A Brief History of the Use of Barcodes

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These days almost everyone knows what a barcode is. It’s that black and white striped box on all the packages purchased at the grocery store. There are many different types of barcodes, but technically, the term refers to any “optical machine-readable representation of data.” Despite the common use of the term, many people may not know the origins, history, and evolution of the use of barcodes.

What Problem Did They Originally Solve?

Barcode technology arose from the need to track items of a business, and this is still what they are used for today. First, they were used to track railroad cars as they traveled across the country. However, their massive popularity came from their use in supermarket package tracking and checkout systems, allowing this particular type of barcode, a Universal Product Code (UPC), to be scanned instead of requiring manual entry.

How Are They Used Now?

As barcodes have become ubiquitous over time, they have been exploited for narrower benefits within the retail industry:

  • Inventory Control: Items that are purchased can be tracked by complex computer software to signal managers when it is time to restock items that are selling out.
  • Customer Tracking: Regular customers at large store chains volunteer to become members of the stores’ discount clubs. As the customer checks out, a barcode is scanned to identify him or her as a member and to apply appropriate discounts. The membership program is also used to gather data about general customer trends.
  • Loss Prevention (Anti-Theft): Barcode technology is paired with retail security towers to determine if a thief exits the front doors with unpaid merchandise.

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How Can Barcodes Improve Business Processes?

Barcodes today can be processed at extremely rapid speeds, sometimes faster than 100 codes per second, lending themselves to a heavy role in document scanning efforts. Barcode stickers work well when applied to backlogged paper documents that need to be scanned and catalogued into an online system. These barcode stickers can be automatically generated and are more accurate than human data entry.

Affixing barcodes to paper documents is also useful for when they are not part of a backlog, but part of a steady stream of new incoming documents. Custom document management solutions can then integrate the documents’ attached information to decide to which business workflows the document should be added.

Although their origins are in retail, barcodes are a practical technology for use within the business. They carry accurate data, easily adhere to physical objects, and can be automatically read by computer systems. Indeed, barcodes are at the root of myriad process improvement efforts.

Nathan Stuller
Nathan Stuller
Nathan Stuller is Development Manager and Lead Developer at Unstoppable. He enjoys problem solving for big companies, working in new technologies, and driving our projects to successful completion.
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