Insight by Zebra

Tried-and-true bar code technology helps track data at the edge

For federal agencies planning to adopt barcode technology for intramural exchanges or in dealing with vendors and other external entities, John Wirthlin, the in...


The bar code has been around so long that you might take it for granted. But the idea behind it — a universal, machine-readable way for trading partners to exchange data — still has a lot of potential.

The bar code itself has expanded into multiple forms since the original row of vertical stripes, but the essential technology applies to them all.

For federal agencies planning to adopt bar code technology for intramural exchanges or in dealing with vendors and other external entities, Zebra Technologies’ John Wirthlin has a piece of foundational advice: Make sure that whatever coding technology being used follows GS1 standards.

Doing so helps ensure that modern logistics or transportation systems have a standards basis that’s recognized and used worldwide, explained Wirthlin, industry principal for manufacturing, transportation and logistics at Zebra Technologies, during a session at Federal News Network’s Industry Exchange: Data.

GS1 is an international standards-setting body for the bar code industry. It “sets standards for the data in the bar codes that you see, not only on the products that you purchase and trade, but also the data formats of exchanging information,” he said. That’s critical for tapping into data that can be used to perform analyses to spot trends in an agency’s logistics programs and for identifying ways to improve supply chain issues.

The evolution of logistics data

Wirthlin recalled his early career days as a medical logistician for the Air Force. Trading of goods occurred both among installations and with commercial vendors. The data exchanges for the two domains had differing standards. That complicated communications and made it difficult to ascertain what inventories an installation had on hand.

Today, GS1-standard bar codes and their two-dimensional counterparts known as QR codes, which represent global trade identification numbers, form a reliable bridge between digital systems and physical items.

It’s not difficult for organizations to get into barcoding. Wirthlin says it begins by registering with GS1 and then supplying GS1 with a list of items to be identified, whether a handful or 50,000. Every variation of an item — by color, size or version, for instance — gets counted as a separate item. The organization receives a global trading identification number, or GTIN. For a fee, it receives a block of bar codes corresponding to the item descriptions.

The codes immediately have worldwide recognition in systems that scan or otherwise use the codes. GS1 and partner companies maintain the databases with the bar code information. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for agencies that manage fleets to use them for managing and tracking parts.

As another example, Wirthlin pointed to the adoption of a GS1 standard known as Electronic Product Code Information Services, or EPCIS, by the Food and Drug Administration under the Drug Supply Chain Security Act enacted back in 2013. By next year, regulated food and drug manufacturers and the agency must be able to track products at the individual package level, from manufacturing to delivery to consumers.

Using bar codes to add a layer of security

For greater security of products and the data associated with them, many organizations link a bar code to a serial number or a block of serial numbers, Wirthlin said. So while it might be possible for a counterfeiter to spoof a bar code, it would not have access to valid serial numbers.

Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is yet another data tracking technology associated with bar codes, e said. RFID embeds the bar code data in a chip coupled to an antenna. The resulting package is attached to an item for tracking. Operators use a radio device rather than an optical scanner to read items as they move off ships or through warehouses or factories.

Active RFID devices broadcast their information with onboard power. Passive devices reveal their information when scanned with an external radio frequency source.

RFID systems are among Zebra’s specialties, Wirthlin said. “We have a wide breadth of RFID Bluetooth and BLE [Bluetooth low-energy] active technology that we offer. And we offer that technology in all kinds of different configurations.”

To listen and watch other Industry Exchange: Data sessions, visit our event page.

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