A bar code is a machine readable block of black bars and white spaces that encode data. Bar codes are usually found on the back of packaging, containers, airline tickets, books and vouchers. The two most common types of bar codes are the Universal Product Code (UPC), and the International Article Number (EAN). EAN used to stand for European Article Number, but it has been changed to International Article Number because the code is now used worldwide.
What is an EAN Code?
EAN is the European version of the UPC barcode, which was designed in 1976. The EAN-13 has a 13 digit code, with all thirteen numbers printed below the bar code. Ten digits are used for product identification, one as a check code and there are shortened versions of this code, which are designed to fit onto smaller products, such as the EAN-8, which represents an 8 digit number. You can find out more about other types of barcodes, at the GS1 UK website and on isbn-search.org.
What is a UPC Code?
The UPC code, invented in 1973, was the first product barcode in common usage. The organisation responsible for issuing UPC codes are GS1 (link). The company aims to set standards, using unique numbers, for global use to ensure the reliable identification of products and assets. These standards ensure that everyone is speaking the same language, when it comes to locating, transporting and trading goods.
The most commonly used type of bar code looks like this:
What is the Structure of a UPC Code?
A UPC number is divided into three sections:
1) The Company Prefix. The company prefix is 6 to 9 digits in length. This ensures that your products barcode is not confused with another company’s product. The company responsible for assigning barcodes worldwide is called GS1. You can find out more about the company from this link.
2) The Item Reference. The item reference number is assigned by the company, which creates a specific number system to represent their products. The item reference number is between 2 and 6 digits long.
3) The Check Digit. This is the 12th digit. It is calculated using a special formula, form the first 11 digits (the UPC Company Prefix and the Item Reference). This final digit ensures that any information scanned from the bar code is accurate. You can calculate the check digit online at the GS1 US site.
What are the Uses of UPC Codes?
Bar codes can be used to track and record information about the movement of people and resources. Bar code scanning is faster and more accurate than key board recording. A keyboard operator makes an average of ten errors, per 1000 words typed. Bar code scanning is the most accurate way for retailers to collect the information they need about the products they are selling. The bar codes on products allow retailers to track the movement of goods and monitor stock levels. Retail loyalty schemes also use bar codes to identify customers and track individual customers shopping patterns. Shoppers who join loyalty schemes, are rewarded with special offers and marketing schemes.
Bar codes are also widely used in healthcare and hospital settings. They can be used on patient wrist bands to identify patients, and to store patient data, such as medical histories, and medication management. Other uses include stock control, specimen identification and supplies management.
Bar codes can also keep track of nuclear waste, rental cars, airport luggage, registered mail and express mail. Bar codes are sometimes used on tickets, such as cinema, theatre, music festivals and sports events. This can enable the proprietor to identify fraudulent ticket holders more easily.
History of Bar Codes
The first item ever to be scanned using a UPC code was a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio in 1974!
The earliest reference for the idea of an automated checkout system, goes all the way back to 1932! A business student called Wallace Flint wrote a Masters thesis, about a supermarket, where customers could use a punch card system to choose their groceries. When they arrived at the checkout they would insert the punch card into a reader, which would activate machinery to bring their groceries to the checkout, via a conveyor belt. The reader would keep a log of the purchases made. But this was just a pipe dream!
It wasn’t until 1948, that research began to develop the earliest bar code at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. Mr Silver, a student at the college, overheard a supermarket boss asking the head of the college to do research into designing an automated system for reading product data. Mr Silver and another student, Mr Woodland set to work trialling out a system using patterns of ink that glowed under UV sensitive light. They built a working prototype, but it was rejected, as it was too expensive and unreliable.
Mr Woodlands next piece of inspiration came from Morse code. He wrote the first linear bar code in the sand on a beach: ‚I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow and wide lines out of them.‘ He later adapted the linear format to create a ‚bulls eye‘ shaped format that could be scanned from any angle. Mr Woodland and Mr Silver filed a patent for both the linear and bulls eye format in 1949.
In 1966, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) held a meeting to discuss developing the Woodland patent into a system for automated checkout systems. By 1970, the NAFC had developed the Universal Products Identification Code (UGPIC). The first company to produce barcode equipment for retail use was an American company, Monarch Marking in 1970. The first company to make equipment for industrial use was the British Company, Plessey Telecommunications in 1970.
In 1972, a Kroger store in Cincinnati began to develop a system using a bulls-eye code. However, the printing process had a tendency to smudge the ink, which caused problems with the scanner. Several other types of barcodes were developed such as starburst codes and computer readable characters. IBM proposed a barcode design based on UGPIC, which is very similar to today’s UPC Code. In April 1973, the UPC symbol, by IBM was selected as the industry standard.
Standardization of the UPC code meant that any bar code on any product, could be read and understood at any store or factory in the world!
You can read more about the history of bar codes at ‚Bar Codes Sweep the World‘ by Tony Siedman (http://www.barcoding.com/information/barcode_history.shtml). If you are really keen, do check out this strange theory that all barcodes have the numbers 666 embedded in them.