ShareThis Page
Education

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 aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me