Universal Product Code

     Last year on a camping trip Lisa Warden and her daughter Jessica stopped for
groceries in an extremely small town. While shopping, Jessica kept hearing an
unfamiliar noise and asked what it was, but Lisa was not sure what she was
talking about. Because Lisa remembers the cash register age she did not realize

Jessica had never heard one actually working in a store. When they were in the
check out line Jessica pointed at the old cash register and told her mom that is
the noise she has been hearing. Lisa laughed and tried to explain that at one
time all stores had cash registers like this one. Jessica was born in the
computer age and could not comprehend the thought of cashiers and baggers doing
so much work. Before bar codes, cashiers had to look at each price tag and
manually key enter the dollar amount. This made the consumer have to wait in
long check out lines, which did not make for a pleasant experience. Because the
cashier was busy entering each itemís price, he or she did not have time to
bag the merchandise. The retailer had to hire another person to put the products
into bags, and this increased the prices. Ed Leibowitz reported that
supermarketís net margins were one percent in the more profitable times, but
down six percent by 1970 (130). Their inventory control did not help their net
margins because of the considerable time it took and their employee wages they
paid. Consumers, retailers, and producers have benefited with the invention of
the bar code by saving time and money. The bar code is a series of thirteen
numbers written in a coded form of black and white lines that a scanner can
read. The definition according to The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia is, The
printed code used for recognition by a bar code reader (scanner). Traditional
one-dimensional bar codes use the barís width as the code, but encode just an

ID or account number. Two-dimensional bar codes, such as PDF417 from Symbol

Technology, are read horizontally and vertically. PDF417 holds 1,800 characters
in an area the size of a postage stamp (Freedman 62). The Universal Product Code
(UPC) is thirteen numbers divided into three sections: the first five digits are
the manufacturerís code, the next seven digits are the productís code, and
the last digit is a check digit (Hartston). The bar code currently being used is
one-dimensional, but the appetite for including more and more detail in bar code
messages seems to have no limit. An itemís label has limited space, and
because of this, stacked bar codes, better known as two-dimensional bar codes
have been developed. Explained in Using Bar Code--Why itís Taking Over, A
symbology called Code 49, the first stacked bar code to receive widespread
interest, was introduced by Intermec Corporation in 1987. The following year

Laserlight Systems, Inc. introduced Code 16K as an entry in the symbology
category. Since then, several additional stacked symbologies have been
introduced. The stacked symbology of Code 16K is designed to contain from 2 to

16 rows of bars. Each row has a row designator (in UPC symbology) on each end of
the row, and five message characters between them in Code 128 format. This gives

Code 16K a message capacity of 77 full ASCII characters, or 154 numeric
characters, within a very small label (Collins 38). Two-dimensional bar codes
are not yet in the mainstream of bar code technology. They do represent the
direction in which the technology is headed. Railroad cars used bar codes in the

1960ís to track each car to provide accounting reports for freight car rental.

Bar codes were first patented in 1949, but it was retail that bar coding made
its mark (Gowrie). Retail bar coding first appeared on a pack of gum at a Marsh

Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, on June 26, 1974 (Glanz 9). "Bar code scanning is
probably the single most revolutionary thing that has happened in retail sales
in 50 years," says George Goldberg, founder and former publisher of SCAN, an
industry newsletter (qtd. in Gowrie). Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard

"Bob" Silver, mechanical engineering instructors at Philadelphiaís Drexel

Institute of Technology, overheard a supermarket executive trying to sell the

Drexel dean on a research project to automate the checkout counter. The dean
declined, but Woodland and Silver began pursuing the research on their own.

Woodland left Drexel but could not stop thinking about the concept. He first
thought of a code, and the only code he knew was Morse. Sitting on Miami Beach
thinking of dots and dashes, he reached into the sand and drug his hand. He
looked at the different size lines each finger made, and the bar code image hit
him. Silver designed an electronic decoder for the scanning device Woodland
created. Woodland then took a job at IBM, hoping he could interest the company
in developing his invention (Leibowitz 130). Without the concept of a bar code,
the busy world of retail would be a slower place. It is unbelievable how his
persistence would effect the world. This is how the bar code and scanner work
according to Chuck Haga, The heart of the scanner is a laser about the size of a
pencil eraser. It shoots a beam of light that passes through a lens and strikes
a mirror mounted on a spinner working at 6,000 - 8,000 revolutions per minute.

