT data, which means ensuring its security is of the utmost importance. JTC 1/SC 31 follows these trends so that it can address market needs in a timely manner through its standardization activities.