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GS1 - simplifying the supply chain

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Comment Just for a moment, please regard the humble bar code - unloved, old, barely noticed by people these days. What does it do? Well, the most used bar code, based on the Universal Product Code (UPC) standard, first appeared in 1974 on a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum in Ohio.

The number carried by that bar code represented that product, and if the same bar code was on a product today, that same number would be associated with it, and provided that Wrigley's hasn't re-assigned that number to a different product, those little parallel lines of varying thickness would still be a unique identifier the world over to that type of Wrigley's chewing gum.

The UPC codes were created to stop companies from going out and creating their own bar codes (or other means of identifying items), ensuring that there was uniformity and consistency in bar code usage. The group that had to look after all of this in Europe was the European Article Numbering (EAN) International group, and the Uniform Code Council (UCC) in the US. These two groups then came together to create the EAN.UCC group, which later became GS1 in 2005.

GS1 is a not-for-profit organisation with 1.1 million members worldwide, and its mission is to provide a range of means to ensure commonality of item identification to enable its members (and those involved with its members) to optimise their value chains with the minimum need for data transposition or matching.

So far, so good. A pack of sweets manufactured in the US, shipped via Holland and sold in the UK will be easily identifiable everywhere by the number represented by this magic little bar code as it moves around. However, isn't RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) going to replace bar codes?

Not in my lifetime. Yes, RFID will become increasingly important at the container and pallet levels, but RFID at a low-value item level is nowhere near ready. However, RFID and bar codes will need to work together.

Luckily (or, in reality, by design), GS1 has covered this. As well as the bar code responsibility it has, it also governs the issuance of EPCglobal Manager Numbers for RFID. GS1 also provides the open standards for its Global Data Synchronisation Network (GDSN), ensuring product, company and location data between trading partners is accurate, consistent and compatible. GS1 regards the physical tag as just that - the bar code itself or the RFID tag is not what identifies the product - it is the number that is carried by the tag.

GS1 works by providing its members with a block of unique numbers or identifiers in pretty much the same way as the IANA assigns IP addresses to companies. These can be used in seven different forms, known as keys, depending on what the company wants to identify. Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) are the most common of these and are seen on products on supermarket shelves the world over via the ubiquitous bar code.

So, for example, a company in the UK would be provided with a block of 100,000 numbers all beginning with the same two number code to indicate the country of origin of the owning company. Following a set of guidelines, these numbers are then assigned to separate items in the company's portfolio. The company itself decides what number is assigned to what product, but that number will be guaranteed to be unique, worldwide, within the GS1 standards.

Therefore, the same identifier can be used in RFID tags as for bar codes - there's no data matching required. A pallet load of individual items could have an RFID tag that gives a two character, organisation specific EPCglobal Manager Number plus an organisation-provided suffix (in a similar way as for bar codes, where GS1 provides a geographic prefix and the organisation provides the suffix) for the whole pallet (or crate, container or whatever the overall unit is) which then provides additional information on what the pallet contains as defined by the associated GTIN - the bar codes on each item would then have the same GTIN.

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