The laser beam is swept in a circle and bounced off more mirrors, producing more
than 2,000 scan lines a second, each zapping the label at a different angle. As
the laser beam hits the bar code, it sees white spaces and black bars. The beam
bounces back, and the scanner collects, measures and decodes the patterns of
reflected light. It comes up with a series of numbers, a sort of product license
plate, which shoots into the storeís database to find the price. At the same
time, the transaction may adjust the storeís inventory records and even
trigger replacement orders--all in less time than it takes to ask "paper or
plastic?" (1A). Most users of bar codes rely on both speed and accuracy to
improve their operations. In the beginning consumers were leery of the accuracy
of the bar code; Carol Tucker Foreman, therefore, started an anti-bar-code
crusade. She was on Phil Donahueís talk show and asked his viewers to send
money to the Consumer Federation, and they would use the money to stop the use
of bar codes, revealed in Smithsonian (Leibowitz 130). The crusade did not like
the idea of their products lacking a price tag and feared the stores would over
charge them. Emphasized in Discount Store News, price checks at 1,033 stores in
thirty-six states found that, on average, twenty-nine out of every thirty items
tested scanned prices accurately, proving crusadersí fears were unfounded
(Rankin 14). In the retail business, the bar code has shortened the check out
lines, making the consumerís shopping trip a happier adventure. The cashier is
more cheerful with the customer because he or she does not have to concentrate
on the price of each item. The customerís most bought items will always be on
the shelves because of the efficiency of the bar code updating the daily
inventory. "Every night the exact number of grocery items sold that day is
replaced by the distribution center, and the storeís shelves can be
replenished the next morning" (Collins 13). Because this process is so exact,
marketing products has improved, satisfying the customer and increasing the
merchant's profits. Used in all types of businesses the bar code is a very
helpful tool. United Parcel Service started using them to help keep track of
their customerís air packages. When a person or a company sends a package they
want to know where that package is at all times, especially if they send it with
a more expensive service such as next day air or second day air. To satisfy
their customer's needs, United Parcel Service decided in 1989 to start using a
bar code on their next day and second day air labels. At first the scanned
information was only available to United Parcel Service employees, but the
customer could call and find where their package was. Two years later United

Parcel Service created their own web site. If a customer needed to know where
their package was all they needed to do was to log on to the web site and key in
the tracking number from their packageís label. Larry Pontinus offered, that
if United Parcel Service would have known the importance of the bar code they
would have demanded their customers use them on every package shipped. This is
were the company would like to be by September 1, 2000, and have three
facilities already testing "smart packages". The facilities use less man
power and more technology to distribute a package from point A to point B. A
smart package is a package that has a bar code on its label and the United

Parcel Service hubís scanners are able to read them and then sort the package
accordingly, claimed Hub 2000 PSG Manager, Mark Casseday (Video). If the
received package does not have a bar coded label, there are employees who enter
the labelís information into a computer and the computer creates a bar code
label. This new label is machine and human readable. After the label is affixed
to the package it is reentered into the system. After reading the packageís
label, the system uses an arm on the conveyor belt to push the package to the
conveyor belt that goes to the truck for delivery, disclosed Operations Planning

Manager, Greg Campbell (Video). The system reads the smart label to fasten a
presort label. This presort label tells the employee where to load the package
onto the truck. The system takes all the information into account: the weight,
the destination and the truckís route before issuing it a spot on the truck.

Each spot on the truck has a color and a number. If it is a heavy package it has
to be on the floor of the truck. If it is going to a place that is one of the
driverís first stops then it has to be in the back of the truck. Each label
has a color and a number as well as the truck and the person loading the truck
knows immediately where the package belongs, assured Package Project Manager, Al

Chavez (Video). The presort labels will help tremendously with vacation
coverage. United Parcel Service will not have to have highly trained employees
for the vacation replacement, theorized Package Project Manager, John Olsen
(Video). The money spent to utilize this technology is nothing compared to the
money it will eventually save. Another service industry using the bar code is
the health care industry. Joseph Shapiro reports that a new survey from the

Institute of Medicine estimates that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans a year die from
preventable mistakes made in hospitals by physicians, pharmacists, and other
health care professionals. Hospital errors rank as the nationís eighth most
frequent killer. More than 7,000 Americans die because of drug mix-ups (60).

These mistakes obviously need correcting. Bar coding is helping hospitals and
doctors as explained in U.S. News and World Report, The VA hospitals are making
clever use of bar-coding technology to avoid medication bungles. Prescriptions
are typed into computers, not handwritten. And bar-coded labels, attached to a
patientís wrist and a nurseís charts, are scanned each time a patient gets a
pill, to check against mistakes. The idea came from a nurse at the Topeka VA
hospital who, returning a rental car one day, noticed the wireless scanner used
to check in her car. The system will be in place in every VA hospital by June
(Shapiro 60). Julekha Dash estimates that using handheld devices and bar code
scanning technology could reduce errors in administering medication by as much
as 85 percent (1). Robot-RX is a centralized system that automatically dispenses
bar coded medications to drawers designated for each patient. In the five years
of using Robot-RX no drug delivery errors have occurred. Unfortunately, drug
manufacturers have several bar code formats, which makes it hard to implement
handheld readers that track which care giver gave what drug (Dash 1). Explained
in Computerworld, Tom Smith, administrative director for pharmacy and oncology
at Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, N.C., said he hopes drug manufacturers
will soon adopt a standard bar code on their drug label. "I think with the
national initiative, the [Food and Drug Administration] is going to mandate that
[all] drugs will have to conform to a universal bar code," Smith said.

