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ALTOM: Bar-coding could help your business for as little as $200

Tim Altom
July 31, 2010
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Tim Altom

Years ago, when technology was just starting to classify and count all of us, we worried we’d become merely numbers. Now we may not even be readable numbers, but just ink on a bar code. And that’s a good thing, as it turns out.

Bar codes were once only for the biggest companies to slap onto their shipments so entire pallets could be logged into a warehouse with the swipe of a scanner, or inventory could be easily conducted on tens of thousands of shelved items. Smaller companies were sometimes forced to use bar codes, too, but it was a pain and quite expensive. Almost all bar codes went onto product going out the door, or were read from product coming in.

Times change, as anyone who’s attended a conference recently can confirm. Most name badges now come with some kind of bar code, and often codes that are distinctly different from the old “picket fence” variety. Booth vendors need only swipe a reader across your badge to start dunning you with years of literature.

Examine your airline boarding pass the next time you’re flying the allegedly friendly skies, and it’s likely you’ll see yet another kind of bar code, one that doesn’t have bars at all—a modern “2D” bar code that looks more like a small black-and-white piece of modern art.

Bar codes are surprisingly old technology, first patented in 1952. The bar code on the original patent actually looks more like a dartboard with concentric circles than anything we’d recognize. The food industry pioneered the use of the more familiar vertical-line bar codes back in the 1970s, to help the newfangled supermarkets keep track of stock and to speed up their register lines. It was expensive, but worth it if you had enough stock items to justify it. The Defense Department got in the game in the 1980s, which made the technology more popular and brought prices down. True to form, however, the Pentagon dictated its own bar code standard, which was different from the Universal Product Code standard everybody else was using.

Today, there are at least 80 formats for bar codes, many of which aren’t made up of bars. About half that number are classified as 2D, and can hold more data than the old bar-type codes can and are often designed for special purposes. The EZcode, for example, which is marketed by Scanbuy (www.scanbuy.com), is intended to be scanned by cell phone cameras. The high-capacity color bar code from Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) holds a very high information density, using color rather than simple black-and-white. If you’ve seen a movie with Dolby sound in a theater lately, you’ve heard a soundtrack encoded on a series of bar codes placed between the sprocket holes of the film (www.dolby.com).

Almost any situation where you need to track things or convey small bits of information can be an application for bar codes. Law firms are using bar codes to track vital documents and files. Companies with equipment inventories have long used bar codes on computers, monitors, printers, faxes and the like. Security badges with bar codes have generally been replaced by those with more durable RFID chips, but bar-coded badges are still cheap and readily available, especially for short-term use like conventions or visitors. Keys and similar items can be checked in and out more quickly. Print a bar code with a customer ID on your invoices, and you could speed up processing several times over.

The local library system has bar-coded all its books and other assets, so they can be checked out with only a swipe on the reading station. Toyota exploited bar codes in a recent campaign handing out fliers at Giants Stadium. Fans needed only to take a picture of the bar code using their cell phones and send it to a third-party vendor, which then returned a multimedia message from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Researchers have bar-coded bees to automatically scan them on their ways in and out of their hives. I suppose you could bar code your kids and scan them every time they ran in or out of the house.

Still, the single most common use for bar codes remains the identification of goods in commerce. If you need to get into bar-coding so that your own manufactured goods will be properly scanned at a warehouse or point of sale, you can get your very own UPC code by joining GS1, the UPC standard organization (www.gs1us.org).

For smaller or internal applications, many business software companies have adapted their packages to work with bar code hardware, or you can buy third-party software to adapt them. Quickbooks maker Intuit (www.intuit.com), for example, lists several bar code partners on its website. The price of entry for bar-coding may not be as high as you think, either. Beginner packages can be as little as $200 from large stationers like Office Depot or OfficeMax.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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