Industrial Automation



Is There a Secret Language?

What would you say if I told you that there is a language that is understood all over the world? What would you say it is? I have heard this question a few times in my life and depending on my mood I might suggest Latin, Esperanto, C++, or HTML as the answer. Other candidates as a lingua franca are Seaspeak, Old High Elvish, and, some would say (sorry mes amis), the English language itself. 

There is another candidate in the world of auto ID that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog. This is the standard label format that is being promoted with increasing success by the GS1 standards organization

First a little background 

You are all aware of barcodes - they have been around for thirty years as product identifiers on consumer goods. They revolutionized retail by allowing more advanced inventory control and, most importantly for many of us, by speeding up the check-out line at the supermarket. The process of standardizing retail barcodes was supervised by the Uniform Code Council (UCC) in the US and the European Article Numbering Association (EAN) in Europe. These two organizations managed the issuance of the product codes that show up on everything we buy. In 2002 they merged and in 2005 changed the name of the new global organization to GS1 which stands, rather grandly I think, for Global Standard One. 

What is new? 

For GS1, which now styles itself as " The International Language of Business" and its national affiliates such as GS1 US, it is onwards and upwards in terms of promotion of standards for auto ID (1D, 2D, and RFID) and for their application in business, trade, and healthcare. 

One of the most significant developments promoted by GS1 is the use of a standard set of identifiers to indicate the contents of auto ID codes in shipping and product labels. 

The problem being addressed here is the one that might occur if a vendor in Mongolia prepared a carton of yummy (dried) yak meat for shipment to the US - let's say to a Trader Jim's warehouse in trendy Seattle. The vendor could label the carton with a code containing his vendor ID, a batch number, a use by date, a sell by date, and the ID of the sustainable and very contented yak herd. 

This would be fine - but I am sure you have already spotted the problem which is how does the fully automated receiving system at Trader Jim's (that uses Microscan fine scanners of course) know how to parse the impressively long string of numbers that are coded into the barcode on the carton label? 

This is where the GS1 label format and application identifiers come to the rescue. If the Yummy Yak Co. uses the GS1 format, the string in the bar code has a prefix that identifies the code as being in the GS1 format as well as embedded application identifiers (AIs) that indicate the content of the each part of the string coded in the mark. 

This means, for example, that if the decoder runs through the code and comes across the application identifier (01) for Product ID (known in GS1 speak as the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) it knows that the next 14 digits are the ID. Similarly if it comes to an AI of (10) the next set of digits is the Batch Number. 

A properly formatted GS1 1D or 2D code therefore contains its own magic decoder ring that allows the encoded string to be decomposed into its components without having to get on the phone to Ulan Bator (City Code 11) in Mongolia (Country Code 976) to inquire (in one's best Mongolian) about the formatting. 

Of course there is scope here for error. Where there are rules there are also mistakes, so it is relatively easy to create codes that are intended to be GS1 formatted but which contain formatting glitches that will prevent the decoder ring from working at the receiving end. This is where the GS1 check option on Microscan's AutoVISION and Visionscape  Decode Tool comes in handy. When this option is engaged the coded string will be checked against the GS1 formatting rules and will either pass or fail depending on compliance. 

When this option is engaged the Decode tool also breaks the decoded string into its component strings such as GTIN, Batch Code, Serial Number, Use-by Date, etc. to facilitate content verification or recording. 

Microscan and AutoVISION are ready to validate and decode GS1-formatted 1D and 2D codes. We are a GS1 Solution Partner and stand ready to help you create or decode GS1 formatted labels that will allow you to meet the requirements of your trading partners whether they are in Outer Mongolia or Inner Brooklyn. 

GS1 Is Coming! 

Practical ideas that remove barriers to trade and facilitate e-commerce are powerful. 

GS1 has been adopted for the Produce Traceability Initiative ( and recommended by the FDA for the medical device identification ( 

To learn more about GS1, take a look at the GS1 General Specification ( - a formidable read - which contains the definition of the 100+ Application Identifiers and code grading standards. 

Also take a look at Nancy Lincoln's recent blog article to read about her ironic encounter at the 2012 GS1 Conference.

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