Woodland’s journey to Master of Supply Chain Management status initially started as something of an accident. Thanks to a conversation overheard by his friend Bernard Silver, Woodland began a personal quest to create a system which automatically read product information at the checkout in a store. The overall goal was to reduce processing time, reduce operator error and thereby reduce processing costs. The solution developed by Woodland? The barcode.
Using Morse code as his inspiration, Woodland recognised that using simple dots and dashes information could be encoded simply and sent electronically. Legend has it that during a visit to the beach, Woodland drew a series of dots and dashes in the sand, which he then dragged to form lines; dots produced thin vertical lines whilst dashes were much thicker. The two-dimensional barcode was created as a direct variant of Morse code.
Woodland and his business partner Bernard Silver adapted an existing system used for optical soundtracks in movies to provide the automated aspect of the new coding system. An ultra bright light bulb was shone through the printed barcode onto a movie projectors photomultiplier (a clever piece of technology which accurately detects light levels and variants therein). After proving the concept worked, Woodland and Silver were granted a patent for their “Classifying Apparatus and Method” in 1952. Unlike modern barcodes, the patent used “bulls eye” circular codes which were easier to scan and decode from any angle.
The barcode concept developed by Woodland was pushed around by various technology companies for the next twenty years with in-store tests only beginning in earnest in 1972. Almost immediately a problem with Woodland and Silver’s original concept was discovered, because the codes produced were frequently corrupted whilst being printed, rendering them unreadable. Fortunately Woodland had secured a position at IBM and had developed an alternative system which was less prone to the printing problem, based on the straight line systems we know today. The new system was released in 1973.
Just one year later, in a supermarket in Ohio, USA, the first ever commercial transaction using Woodland’s new barcoding system took place. So momentous was the occasion that the receipt generated by the transaction is still on display today at the Smithsonian Institute.
As more stores across the US began to implement barcode scanners at the checkout, researchers noted several findings. Firstly within 5 weeks of the scanners being installed, sales permanently increased by 10-12%. It was also found that operation costs were reduced by between 1% and 2% thanks to new efficiencies at the till. The finding which sealed the place of the barcode in history however was the discovery that the system generated a 41.5% return on investment. And in addition to the financial savings, businesses were also able to use the scan data for improved customer relationship management.
Barcodes are now present on virtually every item in every store in every country. Woodland’s conversion of Morse code into a machine readable format changed supply chain management and the wider world forever.