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Bar Code Pioneer Talks About RFID

Alan Haberman played an instrumental role in the creation of the bar code 25 years ago. He spoke recently to RFID Journal about the future of auto identification.
Tags: Retail
Jul 22, 2002—July 22, 2002 - Back in the late 1960s, Alan Haberman was executive VP and later CEO of First National Stores, a chain of grocery outlets in New England. He was dealing with a lot of the same problems that were plaguing the entire U.S. grocery industry at the time. Inflation was driving costs up. The conversion to supermarkets from small stores was just about finished, and the competition for volume was driving down margins. Productivity was stagnant, and it was getting harder and harder to make a profit.

Desperate to turn things around, talk among leaders in the grocery business turned to how the entire industry could be changed to reduce costs across the board. One obvious and frustrating issue was the failure, after years of discussion between retailers and grocery manufacturers, to agree to a standard code to identify grocery products. It was a simple concept that could bring efficiencies to producers, distributors, logistics providers and retailers.

The various trade associations representing food retailers and manufacturers met in late 1969 determined to make the product code happen. Four months later, they gathered leaders of both segments of the grocery industry at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., and decided to form a small committee of the respected CEO to figure out how to develop a code. The group would have to overcome political differences and special interests to create something that would benefit everyone.

The Ad Hoc Committee, as it became known, was composed of five executives from grocery manufacturers and five from the retail distributor associations. After the first few meetings, they decided the Universal Product Code, or UPC, would have five digits to identify the manufacturer (assigned by an industry control group) and five digits chosen by the manufacturer to represent the individual stock-keeping unit (SKU).

On March 31, 1971, the Ad Hoc Committee created the Symbol Selection Subcommittee and chose Haberman to chair it. The group's task was to find a machine-readable version of the Universal Product Code. It had to pick the technology for an automated front end and prove that it was economically viable for both individual companies and for the retail and manufacturer industries as a whole.

Two years, dozens of meetings and lots of arguments later, the subcommittee settled on the bar code. In April 1973, the Ad Hoc Committee presented the UPC system to the industry. Adoption was by no means a given, so the industry created the Uniform Code Council (UCC) to manage the transfer of the technology to industry. The council would be staffed by key players in the ad hoc effort and people nominated by the various trade associations. Haberman was among those chose to sit on the council and remains on it to this day.

During the symbol subcommittee's investigation into identification technologies, it consulted experts appointed by MIT to advise them. The scientists said that the bar system developed was state of the art, but also that in 25 years, a new technology would likely come along to replace it. In 1997, as the 25th anniversary of the bar code approached, Haberman was asked by the UCC Board of Governors to search out research teams that could help the UCC and EAN International (the UCC's European counterpart) look at new technologies that offered advantages to current systems.

He spent two years traveling around to universities, looking at their capabilities and at technologies being researched. By mid-1999, it was clear to him that RFID was the right technology and MIT was the place to do the research. Three faculty members there, Sanjay Sarma, David Brock and Sunny Sui, were already exploring the idea of using low-cost RFID tags and a related IT infrastructure to identify individual products and things. The central idea was to store only a unique serial number on each tag and store related information in databases.

Procter & Gamble, was active in the MIT Media Lab, and its representative, Kevin Ashton, introduced Haberman to the three researchers. In September 1999, UCC and EAN International, agreed to back the creation of a lab at MIT to research the potential for using RFID or perhaps other technologies to identify individual items. P&G and Gillette agreed to match the UCC/EAN contribution. The MIT Mechanical Engineering Department added to the initial funding, bringing the total to $1 million.

The Auto-ID Center was announced at the Smithsonian on Sept. 30, 1999, at a celebration organized for the 25th anniversary of the Uniform Code Council. The center was formally established the next day. Ashton became director. Sarma was named technical director. And Alan Haberman was elected chairman of the Board of Overseers. He remains on the executive committee and is intimately involved with the effort to create the Electronic Product Code (EPC), a system for tracking individual items using low-cost RFID technology. He recently spoke to RFID Journal Editor Mark Roberti. Click on the link to read excerpts of their conversation.
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