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 readers called scanners. A bar code consists of a series of parallel, adjacent bars and spaces of differing widths. 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, for example, use bar codes as part of complicated electronic point-of-sale (POS) systems. These systems provide businesses with the ability to capture a wide variety of inventory data 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, who can then replenish the store's inventory automatically as needed. Internally, the health and beauty aids 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 for a wide array of operational segments, including material control, work-in-process monitoring, property management, job costing, maintenance operations, inventory control, and shipping and receiving tracking. 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."

Bar code information is tabulated via electronic reading devices known as scanners. There are two basic kinds of scanners, each of which has features that are more or less beneficial to specific industries. "Contact" scanners are generally handheld devices that must either touch or come into close proximity to the bar code symbol for them to work; these scanners are usually used for situations where bar codes are hard to get at or attached to heavy or large items that can not easily pass across stationary scanners. "Non-contact" readers, meanwhile, are usually stationary scanners that are permanently installed (at checkout counters, etc.) Some handheld scanners also use non-contact technology as well, though. Whatever the choice, a non-contact scanner does not have to come in contact with the bar code in order to register its contents. Instead, these devices use beam lights to scan bar code symbols.

The final important facet of erecting and maintaining an integrated bar code data collection system is to ensure that the bar code symbols meet certain standards of print quality and symbology. "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 from some while a product weight is important for others."

Today, bar coding technology stands as 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.


Alpert, Mark. "Building a Better Bar Code." Fortune . June 15,1992.

"Does It Mean 'Toothpaste' or 'Rat Poison'?" Fortune. February 17, 1997.

Mack, Stephen L. "Making a Read on Bar Codes." Managing Office Technology. January-February 1998.

Mark, Teri J. "Decoding the Bar Code." Records Management Quarterly . January 1994.

Snell, Ned. "Bar Codes Break Out: Once You Learn What Bar Codes Do Today, You May Find Uses You Never Thought of Before." Datamation . April 1, 1992.

Weiss, W.H. "The Multi-functions of Bar Coding." Supervision. March 1997.

"What Matters Most." Modern Materials Handling. January 31, 2000.

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