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Research Communications

How well does that bar code work? Engineers put data capture technologies to the test 

By Andrea Gibson

Bar codes, and increasingly radio frequency identification tags, appear on everything from supermarket apples and hospital patient bracelets to toll booth passes and international shipping containers. The ubiquitous black and white symbols and electronic devices have become industry standard for tracking inventory and streamlining product sales.

But how well do these codes and tags actually work? Since 1988, Ohio University’s Automatic Identification and Data Capture Lab, the nation’s first university-based test laboratory in the field, has been answering that question for industry.

 bar code lemon
Illustration by Christina Ullman

The lab, located in Stocker Center, features a variety of equipment that simulates high-speed scanning systems at warehouses, retail sales systems, radio frequency identification tag portals (positioned in doorways to automatically scan individuals or items that pass through the detectors), and other scenarios in which automatic identification and data capture is used. In addition to bar coding and radio frequency identification, the lab can test magnetic stripes, biometrics, smart cards, and voice data entry.

“Our strength and uniqueness is that we’re technology neutral,” says lab director Kevin Berisso, an associate professor of engineering technology and management.

The lab can test the robustness of various types of bar codes and related technologies on the market, as well as the hardware used to read them. Bar codes, for example, are increasingly embedded with more sophisticated information. Grocery stores can now include sell-by dates, which could alert consumers at checkout if an item is past due, Berisso explains. Retail bar codes also can be designed to feature lot numbers to help flag items included in a product recall. 

One of the hottest developments in automatic identification and data capture is the increased usage of the QR (“quick response”) code, a square, two-dimensional bar code originally designed to track vehicle parts in automotive manufacturing. It’s now frequently used to connect consumers of print materials— from newspaper ads and magazine articles to product marketing—to the web via smart phones.
 Kevin Berisso
Kevin Berisso (Photo by Mark Dawson)

Despite their rising popularity, there are no industry standards for the use of QR codes within the media and marketing fields, or in the mobile phone software programs designed to access them, Berisso says. Businesses that use QR codes now are embedding a company logo in the code that can reduce performance and erode the error correction, he says. It’s important to standardize the use of these codes to improve consumer expectations and experiences.

“We try to spend a lot of time educating end users about how to get information across in a better, easier way,” he says.

The lab works directly with GS1, a non-profit organization that administers the Uniform Product Code (UPC) and develops worldwide industry standards. Over the last two years, the lab has handled more than 40 million GS1 test scans to date, Berisso says.

Several corporations, including Alien Technology, DataLogic, Jamison Door Company, NCR, Zebra, Motorola Solutions, and Honeywell, have donated automatic information and data capture equipment or computer resources to the laboratory. Berisso and his team also build custom hardware and write software for testing.

The lab serves as a training ground for Ohio University undergraduate and graduate students, who have used the experience to successfully launch data collection and inventory control careers in the retail and software industry, Berisso says. In addition, the lab hosts an annual conference that attracts industry professionals from as far away as Chile, Croatia, and Indonesia for a week-long crash course on automatic identification and data capture.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.