Data codes driving business

There are big changes going on in the world of data handling, and it behooves all of us, as businesses and individuals, to become informed about what it going on. In short, the ubiquitous “one-dimensional” bar code is giving way to “two-dimensional bar codes,” also known as “QR codes” (for Quick Response) and even to “RFIDs,” namely, Radio Frequency Identifiers. We are not speculating that things might change. Businesses and other entities such as libraries are already well along in the transition.

Let’s be clear that “data” can mean many things in plastics processing, and we are not dealing here primarily with machine parameters such as times, temperatures, pressures, speeds, viscosities, and the like, although data codes can be used to track any kind of paper documentation produced from that data.

One function of data codes is essentially tracking inventory, for example by tracking machine or mold components or raw materials inbound, and finished pieces or products headed outbound. Data codes also provide one tool in systems that need to organize huge amounts of customer data in industrial or retail settings, or patient data in medical settings, for example.

There is some remarkable lore in the background of how data codes were developed. One version has a Norman Woodland pondering International Morse Code while at the beach in the late 1940s, and etching in the sand a rotated, extended version of the dots and dashes of the written code, making narrow lines and wide lines out of them. Voilà! A bar code! This was an intriguing adaptation, and it was a long way from there to a highly functional bar code, but, but it was an ingenious start.

Morse code, named for Samuel F.B. Morse, who shares credit for inventing it, was once essential in aviation and military applications, but has largely fallen into disuse, except for hobbyists such as amateur (“ham”) radio operators. I pursued that hobby in my teenage years, and learned Morse code then. It’s sort of like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you’ve got it, it’s almost impossible to forget. I tested at 13 words per minute at one time, but would probably have to tune up to get up to that speed again.

But back to the present. One of the recent data code developments is the “QR”, effectively a two-dimensional square bar code that looks a little like a cross between a bar code and a Rorschach blot. As an aside, a Rorschach blot is a symmetrical blot of ink that was designed by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, to aid in diagnosing patients. The fundamental characteristic of these blots is that they are abstract, and represent nothing specific. The meaning is only in the eyes of the beholder. The QR code, by contrast, can handle a lot of specific data. It. is usually square in shape, and the data from it resides in two dimensions. Scanners read the square in two dimensions.

These codes give all plastics related businesses a way to reach out and let prospects request information electronically by scanning the QR box, frequently with a scanner contained in personal, portable digital communication devices such as the Apple iPhone. It is becoming increasingly common to see QR boxes along with information in magazines or other printed material as well as in digital files. The codes can have embedded a hyperlink to a web page and allow a prospect to request more information immediately.

Conventional bar codes contain real data, but are essentially one-dimensional. The “bars” contain data by being of various widths and spacing, and that is all the bar-code scanner looks for as it scans from left to right. My local hardware store, as an example in the retail sector, has become dependent on bar codes. When I go in to have duplicate house keys made, the keys are put inside a little envelope to take to the cashier. The key-cutting person puts on the outside of the little envelope an instantly generated bar code for the cashier to read with a scanner. No more cryptic notes, e.g. “3 KW121 keys.”

The two-dimensional QR system can go traditional bar codes one better, and is very useful for customer interaction. They can operate at many levels. At one coffee shop that I frequent a QR is used to have customers express their preference for one or another of two competing custom blends of coffee. This may be sort of a gimmick, but it is collecting data all the same.

The RFID system is also making inroads. The Denver Public Library system, for example, recently updated its inventory-tracking program for more than two million (yes, 2,000,000+) items to an RFID system. No CD, CD-ROM, book, or anything else in the standard circulating collection goes out, comes into, or even just sits in the library without being trackable, based on an RFID label fixed in the document. (Some high-value specialty collections, such as Western History, are treated differently.) The RFID technology would certainly have potential for machinery or mold builders who deal with many small parts to build complex machinery. The system uses scanners that read code strips directly through a pile of paper, such as pages of a book. The system provides a level of security against book theft as well as inventory functions.

Just for old times’ sake, does anyone remember the RSN system? Reader Service Numbers, a primitive form of data code, once ruled the business-to-business (B2B) publishing world. Both advertising and editorial (anything not advertising) items were frequently accompanied with an RSN. An RSN Card accompanied the magazine, and readers were invited to circle the number that represented their interests and return the card, which was pre-addressed to a RSN Service Center.

The responses were compiled and forwarded to the appropriate supplier. The publisher would subsequently try to convince the supplier to advertise in the magazine, based on RSN response. The RSN system diminished in importance and eventually disappeared altogether, perhaps largely because it took weeks or months between inquiring about something and receiving the information that was requested. The RSN had a good run, but the instantaneous-response capability of the Internet eventually demolished the RSN system. I haven’t seen an RSN for years. Meanwhile, QRs are everywhere.

Merle R. Snyder
--February 2012

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The Plastics Technology Drying, Conveying and Extrsion Knowledge Centers are sponsored by Novatec, whose personnel check each section for technical accuracy. This article is not a statement of Novatec policy. 

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