U.P.C. Bar Codes - An Evolving Standard
Would you believe that the venerable U.P.C. bar code is almost 30 years old? The adoption of the U.P.C., or Universal Product Code, occurred on June 4, 1974, and would transform bar codes from a research project into a requirement for business. The effect this little patch of black and white vertical lines would come to have on the distribution industries of every major economy on the globe would be staggering!
Before the U.P.C., several bar code styles existed, from the railroad industry's reflective orange and blue stripes to RCA's round "bull's-eye" approach, and each of these represented a different proprietary method of item identification. After the U.P.C. came on the scene, any bar code on any product could be scanned and identified in any business with the required equipment. Manufacturers could now justify the expense of adding the symbol to their packaging due to the newly adopted standardization. However, the new U.P.C. code would require manufacturers to incorporate the standardized method for identifying their company and its products. Previously some manufacturers had numbers, others had letters, some had both, and a few had no codes whatsoever. When the U.P.C. became dominant, companies had to give up their proprietary methods and register with a new industry group called the UCC, or Uniform Code Council (www.uc-council.org).
Changes To The U.P.C.
The Uniform Code Council is changing the makeup of the U.P.C. in a number of ways. Some of these changes are already in effect, and others are due in January of 2005. What is important to note is that the U.P.C. in use today will not be changing. Manufacturers who have already been assigned a U.P.C. code will not have to change anything. The Uniform Code Council explains that the changes are evolutionary, and manufacturers that have U.P.C.s prior to the current initiatives will not see any changes.
The biggest change is more in how distributors view the U.P.C., such as the practice of parsing out the company prefix (no longer feasible due to the changes), and in being prepared to see new bar codes such as the EAN-13. If you feel a bit confused by all this, you're not alone and don't give up; the changes are easily (or at least straightforwardly) explained. Let's begin with a quick primer on what U.P.C.s have looked like up until now.
The Classic U.P.C.When the Universal Product Code was established in the early 1970s, it was a 12-digit symbol. When a company became a member of the UCC, the UCC assigned the first six digits, known as the Company Prefix, which identified the specific company or manufacturer. For instance, American Standard has been assigned 33056 as a Company Prefix, Delta Faucet is 34449. The next five digits were used by the company to identify up to 100,000 (from 00000 to 99999) globally unique items. The last number in the U.P.C. was the Check Digit, which is calculated to ensure that the preceding digits have been scanned correctly.
The Evolving U.P.C.As more companies joined the UCC, it was becoming clear that many companies did not need numbering capacity for 100,000 items. In order to preserve system capacity, the UCC in February 2000 began to issue varying length company prefixes that more accurately matched the identification requirements of new members. While the U.P.C. would still remain a 12-digit number, longer Company Prefixes (more than six digits) and a shorter Item Reference (less than five digits) could be issued. Since most companies did not require a large capacity for identifying trade items, this new approach would eliminate waste of system capacity. However, since trading partners could potentially now receive products labeled with U.P.C. bar codes that contained Company Prefixes of varying lengths, the practice of parsing the number should be discontinued because Company Prefixes may not always be six digits in length. The U.P.C. number should always be scanned and stored in its entirety.
What Doesn't ChangeUnder the variable length initiative, the 12-digit U.P.C. structure will remain a fixed length 12-digit number. Based on a new manufacturer's need for capacity to identify its products, the Council will vary the length of the Company Prefix. Eventually, this process will allow the length of the Company Prefix to vary from six all the way to 11 positions, depending on the trade item numbering requirements of new UCC members.
The introduction of variable length prefixes will not impact current members who already have and use their UCC Company Prefixes. The numbers and symbols they have created or will create using their currently assigned UCC Company Prefix will continue to be unique everywhere in the world. In other words, manufacturers who have already assigned U.P.C. numbers to their products do not need to change anything.
Changes Due January 2005Although the acronym U.P.C. stands for "Universal" Product Code, in actuality the U.P.C. has been in use almost exclusively in North America, predominantly Canada and the United States. Europe and the rest of the global community has used a similar code but with 13 digits instead of 12, formerly called the EAN for European Article Number, which is administered by EAN International, the UCC's global partner.
To facilitate a truly "Universal" system, the Uniform Code Council and EAN International have announced a January 1, 2005 Sunrise Date harmonization initiative. North American retailers and trading partners who presently scan the 12-digit U.P.C. symbol (now known as UCC-12) should update their systems and databases in order to be capable of scanning EAN-13 symbols by January 1, 2005. The UCC is recommending that North American companies update and expand their databases, systems and applications to accept data structures up to 14 digits in length. This will allow complete item identification with any EAN/UCC data carrier. These data carriers are collectively known as Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) and are used in the global EAN/UCC System. In discussions with some of the major software providers for our industry, they assured us that their systems will be in compliance with the GTIN Data Structures. A 2005 Sunrise Date Information Kit is available from the UCC to help your company make a smooth and seamless transition. You can download it from the UCC's Web site at www.uc-council.org/2005sunrise.
The GTIN Family Of Data StructuresAs mentioned, the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is an umbrella term used to describe the entire family of existing EAN/UCC data structures for trade item identification. These data structures include:
UCC-12 (also known as the U.P.C. and 12 digits in length)
EAN/UCC-13 (13 digits in length)
EAN/UCC-14 (14 digits in length)
EAN/UCC-8 (8 digits in length)
To accommodate the GTIN Data Structures, there are two important changes you need to keep in mind: First, the aforementioned varying lengths of Company Prefixes, and secondly, that your database be able to accept the length of the number that must be processed and stored (14 digits). By updating databases, systems and related applications, North American businesses will be able to accept the complete family of EAN/UCC data carriers. The ability to accept and transmit all GTIN data structures will enable you to conduct efficient global trade and utilize all the standards and tools supported by the EAN/UCC System.
Caution Regarding Parsing Of U.P.C. Data
Prior to February 2000 when the Uniform Code Council began to issue varying length Company Prefixes, it was an easy task to parse or separate the Company Prefix from the following product identifier number. Many businesses got into the practice of assigning certain reports or processing tasks to use this segmented portion of the U.P.C. However, now that the assignment of Company Prefix numbers of differing lengths has become a reality, the practice of parsing, segmenting or building any type of structure or intelligence into the number should be discontinued. The UCC is aware of the practice, and has taken steps to give businesses a transition period up until the January 1, 2005 "Sunrise Date" for GTIN adoption. After that date the Company Prefixes assigned by the UCC would vary to such a degree that parsing would definitely not work.