Universally recognized UPC barcode still a hit 30 years later

Thursday, July 1, 2004

It was met with more criticism than even Michael Moore could have mustered.

Union representatives said it would steal American jobs. Conspiracy theorists believed it was intrusively "Big Brother." Some Christians thought it hid the number 666, representing the Antichrist. Television talk-show host Phil Donohue claimed it was a corporate plot against consumers.

It survived all of that to mark its 30th year this month.

Happy birthday to the Universal Product Code.

The UPC, the most common version of the so-called bar code, wasn't as warmly embraced or as breathtaking as some emerging technologies, but its impact on retailing has been enormous. It saves $17 billion a year in inventory costs, by one estimate, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome for countless cashiers.

Other technologies, such as radio-frequency identification tags, may one day replace it, but the lowly UPC improved efficiency and supply-chain control almost invisibly. One of the few times it gained media notice at all was in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush marveled at it during a campaign visit to a grocers' convention in Florida. His reaction added to a perception that he was out of touch with the public, since many people were by then well acquainted with the technology.

The rectangle of stripes and numbers has even fused its way into pop culture: In the former Fox television series "Dark Angel," Jessica Alba starred as a genetically altered fighting machine with a bar code branded on the back of her neck.

Everything but humansHuman bar-coding is thus far the stuff of science fiction, but the United States government uses the symbol in Homeland Security efforts and airlines keep track of luggage with it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration several months ago required a version of the bar code to be put on medications to cut errors.

"I'm really proud of the fact that what was originally designed to help move people through the checkout counter now actually helps to save lives," said Michael Di Yeso, president of the Uniform Code Council, which regulates the UPC and has offices in New Jersey and Ohio.

The code came about after a group of grocers got together in Ohio in the late 1960s to look for a faster way to serve customers, track inventory and make better use of employees who were stamping prices on individual products.

After consulting with several Dayton-based technology companies, the group, which would later become the Uniform Code Council, settled on the bar code and set about creating standards for its use.

The bar code dates back to 1949. Two young college instructors, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, sought to develop a visible version of the Morse Code to automate the checkout line. Their symbol included lines of various widths that could be read by a primitive light scanner, but their concept was deemed impractical for business use.

As the technology improved, businesses picked it up individually. But the system sputtered for nearly another 20 years before grocers offered standards that could be applied industrywide. Woodland, still an IBM employee, helped put the finishing touches on the UPC bar code for the Uniform Code Council.

Silver never got to see the success; he died in 1962 at age 38. Woodland never got rich from it, although the first President Bush did award him the National Medal of Technology in 1992 at the same time as an emerging software developer named Bill Gates.

The process of the UPC hasn't varied much in 30 years. Products are assigned a bar code that's regulated by the council and recognized by laser light scanners. The singular code corresponds to data entered in a computer, such as the name of the manufacturer, the price, inventory information, dosage details and expiration dates.

In 1977, an international version of the code was created. It's now used in 23 industries -- from publishing to health care -- in 141 nations.

"It's kind of like the old show-business adage," said Jeff Oddo, a spokesman for the Uniform Code Council. "You spend 20 years to become an overnight sensation."

Many people were wary of it, said Sharon Buchanan, who 30 years ago was a 31-year-old grocery checker at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

Today, she's a legend in the town of 21,000 people about 25 miles north of Dayton: She was the first cashier to scan the UPC on June 26, 1974, on a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum.

But not everyone cheered its introduction. TV's Donahue railed against it as a ploy to confuse shoppers about the actual prices of products. But the symbol gained acceptance through familiarity. Today people barely notice it, or -- some at the council might say -- give it its due.

"Ninety-nine percent of the products are marked with our bar codes," Oddo said. "Also the containers that they were shipped in, the cases and the cartons. I really don't think there's anything that doesn't go on that's delivered to consumers through retail means that our bar codes don't touch." Newer uniform-code technology, called Reduced Space Symbology, makes it possible to bar code even minute items with more information.

The reduced-space code - smaller than a dime - is already being used on medication at the request of the FDA. An FDA ruling in February required that the coding be put on all new prescription medications within 60 days of approval and on all medications by April 2006. Hospital patients will also get a bar-coded bracelet that links to their medical history and recommended medications, which technicians can consult before administering drugs. The FDA estimates that the process could save billions of dollars in medical mistakes.

The non-profit Uniform Code Council is now trying to shepherd another fledgling point-of-sale technology called Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. It uses silicon chip tags that emit radio frequencies and readers that can detect such signals.

Like the UPC, the RFID technology has been around since roughly World War II, but only recently has it been adapted for commercial uses such as an automated tollway collection system used on the East Coast and ExxonMobil Corp.'s Speedpass that negates the use of a credit card for gasoline purchases.

Through a division known as EPCglobal - for Electronic Product Code - the council is working on regulating RFID technology as it did for the UPC a generation ago. The radio-frequency tags can cost from 30 cents to $50 apiece, making them impractical for use on everyday items. But a check-out system in South Africa is being tested that scans groceries and deducts the cost from an account as customers wheel their shopping carts through a tunnel - without having to remove an item.

"Our vision here is to get a single global standard and then get the tag prices down," said Di Yeso, whose code council is working with major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target as well as the U.S. Department of Defense to develop uniform standards.

"The most surprising thing from our perspective is how the UPC has completely exceeded all expectations," Di Yeso said. "I think at some point in time, we'll look back on EPC and say that it has exceeded our expectations as well, even more than the UPC."

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