ANSI - American National Standards Institute
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UPC Turns 30, Goes Global


New York, Jul 12, 2004

The Universal Product Code, that ubiquitous rectangle of numbers and stripes, marked its 30th year in June. The UPC, approved as an American National Standard in 1995, was originally created to help grocery stores speed up the checkout process and keep better track of inventory. While the UPC—the most common version of the so-called bar code—was initially received with wariness and mistrust, it has since spread to virtually all retail products due to its overwhelming success, changing the course of supply-chain management forever.

The Uniform Code Council (UCC), an ANSI member and accredited standards developer, is the organization that administers the UPC. “The Uniform Code Council is proud of the many ways the UPC bar code has improved business and brought convenience and benefits to consumers around the world. This bar code has become a real business icon. It gets better with age,” said Michael Di Yeso, president and COO of UCC.

The UPC is composed of a row of 59 black and white bars that vary in length that are read by a scanner. Printed beneath the bars is a series of 12 numbers, which together identify the manufacturer and the specific product. A manufacturer applies to the UCC for permission to enter the UPC system, and pays an annual fee for the privilege. In return, the UCC issues the manufacturer a six-digit manufacturer identification number and provides guidelines on how to use it.

In 1977, EAN International, the UCC’s global partner, began commercializing a 13-digit companion bar code to the UPC called EAN-13. The worldwide success of both symbologies became the foundation for the EAN.UCC System of bar code and electronic commerce standards, which are used by over one million companies to facilitate efficient commerce in 141 nations. EAN International and the UCC have announced plans to rename their organizations GS1, with a planned rollout in 2005. The global headquarters will be in Brussels.

With this change, the UPC will move from an American standard to a global bar code standard called the European Article Numbering Code, which will have 13 digits as opposed the UPC’s 12. North American bar-code scanners will be required to read the 13-digit codes by January 2005. The 12-digit codes will not be obsolete, however; systems that can read 13-digit codes can also read 12-digit codes.

The UPC’s success has allowed the UCC to introduce new standards initiatives to benefit consumers and industry. Reduced Space Symbology, a smaller “bar code cousin” to the UPC is now being used to mark small healthcare items, such as vials, blister packs, ampules, and syringes. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated that pharmaceutical companies bar code their medicines down to the unit of dose so that they can be scanned in hospitals and endorsed Reduced Space Symbology as a means to reduce medication errors. Mr. Di Yeso said, “It is gratifying to think that the same bar code technology we developed 30 years ago to save time in the grocery checkout lane will now be used to save lives.”

The UCC is also in the process of working with industry to standardize and commercialize its newest innovation called the Electronic Product Code. This “wireless bar code” will use low-power radio frequency tags and readers to automatically capture information like bar coding.

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