I’ve taken barcodes for granted most of my life. Having grown up in the 90’s, when barcoding was already commonplace in South Africa, most of our shopping was done with the aid of barcodes. The first time I actually thought a bit more deeply about barcodes was while creating my music album – during the final stages of production I was told by my producer that I would need to get a barcode to be able to distribute my cd through the standard channels. A while later, I became involved in the barcoding industry and discovered that it’s actually quite an interesting world.
At its core, a barcode is a number in visual form, typically a configuration of vertical bars. This number is then associated with a specific item. In a supermarket, for instance, each item will be barcoded and thereby be linked to a unique identification number. Scanning this barcode in at the cashier calls up the identification number, which then allows the supermarket’s system to access all sorts of product information from their database, including name, price, size, model, etc. The simplicity of this process is at the heart of the appeal of the barcoding system and is the reason that there are few aspects of our daily lives that have not been made more efficient by barcoding.
The use of barcoding is also widespread outside of its most prominent employment in the retail industry. Businesses use barcodes to make asset management (e.g. stocktaking) more efficient. Barcoding is used on tickets to manage admission to all sorts of events, including sport, music, theatre, etc. Biologists use barcoded tags to track animal movement. In medical contexts, not only are barcodes used to track medical equipment and medicines, but they are also used to follow patients and provides easy access to their associated personal and medical details, which helps reduce the possibility of misdosage. A more recent use of barcoding is by marketers, who promote brands, events, and products to smartphone users by means of QR codes.
Each of these industries has many different applications for the barcoding system and each application uses a different type of barcode. For example, retailers employ of UPC (Universal Product Code) or EAN (European Article Number) codes; books and serial publications (like newspapers, journals and magazines) use ISBN and ISSN numbers respectively and pharmaceutical products each get an NDC (National Drug Code) – and these are just five examples of the hundreds of different types of barcodes used to fulfil hundreds of different needs.
Normally barcodes act as “merely a unique number” with the ability to link an item, with all its product information, to that number. For example, with the music album that I distributed, each of the various outlets had to manually enter in the name of my album, the price and a brief description so that it would appear on their point of sale and stocktaking systems when scanned. That specific information wasn’t contained in the barcode number itself. With retail barcodes, however, some of the product information is contained within the barcode number. The first three digits, for instance, signify the country of origin of the product. Other sections of the barcode number can also mean different things, depending on the type of barcode.
Barcodes are a pervasive, quiet mechanism by which modern life is continually being expedited. They reduce the labour involved in so many aspects of our lives: shopping, business, entertainment, healthcare, security, agriculture,etc. So when you next watch your groceries get swiped or your ticket get scanned, consider how barcoding has made your activities more efficient
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