A New Dimension in Bar Codes Embedding Resilience in Supply Chain Operations
By Gena Morgan, Vice President, Standards & Technology, GS1 US
Companies everywhere are prioritizing supply chain transformation to overcome mounting challenges. Existing systems have not functioned effectively in the tumultuous markets of the past few years. Product shortages, delivery delays and scarcity of raw materials are just a few of the disruptions straining the capabilities of current infrastructure. Add unpredictable product demand, and it has become incredibly difficult to maintain reliable supply chain operations.
Many industry leaders are advocating for widespread implementation of GS1 Standards to help drive improvements in supply chain visibility, enabling transparency, track-and-traceability and inventory management that are essential for business success. The standards also help satisfy regulatory requirements for certain industries, including healthcare and food, where product traceability is inextricably linked to human health and safety. Looking to the future, standards will be instrumental in helping move industry toward a more circular and sustainable economy.
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Companies’ ability to exchange information about products moving through the supply chain is crucial for safe, efficient delivery of goods. GS1 Standards provide the common language that enables information to be captured and shared in a consistent way across the entire supply chain, from a product’s point of origin to its point of sale or use. As a result, products can be accurately identified and located at any time and place, and their status can be communicated electronically between stakeholders in real time. This gives companies necessary insight for ordering and inventory management, and provides new opportunities to adjust as needed, e.g., if a product becomes unavailable or is delayed.
The standards that unlock supply chain visibility, transparency and traceability include the GS1 Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) and Global Location Number (GLN) for unique identification of products and locations, respectively, along with EPCIS (Electronic Product Code Information Services), a standard for providing event and transactional data. The GTIN is embedded in a barcode or a RAIN RFID tag that, when read, can capture movements of a product at each stop (identified with a GLN) along its journey.
Regulations are adding urgency to standards adoption for supply chain modernization. In the food industry, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) new “Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods” Final Rule requires the capture and maintenance of granular data surrounding production and distribution of high-risk foods – listed on the agency’s Food Traceability List (FTL) as the most frequent sources of foodborne illness. FTL foods include leafy greens, fresh cut fruits and vegetables, seafood, cheeses, eggs, and many other common items. Any company that handles these categories of foods must build data systems to capture the necessary information in a manner that can be understood by trading partners and the FDA when a food safety investigation or recall becomes necessary. GS1 Standards are being leveraged to meet this pressing need.
In healthcare, product track-and-traceability is vitally important to protect patient safety and ensure supplies are available when and where they are needed. The FDA’s Unique Device Identification (UDI) rule for medical devices and its Drug Supply Chain Safety Act (DSCSA) for pharmaceutical products each impose requirements for standardized product identification encoded in a barcode to enable end-to-end traceability.
All of these demands require interoperable product identification and sometimes additional data that cannot be fully accommodated in the traditional, linear (UPC) barcode. For example, a 2D Data Matrix barcode is required by DSCSA for pharmaceutical product packages to support an interoperable, electronic system for identifying and tracing them throughout U.S. distribution. With larger data capacity, the 2D barcode can fit all required data including lot/batch numbers, serial numbers and expiration dates into one digital image that can fit on very small products, such as syringes and infusion vials. Scanning the barcode saves clinicians’ time and effort, improves accuracy and even enables automated data uploads to patient health records.
2D barcodes also offer exciting possibilities for food and consumer goods. Today’s consumers expect increased product transparency; they want to know what is in the products they buy, where and how they were produced, details about sustainability, tips for use (e.g., in recipes), how to maintain them, and more. The 2D barcode affords an opportunity to embed web-linked content that addresses consumers’ information needs.
Retailers have committed to 2D scanning capability at point of sale by 2027 in an initiative driven by GS1 US and member companies called “Sunrise 2027.” While brands transition from linear barcodes to 2D, both barcodes can be present on the package; but the 2D barcode will gain usage as more companies see benefits from increased transparency to customer engagement with dynamic content, inventory management, sustainability monitoring, potential uses for data analytics and more.
RAIN RFID gaining ground
Interest in RAIN RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology is growing as the cost for tags comes down; the average per-tag price in 2016 was between 7-15 cents, and it is now projected to fall as low as 4 cents each by 2025.
The technology has evolved considerably over the past 20 years — read range and accuracy have increased, reader infrastructure has expanded, and there is greater variety in size and sensitivity for both tags and readers. This has unlocked exciting applications such as intelligent shelves, dynamic pricing displays, and store layout optimization.
Supply chain experts in all industries are interested in RFID’s potential for improving product traceability, inventory management and process efficiencies. An RFID tag can be used in the same way as a barcode to carry unique product identification and serialized data. Many leading brands (e.g., Herman Key, Levi’s, and Southern Fried Cotton) and retailers like Walmart and Macy’s are now using RFID to support supply chain process automation and promote agility that is crucial to omnichannel operations.
Supporting a circular and sustainable economy
2D barcodes and RAIN RFID are each essential tools that can help support a circular economy. QR codes with web resolvable “UPCs” can link to valuable information about a product’s lifecycle. Consumers can scan the barcode with a smartphone and access information about the product’s origin, composition, and recyclability as well as other key attributes. For example, a 2D barcode on a plastic bottle could provide information about the type of plastic used, making it easier for recyclers to sort them. Meanwhile, RAIN RFID and the role it plays in inventory management can help impact carbon footprints by providing the ability to track and trace products so manufacturers and retailers can improve their supply chain management, reducing waste and enhancing resource efficiency.
By enabling track-and-traceability of products throughout their lifecycle, 2D barcodes help support a closed-loop system, where waste is minimized, and materials are optimized for reuse or recycling. For instance, a 2D barcode on a garment could provide information on the materials used and the product’s production process, making it easier to disassemble and recycle at the end of its life.
Sharing harmonized data in real time
Trading partners’ ability to automatically, electronically share supply chain data in real time is crucial to support efficient delivery of goods in complex, unpredictable markets. Adoption and implementation of GS1 Standards to harmonize data helps stakeholders share necessary information to become more agile and resilient. Advanced data carriers like 2D barcodes and RFID solutions provide promising gateways to expanded product and supply chain information. When based on GS1 Standards, the information can be successfully exchanged and understood to provide the supply chain visibility and traceability needed now.
About the Author
Gena Morgan is the Vice President of Standards & Technology at GS1 U.S.
For more information about GS1 Standards, please visit www.gs1us.org.