While we may not realise it, the humble barcode is in fact one of the most seen and trusted symbols in the modern world. It’s thought that there are 6 billion barcode scans every day, with 1.8 billion of those coming from China alone. Look around your office now and you’ll find tens of barcodes, QR codes or data matrix codes. They have become ubiquitous with a product’s provenance, but as we begin to emerge from a Covid-ravaged world, they will also play an integral part in the provenance of people and the Covid-19 vaccination.
The motivation for the creation of the barcode was, as is usually the case, one born out of necessity. In April 1973 a small number of North American grocers joined together to develop the Uniform Product Code. It would be a standardised way to identify individual products helping both customers, retailers, and suppliers. And what was the first item ever scanned using a UPC? None other than a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruity. The governing body for bar codes, now named GS1, oversees the data behind the little black lines and are the abettors of the global trade item numbers (GTINs) – the global database of all the correlating product data. But it’s a barcode’s ability to tie together the physical world with the digital world that made it an early iteration of the Internet of Things, placing and connecting hardware into a virtual database, giving a digital tally to a physical process.
Fast forwarding over 40 years’ worth of progress, the ubiquitous 1D bar code has changed very little, however that’s not to say the technology hasn’t evolved and become even more advanced. GS1 standards are now used by more than two million companies doing business in 150 countries across 25 industries. However, over the last 15 years, there have been a number of iterations building on the simple 1D bar code, moving into the realms of a tool fit for our digitalised, connected and data-driven world.
Lee Wragg is Siemens’ Head of Barcode and Vision products and explains: “When people hear the word barcode they immediately think of the black and white lines used by 1D codes. That’s understandable as they’re on every product you see from birth, but few realise that the world of 2D codes is where the real potential for industrial and societal growth will lie.”
It would be fair to say that in 2021, the 2D code has been going through something of a renaissance, especially its most well recognised variant, the QR code. 2D codes can hold around 2,000 characters of information, versus around 25 for a 1D code. 2D barcodes can be used to mark very small items where a traditional barcode label will not fit – “In my time working with 2D codes, we’ve used them on turbofan blades for Rolls Royce engines and in industrial applications where heat and abrasion are at their harshest. The beauty of a 2D code is that it can be damaged by 20% and still give an operator the correct data,” said Lee. “The key is going to be increasing the amount of data that sits behind that small, innocuous black and white marker. If we go back to the original premise of the 1D codes used in the mid-70s, it was about transparency and speed. What is the product, how much does it cost and how many have we got? With the advent of 2D codes, we now have the ability to encode more and more information into a smaller space, pushing the boundaries of what a retailer, manufacturer or supplier could ascertain from a given product.
As life continues in the pandemic, 2D barcodes have become a big part of our lives. The British Government offers businesses the chance to create their own QR codes to allow customers to log their visit to a business as part of the track and trace programme. Life in the pandemic has also raised the issue of health passports. Etihad also announced in partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) it has launched a QR-powered travel pass for customers. Mohammad Al Bulooki, Chief Operating Officer, Etihad Aviation Group said: “Since 1 August 2020, we are the only airline requiring a pre-departure negative PCR test result for all passengers worldwide, and again on arrival in Abu Dhabi, giving our guests the added assurance of safety when they travel with us. A high priority for Etihad is for our guests to have an easy, secure and efficient way to identify and verify their information.”
At last month’s virtual G20 summit, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping called for a “global mechanism” that would use QR codes to issue ‘health certificates’ to revive international travel. It wouldn’t be in the realms of fantasy to imagine a world where a music gig, football match or wedding would require a scan of a small credit-card-sized QR code at the entrance, confirming the individual’s vaccination status.
But the idea that the 2D code is only now making an impact is wrong. Data matrix codes have been powering industry for decades and look to be even more important in a post-Covid world, as Lee explains: “I imagine that most people don’t know that when you buy a piece of steak from the butchers or perhaps some milk from the supermarket, the 2D code can trace that ‘product’ back to its origin, giving the supplier the name of the farm, the location and the exact animal the product came from. It’s this ability to confirm the origins of items that makes the 2D so powerful in industry. If you pair a data matrix code with radio frequency identification (RFID) you then have the ability to place an item in your factory in real time; high value items in particular are of special significance to know exactly where they are in an operation.”
From Lee’s vast experience and knowledge in the field, there is one example that truly displays the code’s ability to transform the everyday. Lee said: “In clinical settings, the use of data matrix codes is essential. From the moment a patient walks into a hospital for a given period of time, the chances are that they’ll be given a wristband with a 2D code on it. This allows doctors and nurses to align exact medication with that individual, creating a permanent record and removing the potential for accidental drug administration.”
Lee remembers a project that focused on baby milk in neonatal wards. Unfortunately, misidentification can lead to new mums feeding the wrong baby or their expressed milk going to another baby, leading to a higher risk of infectious disease being transmitted.
“For a very long time, breast milk was logged and managed manually with hand-written lists and labels. While other standards for blood and other fluids advanced, breast milk lagged behind. What we saw in the wards were misfeeds in neonatal units. The baby’s mum would write her name, or the baby's name, on the bottle and the time or date she expressed the milk. When the nurse came to feed the baby, she took the milk out of the fridge and fed the baby, but at the same time made loads of notes. The errors arose in terms of illegible writing, poorly catalogued milk and other human-derived errors.
“What we introduced was a system of data matrix codes that the nurses could print – one for mum and then ones for the bottles of expressed milk. Using Siemens scanners, the whole process eradicated misfeeds and also gave them a complete breakdown of feeding times and schedules. It made life safer for new mums and their new arrivals.”
Over the last 40 years, barcodes have proved their absolute relevance in countless scenarios, from engineering, manufacturing, and medical scenarios. Now in 2021, their relevance is greater than ever before giving people peace of mind that groups are safe and vaccinated when encountering others. Our need for transparency, accountability and provenance of people, products and processes will never change. Right at the heart of that need lies the bar code, and it’s thanks to experts like Lee that the most relevant of application of the technology is found and exploited, billions of times a day.