The Bar Code Inventor Gave Rise to Modern Supply Chain Management

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Look around. Right now, you can probably put your hands on half a dozen items bearing a bar code. Since the early 1970s, the black-and-white rectangle has become a ubiquitous part of modern life, enabling everything from faster supermarket checkouts to sophisticated transportation management and warehouse management solutions that enable unprecedented visibility in supply chain management.

When the little-recognized inventor of the bar code, N. Joseph Woodland, died recently, The New York Times called his simple-but-sophisticated idea “staggeringly prevalent.”

“Today, bar codes sort the world,” The Times wrote, “encapsulating the particulars of modern material culture — the wide and the narrow of things — in banded black and white.”

We’d argue that the always-understated Times did not go nearly far enough. The bar code and modern descendants like RFID tagging don’t merely sort the world – they track everything about it. They, in fact, are the precursors to the entire “Internet of Things” concept, wherein unique objects can be identified, inventoried and tracked so businesses might no longer run out of stock or have too much on hand. None of that is possible without Woodland dragging his hand through the sand in Miami Beach.

Allow us to explain that reference. According to The Times, Woodland quit graduate school in 1948 to devote himself to coming up with a way to encode product data. To represent data, he needed a code, sort of like Morse code only visual. He told Smithsonian magazine in 1999 that he was on the beach when he “poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason – I didn’t know – I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said, ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’”

The original patent, granted in 1952, was a circular design. The rectangle we recognize was perfected at IBM some 20 years later, long after Woodland and a partner sold the idea for $15,000.

Now, bar codes adorn millions upon millions of familiar products. And modern supply chain management software enables automated efficiency solutions, smoother supply chains and higher profits around the world. Take transportation management, for example. Through bar code scanners or RFID readers and good software, shipments can be remotely tracked from requisition to delivery, up to and including where a specific package sits within a shipping container in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

For warehouse management, it’s possible with the click of a mouse – or the swipe of a finger on a mobile device – to see not only the stock on hand but also stock that’s on the way to the warehouse, stock that just left and the products being ordered at this very minute by customers.

It’s top-to-bottom transparency in real time and unprecedented opportunity for efficiency, empowering organizations with the data they need to make solid purchasing and scheduling decisions. Today, businesses have the ability to know not only where their assets are now but also where they’ve been, where they’re going next and who’s taking them there. For all of that, businesses can thank Joe Woodland.

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