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Robots at Pitt scan millions of barcodes to figure out why they fail

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, July 27, 2017, 9:18 a.m.

The next time the barcode on your box of cereal or bag of lettuce won't scan, it could be on its way to a lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

Pitt partners with GS1 , the international association responsible for regulating barcodes and setting barcode standards, to improve on the decades-old technology.

Two robots inside the bar code testing lab at the RFID Center of Excellence have scanned about 3.5 million barcodes across many different scanners to determine why barcodes fail and how they could be better. Pitt and GS1 have worked together since 2014.

A robot will pick up a barcode, move it over different scanners at a speed of about four feet per second, return it and move to the next one. A computer records whether the barcode scanned properly as the robot moved it around the scanners. Four feet per second is about the speed of an average cashier, said Kara Bocan, who worked in the barcode test lab while she pursued her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Pitt.

Some of the barcodes are rejects that wouldn't scan at stores. Others are new barcodes featuring new designs.

“There can be differences in the contrast of the barcode, the printing quality, whether there's blurring or whether the barcode has been damaged over the course of its lifetime, those are all things we can test in a controlled environment here in the lab,” Bocan said. “We analyze that data, so we can inform new decisions about barcode standards.”

The robots and machines can perform the same task repeatedly, for days and months, without complaining nearly as much as graduate students, joked Ervin Sejdic, a Pitt assistant professor and associate director of the center.

The first barcode was scanned 43 years ago when a pack of gum was purchased at a grocery store, according to GS1. Over the decades, the barcode has evolved from simple black lines of varying widths to complex QR codes and other images. Your smartphone can now be a barcode scanner and many companies depend of phones to do the bulk of their scanning.

The lab also has a machine that replicates a conveyor belt to test barcodes scanned at fast speeds. The circular conveyor belt can whip barcodes around and under a variety of scanners at 10 feet per second, about the top speed a company like FedEx or Amazon scans packages.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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