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A look back on bar codes for bills of lading

1992: Before Christmas, you may see complete bill of lading data packed into bar codes the size of a postage stamp

Barcodes are now an everyday part of logistics. (Photo: Shutterstock/MVelishchuk)

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this week’s edition, from the August 1992 issue of American Shipper (virtual pages 49-51), FreightWaves Flashback looks back at advancements in bar code technology that made shipping information more readily available.

The ubiquitous bar code has become an everyday part of life, not just at the supermarket or department store but in transportation and distribution.

The technology is advancing rapidly, and significant new applications are being tested this summer.

When Dick Grogan tells a shipping audience about the latest advances, he still encounters expressions of amazement.

“Wow! You mean you can do that?” Grogan said that was the reaction he got at a recent shipping conference at which he discussed Symbol Technologies Inc.’s new two-dimensional bar codes (first announced in 1991), which can store hundreds of words of information.

Grogan, senior marketing manager-transportation of Bohemia, New York-based Symbol, says the 2-D bar codes could revolutionize the way shippers, carriers and middlemen do business.

If you’ve noticed the Federal Express or United Parcel Service delivery drivers who come to your office, you may think the revolution is here already. For years, small package carriers such as FedEx and UPS have used bar-code systems to track their shipments. And in warehouses, bar codes are as common as forklifts.

Those bar codes, like the ones on the cereal box at the supermarket, work fine for identifying an item and its location. But because an ordinary bar code can hold only 20 or 30 characters per inch, it can’t do much more than that.


The real revolution in bar-code technology may come with the introduction of a new generation of 2-D bar codes that allow hundreds of words of information to be crammed onto a sticker the size of a large postage stamp.

They’re not available yet, but Symbol, the world’s largest manufacturer of scanning equipment, has developed such a system and plans in September to introduce scanners that can read the 2-D codes as fast as ordinary bar codes.

Symbol’s 2-D bar code, which goes by the name PDF 417, was developed in 1989. It is being tested this summer by a trucking company and a major department store.

The tests include the use of bar codes on bill-of-lading documents that accompany the cargo. When a computer prints out a bill of lading, it encodes the information in a 2-D bar code on the document so it can be scanned.

From that point on, the 2-D bar code can be used to generate complete shipping documents, invoices and records without further keystrokes.

Or, if required, it can update records and print a revised bar code with the new data embedded.

One of the primary uses at first will be to speed the handling of paper and to speed data entry into EDI systems.

Portable data file

PDF is the acronym for portable data file, which provides an idea of how the technology works.

The ordinary linear bar codes familiar to every supermarket shopper have rows of bars in varying widths that are read horizontally by a scanner. Their storage capacity is limited. They typically display a label, which is scanned into a central computer that uses the information.

With their much greater capacity, the 2-D bar codes can function not merely as labels but as the equivalent of a floppy disk pasted onto a box or piece of cargo. The information is on the cargo, available for immediate retrieval on a portable computer using a scanner held within 7 to 8 inches.

“It allows you to do more than just capture data,” Grogan said. “You can read it on a real-time basis.” Having the detailed information at hand makes it possible for a problem with missing or misdirected cargo to be fixed when there’s still time to fix it.”

Two-dimensional bar codes were first introduced in the late 1980s. The first versions, Intermec Corp.’s Code 49 and Laserlight System Inc.’s Code 16K, could store more than twice the information of an ordinary linear bar code.

Those designs, however, essentially were stacked versions of existing bar codes and don’t have the capacity of PDF 417, which Symbol officials say is based on technology similar to that used in the magnetic stripes on the back of credit cards.

Codes 49 and 16K can store only about 150 characters, while PDF 417 can store 1,800. This can be expanded by linking one bar code to another. PDF 417 also has an error-correction feature that allows a code to be read even if part of it is torn off or otherwise damaged.


Another feature of the new technology is in the scanning. Ordinary one-dimensional codes are designed to be read by a scanner that goes from one side to the other.

They required a steady hand on the scanner, which had to be swept back and forth across the bar code in the same manner a painter would use a paint brush.

By contrast, PDF 417 contains information designed to be simultaneously read vertically and horizontally.

PDF 417 has been submitted to the Automatic Identification Manufacturers’ standards committee.

Virtually anything

Although the 2-D codes weren’t designed primarily for transportation users, the possible applications for shipping are almost unlimited.

The 2-D bar codes can be used in conjunction with electronic data interchange, which many shippers and carriers use to speed the flow of cargo documentation.

For example, a shipper in Hong Kong could print a bar code with bill-of-lading information, customs data, cargo-handling instructions or virtually anything else.

That information would be transmitted by EDI to the destination point, as many companies do now. Meanwhile, however, the bar-coded data would stay with the cargo.

“You can match the physical transportation of the merchandise with the EDI stream,” Grogan said.

Symbol officials say the possibilities for shipping are so varied that they keep coming across some that they hadn’t even thought about.

Hazardous cargo handlers are interested, Grogan said. “Say you have some drums of hazardous cargo on the dock, away from the computer, with no paperwork,” he said. “How do you handle it?”

Handling instructions could be encoded on the 2-D bar code, and a dockworker could use a portable computer to read the instructions.

Bills of lading could be built into the bar code and scanned while the cargo is in transit. So could customs-entry data, or anything that now is printed on paper documents.

Maintenance is another possible application. A container’s maintenance and inspection record, for example, could be put into a bar code for retrieval by whomever needs to see it. An updated symbol reflecting completion of the work could be printed out for less than half a cent and attached to the container.


What about security? With the information pasted right on the container or cargo, what’s to stop a thief from using his own scanner to identify the contents of a box?

The 2-D bar codes can be designed to be read only by persons with the proper decryption codes. And if someone along the chain needs to read only part of the code, his or her access can be restricted to that part.

PDF 417 has 10,480 different possible “words,” each of which is made up of 17 bar-code modules (which are black or white spaces on the code). In a particular application, up to 929 words are chosen. Each of those words, however, has 15 different modes. Each row of the bar code is in a different coding language.

A particular bar code is designed with an encryption scheme that allows a properly programmed computer to tell the scanner which mode or level of meaning a series of words is in, and when the bar-code symbol is switching from one coding language to another.

The equipment can work in 15 modes, one of which could even be used to include Kanji characters for Japanese users.

All of this provides an almost infinite variety of codes, which could prove especially useful in international shipping.

For example, a bar-code encryption could be designed to convert an English-language document into French. Grogan says that’s “kind of blue sky” but is possible.

Although customs brokers and freight forwarders could appreciate bar coding’s potential for smoothing the handling of customs documents and eliminating paper documents, even promoters of 2-D bar coding say that’s years away.

“Bureaucrats like hard copies,” Grogan said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.” But he said competition will bring these changes about.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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