Scanning the Horizon

New Projects Are Pushing Bar Codes to the Bleeding Edge


Better bar codes are finally on the way. Although it has revolutionized how the world does business, bar code technology has changed little since it arrived in 1974. United Airlines’ mobile ticketing platform, UPS’ overnight delivery system, the Mayo Clinic's eCheck-in system, Toyota's Kanban manufacturing process and Walmart's supply chain logistics are just a handful of the many processes, products and procedures that wouldn't be possible without the bar code.

Now, though, project leaders are launching and expanding initiatives aimed at delivering new and niche bar codes at the bleeding edge of today's technology. For example, in October, TruTag Technologies secured US$7.5 million in funding to ratchet up development of bar codes made from nanoporous silica, an edible material that can be placed directly onto products. The innovation could be a boon for anti-counterfeiting efforts in the pharmaceutical, cannabis and food industries.

Such advancements mark the biggest shift for bar code technology since QR codes, developed in the 1990s, allowed for an exponential amount of information to be stored. But the limited scanning range and higher price tag of QR codes mean they haven't eclipsed the demand for traditional bar codes. So teams are focused on adapting conventional bar codes to today's hyperconnected world.


Scandit's augmented reality retail inventory management scanner


In Atlanta, Georgia, USA, the startup LocatorX has a product development project underway to insert solid-state, miniature atomic clocks (like the technology that powers GPS systems and satellites) into product labels. The new label doesn't only share product information when scanned but also actively tracks a product's location—making it a potential cornerstone of the burgeoning internet of things, says Pat Pickren, CTO, LocatorX.

“As the product goes through manufacturing and distribution, all the way to a retailer, the precise location tracking will be enhanced with the atomic clock,” he says.

An agile approach allows the team to develop, test and iterate quickly—which is vital to first-of-its-kind technology.

“When you're building and delivering technology, you want to fail fast,” he says. “Let's be wildly creative, but let's get feedback in the process, so we can deliver more value to the customer.”


—Pat Pickren, LocatorX, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Teams at Scandit also adopted agile when developing its mobile bar code scanner that includes an augmented-reality overlay. That feature allows retail users scanning a product to, for instance, quickly check stock levels. Likewise, healthcare staff scanning patient bracelets can instantly see medication instructions.

“When we see demand by multiple clients, or if we have to tweak the core engine a bit for one client, then those benefits flow into the overall product development,” says Benjamin Hempel, an engineer and solution consultant, Scandit, London, England.

The team's spirit of iteration shows no signs of slowing, either. Mr. Hempel says projects could one day allow people to use computer vision technology to scan whole products, rather than bar codes or text. “Technology is advancing fast,” he says. “In a year or two, let's see what's on the market.”—Hal Conick



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