Uncertainty seems to be the natural default position for many of us when contemplating the possibilities or probabilities of new things, including emerging technologies. Will they or won’t they catch on? Is everyone really going to adapt to it? This kind of thinking puts decisions into neutral which is sometimes a good thing. Why? Because it reduces the risk of going all out for a passing fad or for something that never actually fulfills its promise. But neutral is not the best place to be if, while waiting to read the tea leaves, a major strategic/competitive opportunity is missed.
Today, manufacturers of all kinds, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, and providers of fresh produce, fish, meat and poultry, just to name a few categories, are contemplating the future of a standards-based product marking system for the tracking and traceability of items as they pass through the supply chain from beginning to end. Is this a good idea? Will this gain traction? Is now the right time to invest in this concept?
None of us can see the future. But if it is true that the past can guide our thinking about what’s to come, there is much to be learned about tomorrow through an examination of the barcode’s original development and adoption history. See, for example, if you don’t find much of the following, from the 1970s, applicable to today: 1.) There were competing symbologies. The barcode as we know it today wasn’t the automatic or clear-cut front-runner as the standard. 2.) Many companies serving the supermarket sector had their own, home-grown product marking systems which they thought were just fine, thank you very much, and 3.) Many of these same companies serving the supermarket sector dreaded the possibility that without a standard, they might be required to use multiple product marking symbologies to satisfy a variety of customer preferences. When you think about it, really, in this context, it is rather astonishing that the barcode happened.
Will it require a set of equally astonishing things to happen for track and trace to dominate? Not really. And that’s because there are three powerful track and trace forces at work in this century that weren’t pivotal to the adoption of the barcode in the previous century. The barcode was championed primarily by industry, not consumers, regulatory bodies, and dominant standards organizations. Today, all of these elements are highly engaged. This, I think, means the chances for global adoption of standards-based track and trace are at least three to four times greater than the chances were for the barcode.
Yes, there are competing methodologies; many companies manage their own proprietary approach; many worry that if something isn’t decided they may have to use multiple track and trace solutions. But the luxury of indecision isn’t going to be afforded by consumers demanding today to know, for example, that a tainted product can be identified and recalled quickly and who want to know the authenticity of their prescription drugs. Regulatory bodies worldwide today have an array of new authorities over food and other products in terms of safety and efficacy. There’s little doubt the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will ultimately impose solutions for Unique Device Identification (UDI) for medical devices and something like it for drug pedigree. And today there is a leading, non-profit, international standards body, GS1, that is solidly behind track and trace initiatives.
To some level of specificity we can’t be positive about every detail of the future. But the big picture should be very clear to all. Track and trace is virtually inevitable and the time for waiting is at or nearing the end.