The future of bar coding - they are getting smaller

February 2004 Asset Management, EAS, RFID, Healthcare (Industry)

While traditional linear bar codes have been around for the past 25 years, they have changed dramatically in appearance and functionality to provide better reliability and increased data capacity. And the bar code of the future, while incorporating a combination of traditional linear and composite symbols will not only contain more data and be more accurate than today’s versions – it will also be considerably smaller.

This is according to Barry Baetu, managing director of Johannesburg-based bar code and mobile solutions specialist, Harmonic Group.

He says that although the ubiquitous, cost-effective linear bar code is cheap to produce and is a widely accepted technology that complies with international standards, it does present a number of limitations, particularly as far as size is concerned.

"The linear bar code depends on line of sight readers, contains very limited product information, and is easily affected by dirt or grease. However, the high population of readers and scanners counts in its favour," he says.

"Conversely, newer stacked and two-dimensional bar codes offer higher data capacity, built-in resilience and a range of data options. While they may not be as cost-effective to produce as linear bar codes, they can be used in varied applications. For example, they require only a small surface area, making them ideal for use in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors.

"The negatives are that they rely on line of sight reading by special, often expensive, scanner hardware, and are restricted by a lack of standards," he adds.

Baetu says that another option that is likely to grow in popularity is RFID bar codes - or transponder bar codes. These provide a host of features, including a unique radio frequency for each bar code, and the ability to be read from either direct contact or from metres away.

"This means that no line of sight reader is required, each tag is unique and can be written back or read, and the technology is less reliant on human intervention. However, as with any new offering, there are a number of negatives: the tags are expensive, there is no standard frequency - the tags only work in a closed loop - and the systems are currently proprietary. Furthermore, new proprietary readers are needed to read the tags and there are a number of privacy issues," he says.

With this in mind, Baetu believes that the next generation of bar codes will incorporate a combination of linear and composite symbols rather than a dedicated preference for one or other symbology.

"The combination will be determined by the application and industry sector, such as FMCG, healthcare and pharmaceutical, retail, publishing, government, hardware and office products, industrial and commercial, and distribution and transportation.

"So, for example, we will find two-dimensional composite component symbols being used in combination with existing linear symbols and new linear reduced space symbols (RSS). The viability of this was illustrated in an implementation of RSS in the European healthcare sector.

"This proved that it is possible to code very small healthcare items with new EAN (European article numbering) symbols on labels of only 10 mm in size. They were perfect for the tiny surface areas of medicine vials and test tubes - yet contained all the critical information needed to identify the items.

"In fact, based on the success of this and other RSS implementations, it is likely that composite component symbols will be an accepted standard by 2005," Baetu concludes.

For more information contact Barry Baetu, Harmonic Group, 011 887 3333.

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