Comment: What is the next generation of product identification?

The bar code used at retail point of sale and the identification number it represents have continued almost unchanged for the best part of 40 years. But there are now pressures that are prompting proposals for a new generation of identifiers and new bar codes to represent them.

The growth in consumer adoption of digital technology and the clear and growing requirement for greater volumes of accurate product information is forcing the consumer goods industry to rethink. At the same time regulators are demanding more transparency and traceability.

This means that the purpose of the bar code number that identifies a product (which is known as a ‘Global Trade Item Number’ or ‘GTIN’) is shifting from the communication of information between businesses to also engaging the consumer. The problem is that the GS1 rules governing what differences in the product need to be distinguished with a new identifier were designed for business to business (B2B), supply chain use and differences that might be of great interest to consumers are ignored because they don’t affect the B2B ordering, distributing and invoicing processes.

The obvious answer is to change the rules, but that would have unfortunate consequences. The resulting explosion in GTINs would cause operational problems, errors and cost. Consumers would suffer not only because it would be more likely that items were out of stock on store shelves, but also because lists of favourites and recently purchased items in online shopping would be very difficult to provide.

To help support and drive the required evolution in identification, the Consumer Goods Forum and GS1 launched a project in 2013 called ‘Next Generation Product Identification’ (NGPI), which proposes to supplement the current GTIN with optional extensions that would provide for more granular identification and to introduce new bar codes capable of carrying the extended identifiers.

In short, the NGPI initiative focuses on enabling consumers to access richer information via their mobile devices while also providing new options and flexibility in supply chains. The existing bar code is not expected to disappear for many years, and the new generation will work alongside the old, but new possibilities are offered which are seen by industry as potentially of great value.

The elements that can be used to supplement the GTIN are:

The familiar bar code that has transformed retail points of sale all around the world does not have the capacity to carry any more than the GTIN. If the GTIN is to be extended more capacity must be found. Here the NGPI project proposed a short term solution, a bar code called GS1 DataBar, but identified a superior approach for adoption over the longer term.

Most currently installed point of sale scanners have the capability to read GS1 Databar, but scanners have to be re-configured and software is needed to manage the additional data. The bar code can encode the GTIN in a smaller space than the current bar code or the GTIN with more data, in which case its size depends on how much data is added. This is a linear bar code, the traditional type in which all the data is encoded in one dimension.

The long-term solution is to use two-dimensional bar codes, GS1 DataMatrix or GS1 QR code, but these cannot be read on traditional laser scanners. They require camera scanners which take a picture of the bar code and decode that. Camera scanners can read two dimensional and linear (one-dimensional) bar codes, as well as being able to read bar codes from a mobile phone screen and bar codes etched into the surface of an item.

Mobile phones already have cameras which can function as scanners, and in relatively low volume, hand-held uses, camera scanners are widespread in the industry too. But they are comparatively new to points of sale for fast moving consumer goods where high volumes need high speed processing and the variety in presentation of the bar codes to the scanner needs greater depth of field. Camera scanners are now being installed in these point of sale environments and if their performance measures up and prices reduce the greater capability these scanners have could accelerate their adoption.

The extra identifiers proposed by NGPI to supplement the GTIN could be shown in GS1 DataBar to give consumers access to richer data at a more granular level and read by retailers with traditional scanners or camera scanners, but as more data is encoded in the bar code the bigger it gets, meaning it occupies too much space on a consumer pack. 2D symbols could unlock the full potential of the NGPI data strategy, but that will take a bit longer.

GS1 UK will be providing a regular column for Essential Retail on technology in relation to retail industry standards and the wider supply chain.

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