"Until that happens, [drug manufacturers] wonít do it." (qtd. in Dash 1)

Let us all hope the Food and Drug Administration does mandate this and soon. As
mentioned before, there were zero errors with the installation of bar coded
label on medication. The universal bar coding of medical products and the use of
scanners to analyze reams of data is inevitable. Announced in Journal of Health

Care Finance, As managed care drives providers to reduce inventories, better
understand utilization rates, and reduce costs, it will generate new databases
out of necessity. One of these databases, and the focus of this article, will be
generated from electronic scanners that will scan or read bar code from the
myriad of packaged products any provider will utilize (e.g., gauze pads,
aspirins, foam pads, disposables of all kinds, etc.). This new database will not
be developed to improve clinical pathways, neural networks, or care paths,
although these can hopefully be integrated at a later date. The
provider-generated database, as in the case of supermarket scanner data, will
revolutionize inventory management, allow precise utilization to be measured,
and allow health care and medical products manufacturers to know their market
shares and the effectiveness of promotions (Fox 44). The installation of this
database should help reduce a patientís hospital bill, because there will be
an accurate inventory control and no excess medical products. There is a
software program that works with a bar code scanner to read aloud descriptions
of tens of thousands of items for blind people. Bragged in The Associated Press,

SCANACAN was developed by a Manchester, S.D., couple whose Ferguson Enterprises
develops products to assist the blind. To use the program, a scanner reads the
bar code and a synthesized voice provides information the user requests--a
simple description of the product or, in the case of food, how to prepare it.

The program allows users to create more databases and will hold up to 2 billion
bar codes, though that number may be limited by the memory available on the
computer. SCANACAN also can benefit newly blind people who are not fluent in

Braille or people whose fingers have lost the sensitivity needed to read

Braille. For now, customers must manually enter descriptions of products whose
codes are not already in the program. But the Fergusons are seeking databases
from more manufacturers to expand the softwareís usefulness (Barrett 1D). This
bar code program has made a world of difference in the blindís accessibility.

It can be used for their clothes by sewing on a bar code and entering a
description, including its color. Then when it is time to get dressed they will
not mix plaids and paisleys. It also helps keep track of their food inventory.

Blind people tell the computer there is one less of a particular item after they
use it all. Then when it is time to make a grocery list they do not have to
remember what they used throughout the week. No longer needed are the manual
cash registers of yesteryear. Bar codes have revolutionized businesses with
better inventory control and helping satisfy their customers needs. Twenty-five
years of using bar codes in the retail industry has only improved with age. It
has moved on to bigger and better objectives, along with staying where it
originated. It is hard to believe such a small thing--in size--could change the
world in such immense ways.


Works Cited Barrett, Steven. Software Helps the Blind Keep Tabs. The Associated

Press 16 Dec. 1999, D1. Collins, David Jarrett and Nancy Nasuti Whipple. Using

Bar Code--Why itís Taking Over. Duxbury, MA: Data Capture Institute, 1990.

Dash, Julekha. It Can Reduce Medical Errors. Computerworld 33.51 (1999): 1. Fox,

Kenneth. Can a Hospital Be Like a Supermarket? Better Data Will Provide Cost

Controls, Efficiencies, and Income Streams. Journal of Health Care Finance 23
(1997): 44-45 Freedman, Alan. The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. New York:

AMACOM, 1999. Glanz, William. Black, White and Silver; Museum marks 25 Years of

UPC. The Washington Times 30 Sept 1999, B9. Gowrie, David. Making its Mark in

Bar Coding. The Record 8 Dec. 1999, all ed., B3. Haga, Chuck. From Orwellian to

Ubiquitous: Happy Birthday, Dear Bar Codes. Minneapolis Star Tribune 22 June

1999: 1A Hartston, William. Good Questions: Cracking the Solution to the

Supermarket. Independent 24 Jan. 1994, sec. misc: 30. Leibowitz, Ed. Bar Codes:

Reading between the Lines. Smithsonian 29.11 (1999): 130-146. Pontinus, Larry.

Personal interview. 1 June 2000. Putting it to the Test--Creating Smart

Packages. Dir. Jack Blaisdell. Narr. Russ Easley. Videocassette. United Parcel

Service, 2000. Rankin, Ken. Sometimes the Customer isnít Right. Discount Store

News 38.3 (1999): 14. Shapiro, Joseph P. Doctoring a Sickly System. U.S. News
& World Report 13 Dec. 1999: 60