When one thinks of the phrase “barcode scanner,” the first thing that comes to mind is usually the check-out counter at the supermarket. And that’s a fine example of the usefulness of barcodes and the machines that read them: Without them, buying groceries would take ages, and supermarkets would often run out of needed items thanks to disorganized inventory control. But barcode scanners are becoming staples of more industries and organizations every day — in ways you might not even have considered.
Barcodes are a relatively humble technology: A series of lines and spaces, representing a numerical code (or, in the case of newer 2D barcodes, squares comprised of dots that hold even more information about a product), which corresponds to a product in a database. They’ve been in common use since the 1970s, which is not something one can say about many other technological advances since that era. And though traditional, 1D barcodes are likely on the way out in the favor of either 2D codes or Digimarc barcodes (where the UPC/EAN is imperceptibly overlaid over the surface of the entire product), use of the basic technology is more prominent than ever.
Here are six industries where barcodes have altered the way people do business, communicate and organize their inventory and fixed assets.
Of course big-box retailers use barcodes – you see them on virtually every product you buy. But the ways in which barcodes have changed the scale on which these businesses can work have flown under the radar.
For example, barcodes fundamentally altered the trajectory of Wal-Mart, which is now a behemoth of sales on a global scale. They helped Wal-Mart transform its supply chain, communicating constantly with manufacturers and suppliers and pushing them to produce and deliver their goods faster and more cheaply than ever. From a PBS Frontline report:
Through this knowledge the company has managed to change its relationship with manufacturers and suppliers. It has, according to Lehman, “completely changed the communication process between Wal-Mart and its manufacturers … It really took it from sort of an archaic or old-build way of just maybe communicating with a vendor every 52 weeks out of the year to communicating every day, every hour, every minute…” Wal-Mart “knows what is being sold … [and] what prices are popular, so they are able to say, ‘We want to sell this at a certain price.”
Barcodes have also allowed big retailers to innovate and find the most creative and effective solutions for inventory management. Amazon, which recently overtook Wal-Mart as the biggest name in retailing, uses a “chaotic storage” method of organizing products — throwing incoming products on any available shelf space, but using barcodes to track exactly where that those products are now located and allowing their system to later design the best route through the warehouse to find them again.
Etsy stores and other online home businesses
On the other end of the spectrum, Etsy shop owners and other home businesses have markedly smaller needs than those of their big-box counterparts, but barcodes can still play a vital role. Barcode labels don’t just come in industrial size and strength — a desktop barcode printer can create smaller labels that help craft producers keep track of their latest creations, and ensure that everything is headed to where it belongs. Handling logistics as a one-person business is tough enough, and satisfying customers is often as much about making sure their order arrives on time as anything else.
Barcodes have been of great use in the healthcare industry, where tracking inventory such as medications or surgical equipment is of vital importance and granting access or validation to patients and their families equally so.
One of the greatest benefits of using barcodes over a manual tracking system is the reduction in human error –which in the realm of pharmaceuticals can have devastating results. With a barcode printer that creates wristband barcodes, healthcare professionals can scan the barcode of a patient and ensure they are getting the proper treatment at the right time, as well as check to see if the medication they’re taking is both accurate and in stock for future dosings.
Keeping track of fixed assets in schools — such as laptops, tablets, laboratory equipment and even textbooks — is crucial for maintaining an accurate accounting, which is often one of the conditions schools need to meet in order to maintain grants. Again, the ramifications of failing to accurately track the location of school assets (especially as these assets become more valuable, such as iPads) are too great to leave up to manual hand counts. When it comes to educational compliance, the costs can add up.
Barcodes help individual schools as well as school districts keep assets safe from theft and mismanagement, and help teachers, administrators and even temporary employees avoid lengthy summer audits where each asset must be accounted for.
Government-operated industries such as law enforcement, the military and the fire department/emergency services already must account for a variety of tools and assets that are purchased with public money — it’s expected that recent controversies will spurn the use of even more applications that require tracking, such as body cameras and protective armor. Thus, a tracking system that can account for who checked-out a certain piece of equipment, when they did so and where they did so can be crucial in ensuring every officer, soldier, firefighter and other public worker has what they need to their jobs, when they need it.
A quality asset tracking system is also a boon to taxpayers, who will no longer have to shell out thousands of dollars to cover costly audit times or replacing expensive assets that go missing due to theft or misappropriation. When government organizations can run more effectively, everyone wins.
Professional sports and entertainment
Consider all the assets needed on a fall Sunday, when NFL teams take the field across the country. Everything from security to food to scoreboard and technical production needs to be covered, and one team that found their technological solutions to be lacking was the Arizona Cardinals. The team’s Scoreboard Production department wasn’t tracking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, sometimes leaving a shortfall during game situations. Labeling the assets with saved the team thousands of labor hours and ensured peace of mind on game day.
The subcategories in each of these industries is nearly endless: For example, barcodes have begun playing a role in consumer nutrition, helping shoppers understand the health value of any item with a barcode. Barcodes and the tools needed to read them are thus proliferating at an amazing rate.
In general, whenever there’s a lot of money at stake and that money is tied up in the use of individual moving parts that can go missing or break down at a moment’s notice, an asset management system — both for inventory and fixed assets — powered by barcodes goes a long way towards getting the most efficient use out of the investments made.
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