Bar coding is an automatic identification technology that allows data to be collected rapidly and accurately from all aspects of a company's operations, including manufacturing, inspection, transportation, and inventory elements. Because of these attributes, bar coding is used for a wide range of applications in almost every aspect of business. Indeed, it is the most commonly used tool for automated data entry worldwide, and is widely regarded as one of the most important business innovations of the twentieth century.

Bar codes provide a simple method of encoding text information that can be easily read by inexpensive electronic scanners. The code itself consists of a series of adjacent parallel bars of differing widths similarly spaced apart. This pattern of bars and spaces—sometimes referred to as the Universal Product Code—represents alphabetic characters or numbers that are the unique identification for a certain product. First utilized in supermarkets and libraries, bar coding identification has grown over the years to have applications in many fields.

Today's retail businesses use bar codes elements in complicated electronic point-of-sale (POS) systems. These systems enable businesses to capture information about inventory levels on a continuous basis. For example, a seller of health and beauty aids can scan the bar codes on merchandise as it leaves the store and transmit that data via an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system to its main suppliers. The supplier can then replenish the store's inventory automatically. Internally, the retailer can study the point-of-sale data to determine more effective ways of marketing and merchandising its offerings. Manufacturers, meanwhile, utilize bar code technology in work process control, property management, job costing, maintenance, inventory control, and in tracking shipping and receiving activities. In the latter instance, for example, "scanners located at receiving and shipping areas can be used to record product movement," remarked W. H. Weiss in Supervision. "In addition, captured information at the point of transaction permits invoices to be verified and bills of lading generated that are based on actual quantities shipped. Back orders can be immediately routed to the shipping dock."

Users tabulate bar code information with reading devices called scanners. "Contact" scanners are handheld devices that must either touch or come into close proximity to the bar code symbol to read it; these scanners are used in situations where bar codes are difficult to get at or are attached to heavy or large items that cannot easily pass across stationary scanners. "Non-contact" readers, by contrast, are usually stationary scanners permanently installed (at checkout counters, etc.) Some handheld scanners may also use non-contact technology. Whatever the choice, a non-contact scanner does not have to come in contact with the bar code in order to register its contents. It uses reflected beams of light to read the bar code.

A small business planning to use bar codes should familiarize itself with the appropriate symbology to be used on its products. A website of the Measurement Equipment Corporation lists more than 230 national and international standards organizations able to assist the would-be user of bar codes depending on the kind of product to be coded. Examples are the Group of Terrestrial Freight Forwarders (GTF), the Chemical Industry Data Exchange (CIDX), and National Hardware Retail Organization (NHRO). Those looking for some general orientation may wish first to visit the Web site of the Uniform Code Council, (renamed GS1 U.S. on June 7, 2005 but still referred to by many as UCC) one of the leading umbrella organizations in bar coding. Part of the preparation is to ensure that the bar codes the business produces meet certain standards of print quality. "Print quality standards state the minimum levels of reflectance, contrast, and other critical measures of printed bar code symbol readability," explained Weiss. "Information requirements covered by standards vary by industry. A serial number is important for some while a product weight is important for others."

Today, bar coding technology stands as a ubiquitous part of nearly every industry of any size or economic significance. This state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon, according to experts. Analysts do note that use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology has grown in the field of document image processing in recent years. But bar coding technology remains superior to OCR in terms of expense, accuracy, and ease of operator use, and its users continue to find new and innovative uses for its still-developing technology.


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