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Logistics Providers Can Yield to 2D Traffic by Carl Gerst

Automatic identification technology has drastically changed the package shipping, freight and trucking industries. By using bar code scanning and related technology, companies like Federal Express have forever altered how these businesses are conducted. New on the horizon are two-dimensional (2D) symbologies and scanners, both having the potential to make another wave in the shipping workplace.

2D Basics

Simply, many industries, including shipping, saw the benefits of encoding more information directly in the code, thus eliminating the need for an external database. By taking bar code scanning out of the "license plate paradigm" (the data stored in a 1D code is a reference to an external database), key bits of information can be accessed immediately. 2D has the potential to make shipping companies, both large and small, more efficient, more responsive to customers and significantly reduce paper-intensive processes.

When 2D codes were first introduced to the automatic ID market a few years ago, the volume of new codes and information about possible uses and properties caused some confusion. The 2D market has recently settled, however, partially due to the creation of industry standards which have identified specific codes for use in particular applications.

Benefits to the Shipper and Receiver

The benefits from using 2D codes for both the shipper and receiver include quick access to information about a shipment, more accurate information and more detailed information.

A trucking carrier, for example, may make (on a typical pick-up route) an average of 30 stops per day. At each stop, the driver picks up five shipments and five accompanying shipping documents. At the end of the day, the driver returns to the terminal with 150 packages and 150 documents, and each document must be processed by hand into a computer.

Multiply this scenario by a fleet of 1,000 trucks to see the number of shipping company of this size must handle day. Manual data entry of information in such a high volume is slow and inaccurate. The errors turn into operational inefficiencies, such as misdirected shipments, lost items and, ultimately, a dissatisfied customer.

Shipping Applications

Along with the development of industry standards and new hand-held scanning technologies, many more 2D pilot programs and full-scale implementations will be seen in 1997. Two codes, MaxiCode and PDF 417, have great potential for shipping applications and image readers solution to read both codes, which makes them ideal for hybrid applications such as transportation/logistics.

MaxiCode: Specifically designed for the shipping environment, MaxiCode marries increased data density, small label size and an easy-to-find finder pattern into one powerful 2D code. Some of you may have seen MaxiCode labels on a growing number of UPS packages as a 1-inch by 1-inch matrix code with a circular bullseye center.

MaxiCode allows for the maximum amount of data in one square inch. The code is used to automate package processing and returns processing. In addition, MaxiCode reduces internal package transportation costs since exact delivery information (like mail stops, floors or departments)can be included in the code. As a result, internal delivery personnel can quickly scan the package and tell exactly where it goes.

Hand-held MaxiCode scanners can be used by delivery people to record final delivery of a package or even to access additional information about where to send a package.

Several standards organizations have adopted MaxiCode as a recommended standard for high-speed sortation applications.

PDF 417: PDF's main advantage in shipping is its very high data capacity. It can easily replace paper documents such as bills of lading and manifests.

Several aspects of the shipping process can benefit from PDF codes. One of the biggest problems facing shippers is the paper-intensive nature operation. PDF enables much of the paper-based information, like the destination and contents of a package, to be encoded in a bar code and accessed by a scanner when needed.

Use of EDI: The growing use of EDI for shipping and receiving information is another growing application for PDF417. EDI, the linking of databases between a supplier and customer, provides real-time information about a shipment to the recipient before the package is received. A manufacturer can then know exactly when critical components will be arriving for the assembly of a product.

A manufacturer, for example, simultaneously enters the contents of a shipment into the EDI database and prints a PDF label with the same information encoded in the symbology. Immediately, the recipient of the package finds out exactly what is being shipped and plans his production schedule accordingly. When the shipment arrives, the recipient scans the PDF code to verify the contents of the package without opening the box.

Internal tracking of packages: Within larger corporations or manufacturing plants, getting a package to the receiving area is one challenge. The next challenge is making sure the package lands on the right desk in a timely manner. A 2D code such as MaxiCode could be encoded with additional shipping information, like mailstop, to facilitate quicker, more accurate internal package distribution and the ability to record when a package was indeed placed on someone's desk.


As both commercially-viable 2D symbologies and input devices started to reach the market, trade associations and industry organizations began to closely examining their use and effectiveness in specific applications. The result has been a steady stream of standards that are driving the use of recommended codes in applications.

The most extensive application guidelines have been released by the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), an organization for US-based automotive manufacturers. The group has recommended the following codes for applications:

Recommended Codes

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) provides standards for the materials handling industry, specifically Unit Loads and Transport label applications. ANSI is in the process of releasing three recommendations: Maxicode for sortation and tracking, PDF 417 for shipping and receiving and PDF 417 for EDI.

The use of 2D codes in the package/freight, shipping environment is nearly limitless and, now, with the widespread acceptance of specific codes for shipping and availability of hand-held input devices, there are answers to practically any shipping-information scenario.

This article appeared in Automatic ID News, an Advanstar Publication, March 1997, pg 36.

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