The industrial revolution brought with it a number of first world issues. Once goods were created and shipped in large numbers the issue of accounting for them soon became apparent.
The problem of quickly identifying large numbers of items with variable units of measure seemed one that could only be solved through some level of automation.
Shining A Light On The Bar Code Problem
The food industry was the first to move towards a solution. The perishability of their products being the driving force here. In 1932 Wallace Flint came up with a system that used ultraviolet light and reflective ink to mark goods and developed a rudimentary scanner that used technologies borrowed from the movie industry and applied that to Morse code.
The rail industry was the next to move towards automated stock recognition. This brought new issues into play. Different companies would share the same trucks and freight containers, the system needed to be adopted more widely to be of any use. It took the railway owners and early adopters to cajole others into buying in. Cost was of course an issue and it was estimated that, on the USD and UK railways alone the cost of implementing this early stock recognition would run to hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum. No small amount in the 1930’s
Business To Customer
While this early solution worked in established trade networks and for business to business use, it was not feasible to roll out to smaller suppliers and implement on a B2C basis. Also, the amount of data that could be held in a readable format by these early technologies was very low. The most common for5mat used a 4 or 6 digit code to identify a unique item, then a simple box quantity appended. There was no room for full description of the product or any other useful data such as supplier name, destination, UOM or expiry dates. Even the description needed to be looked up. It might also take up to 4 seconds to read a box. A great start but not ideal.
In the 70’s a study suggested that it would cost UK industry around £80 million to implement bar codes universally. However this cost would be recuperated within the first two years
Supply Chain Top Down Implementation
In the end, as with many innovations in supply chain control, it was a top down implementation that was required. Large manufacturers, where the issue of large inventory control was most acute, made is a contract requirement that their suppliers implement the technology. This in turn filtered through to customer sales soon after when the benefits of real time inventory management became apparent.
QR And Beyond
Today the best QR codes are capable of holding several kilobytes of information. Enough for full product descriptions safety and perishability details and even branding , Running a large warehouse environment without digital reader technology is almost unheard of.