Cranberry trade group turns 40 with ubiquitous bar code
By Kim Leonard
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Betsy Ann Chocolates started putting bar codes on packages five years ago as it moved from running its own candy stores to selling mostly through other retailers.
Macy's, Sam's Club and regional supermarket chains required the West View company to print a striped code on every chocolate bar and box of candies and nuts, President Jim Paras said.
The technology cost $5,000 to set up, plus about $250 in annual fees, but “without bar codes, we'd be very limited where we could sell,” Paras said.
Those inconspicuous racks of lines and numbers that appear on the backs or bottoms of packages worldwide turn 40 in 2013 — as does the Cranberry-based trade group known as the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility.
AIM, with about 700 companies and other members worldwide, works to establish standards for bar codes and other forms of automatic identification, and teaches businesses how to use them.
“Our job as the industry association is to stay ahead of what's going on in the market, and be the conduit for good, proper use” of ID codes, said Chuck Evanhoe, AIM's chairman.
The use of bar codes and their various incarnations have skyrocketed. They are critical to businesses. Retailers use them to track inventory; shipping companies use them to make sure packages get to the correct destination; and health care companies are expanding the use of codes — on such things as equipment and artificial implants — to meet federal mandates.
These identifiers also have become part of everyday life and have evolved with technology.
They help motorists zip through toll booths without stopping to pay with cash, for example, or consumers to find out the price of a pair of jeans in a department store or buy a cup of coffee by waving a smartphone near a reader.
Those commonly seen square codes that can be read with smartphones “started out as a manufacturers' code and ended up as a consumer product,” said Evanhoe, president of Evanhoe & Associates Inc., a Dayton, Ohio, ID code technology service company.
A national grocery organization that included H.J. Heinz Co., Del Monte, Procter & Gamble Co. and General Mills Inc. adopted the black-and-white Universal Product Code in 1973, forming the first push for a standard way to distinguish crates of canned peas from oatmeal. The first UPC-coded item scanned was a pack of chewing gum on June 26, 1973, in Troy, Ohio.
“The thing that makes bar codes so important today is the number of choices we have, dozens of varieties in everything from orange juice to soup and snow tires,” said Mitchell Weiss, chief operating officer at Seegrid Corp. of Robinson, which builds bar code scanner-equipped robotic trucks that move goods through warehouses and factories.
“The whole distribution chain is incredibly complex. We can go online and order anything and get it in two days” at little cost, he said. With ID codes, “we know where it is, and how to get it and track it and get it where it's going.”
Four Seegrid robots at grocery chain Giant Eagle Inc.'s distribution center in Crafton read product codes, then roll along preset routes to handle about 30 percent of the freight. Automaker Daimler and sporting goods retailer Cabela's also use Seegrid trucks.
FedEx Ground sorts packages instantly in its facilities with six-sided scanners that read bar coded labels as packages move 540 feet a minute along conveyor belts.
Sales of bar code hardware such as scanners and printers in the United States should grow by 7.2 percent a year to $1.38 billion, according to VDC Research Group, a technology market research firm in Natick, Mass.
Federal code rules for products ranging from drugs to bags of blood also are being expanded, said Clive Hohberger, an AIM board member and consultant for bar code and radio-frequency identification technologies company Zebra Technologies Corp. of Lincolnshire, Ill.
UPMC uses bar codes to ensure patients get the right medications, said James Huff, a supply chain process consultant with the health system. And workers use code scanners to send orders from hospital supply rooms to a Cranberry warehouse for overnight delivery.
Bar code use in hospitals and doctors offices has been limited because medical product suppliers never had a common standard, said David Hargraves, UPMC's vice president for clinical supply. A code on a box might refer to a lot number or an expiration date, for example.
The Food and Drug Administration will require unique device identification on every implantable item, such as a pacemaker or an artificial hip, and other critical devices in about two years to better ensure faulty products are replaced.
Hospitals now check lot numbers and codes when there's a problem, just like grocers do for a food recall, Hargraves said, but the UDI system will be much more precise.
While manufacturers will apply the codes, “we must develop a registry or database that stores all the information on the patient and the device that was used,” Hargraves said.
Surgeons implant more than 10,000 devices in UPMC facilities each year.
In addition to catching problem items, Hohberger said, regulators “want to track products and detect things that leave the supply chain and end up on the black market.” Wider use of codes in medicine is “going to be absolutely huge, when you consider pharmaceuticals is a $13 billion market in the U.S.”
Despite its global reach, AIM's presence in Cranberry is small with a few staffers and two consultants. The organization was formed as part of the Material Handling Institute supply chain group, which contracted with a Fox Chapel firm for staffing. AIM became a separate entity around 1986 and remained in the region after MHI moved to Charlotte.
Betsy Ann Chocolates uses a different bar code for every size of every product it sells.
Paras has used all 100 codes he purchased initially, and “I'll need to up that to the next level for 1,000 numbers,” he said.
Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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