How the Barcode Makes Real-Time Package Tracking Possible

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Do me a favor: Go find a package you recently received.

Did you find one? Great, now look at the label. Do you see that mass of blocks and black? You should recognize that from other purchases you made in-store: It’s just a regular barcode, or possibly a quick response (QR) code, the same as you would find on a pack of gum or box of copy paper.

Did you ever track that package, impatient to see when it would arrive? Thank that barcode: It made it possible for you to stay in-the-know when it came to your package’s progress. While it may seem like a great step from the original purpose of a barcode – a simple method to read product information – it’s not. You can instead think of it as an expansion to read this information at varying points across the supply chain.

1D and the Beginning

The modern barcode came as a means to make checkout scans at grocers’ registers easier and more efficient. The thing is: The first scan happened in 1974, 25 years after Joe Woodland and Bob Silver filed their patent on the design. The varied-width lines, a step away from the initial bullseye design, soon graced much more than packs of Juicy Fruit. Even your car is marked with a 1D traditional barcode: Look at your VIN plate.

These codes also helped give birth to the barcode scanner: What good does a code do if you can’t read it? These devices follow the encoded information, organized horizontally left to right, and translate it from code to database. This in turn prompts the register to add a specific amount to a tab and inventory to deduct a certain amount of product from the available supply. Your car can be added to the waiting list for an oil change with a quick scan of the dashboard. You can be triaged and logged in the hospital’s database before you see the inside of your room.

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2D and Evolution

2D barcodes, or quick response (QR) codes, reduce greater amounts of data to digitized blocks with fewer scanning issues. The biggest benefit offered by these codes is universal readability: No matter the orientation of the code, a QR scanner can successfully scan and translate it. 1D codes require a horizontal scanner orientation to read.

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These codes came about as a way for the Japanese auto industry to keep track of vehicles during the production process. As production progressed, the QR code would be scanned and logged, an early example of the real-time capability offered by these pixelated squares. Twenty years later, these barcodes and their 1D predecessors make it possible to track almost anything anywhere at any time with nothing more than a smartphone and an app.

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The Meaning in the Matrix

It doesn’t matter if you used a 1D or 2D barcode, you still accomplished the same goal: You successfully encoded some amount of data into a small space. The difference is, aside from appearance, is the amount of data. A typical 1D will contain three pieces of information: The issuing country, the product manufacturer, and the product. This information, read from left to right, is unrepeated throughout the barcode and becomes useless if damaged or misprinted. Picture a box of cereal damaged when a stocker sliced through the packaging tape: The damaged lines could now be misread or misunderstood by the scanner.
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2D codes position their information in two ways: Vertically and horizontally. The dual positioning allows the code to be read even if damaged. The character capacity of these codes is exponentially greater than that of 1D codes: Code 128, a 1D, offers 128-character max; an alphanumeric 2D can fit more than 4,200 characters.

USPS and the IMB

The United States Postal Service keeps tabs on transitioning post through its 65­-bar Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb). Each scan of this code records the parcel’s movement: IMb, processing location, operations number, and processing date and time. This information is then forwarded to the mailing party, a notification of each step taken along the way.

The same goes for the reverse: Take a look at an included return envelope. Do you see the IMb? A sender can receive the same sort of reassurance you get from each scan update of a package you ordered. The sender receives notification updates, including estimated times of delivery. This information gives the sender an opportunity to plan on when a response might be expected from the receiver.

The benefits of these bits of information can be easily imagined: Reduced costs and enhanced client payment records; direct mail contact and success rates; multi-channel marketing synchronization; supply chain monitoring; reduce wasted transportation and delivery times; most importantly, build a better rapport with your clients as a timely sender.

The only question now should be which type of code would work best for your business?

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Marc Davidson

Marc Davidson

Marc Davidson is a Product Marketing Manager at Informatics specializing in Inventory Warehouse Management and Supply Chain product lines. He has 6+ years in the industry as a product marketing manager, sales executive and product trainer.