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Every physical product joins digital age with upgrade to ubiquitous barcode

As a technologist, I watch with wonder as the once only imagined transitions into everyday reality — all the while taking part in the fun of making this transformation happen.

For example, a third of the world’s population today walks around with a touchscreen, internet-connected device in their hands, doing everything from payment to dating to entertainment. While smartphones hit the scene just 10 years ago, today smartphones are fundamental to how our world works. A similar revolution is underway in the world of consumer products, with the physical products we buy and use every day becoming a part of the internet of things. Most exciting — this revolution just got a major turbo boost with the newly released GS1 Digital Link standard upgrading the ubiquitous barcode — giving every physical product a web address.

Modern-day challenges

Millions of product manufacturers, brands and retailers around the world make and sell over 4 trillion consumer products each year. All of this production, distribution, consumption and disposal is happening with an incredible lack of visibility into the global supply chain — making it nearly impossible to follow the journey of products, let alone a single product. The result: Brands know very little about what happens to the products they make and sell, where they go and who buys them. Worse, this lack of visibility into the supply chain creates huge risk for fraud, with the world’s counterfeit consumer goods economy now worth over $1 trillion.

Fortunately, the disconnectedness of the world’s physical products, and the resulting massive gap of knowledge, is being resolved with the release of the new GS1 Digital Link standard. With this resolution, come both opportunity and an urgency to shift business strategy to effectively compete. Just as the smartphone changed the business model for so many service industries — how we order lunch, how we access transport, how we get our news — so will the digitization of the world’s consumer products be a transformative opportunity for consumer product brands. Those that move quickly will benefit, and those that don’t will likely fall behind, and indeed potentially fall away.

Every product born digital

Over 90% of the products made and sold every year — over 4 trillion product items — are fast-moving products, including clothing, cosmetics, footwear, household products, beverages, packaged food and the like. The impact of connecting these 4 trillion consumer products to the web is going to truly change our world.

Specifically, the new GS1 Digital Link standard represents an update to the ubiquitous 44 year-old barcode, used by over 2 million manufacturers and scanned over 5 billion times every day at point-of-sale systems. GS1 Digital Link replaces the standard 1D barcode with a QR code or NFC tag and gives a product a web address in a standard format. This upgrade means that every product item can be:

  • uniquely identified,
  • interacted with by a smartphone, and
  • connected to applications and data management in the cloud.

Combining physical products with the new GS1 Digital Link standard and a digital identity in the cloud, such as EVRYTHNG’s Active Digital Identities, allows a single code on a product to drive multiple applications and products are #BornDigital.

A new digital ecosystem

We are combining forces with some of the world’s largest packaging and supply chain companies including, WestRock and Crown in the food, beverage and household goods sectors, and Avery Dennison RBIS in the footwear and apparel market, to create a standards-based digital ecosystem. These partners are producing products #BornDigital, with digital identities embedded as they are made, making it easy for brands and retailers to rapidly deploy digitized products at mass scale.

Bill Toney, Vice President Global RFID Market Development, Avery Dennison

“The same technology that transformed how retail does inventory will transform the way brands connect with consumers. Today’s consumers expect a shopping experience that meets them where they are — whether mobile, in-store or online. The new GS1 standard means every unique apparel item can be enhanced with our RFID technology and a QR code to support supply chain and direct-to-consumer applications at scale,” said Bill Toney, vice president global RFID market development at Avery Dennison, one of the world’s largest providers of label, tag and supply in the apparel and footwear industry.

Our vision is to grow this digital ecosystem with other partners and service providers in the production and supply chain community. On a mission, we are helping every one of the world’s 2 million-plus product manufacturers very simply add a digital identity to their products — plugging into the connected product world.

Sanjay Sarma, Vice President for Open Learning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; member of the GS1 Board of Directors

“The GS1 Digital Link is a potentially game-changing standard, literally linking every product to the web and the digital ecosystem,” said Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning at MIT and a member of the GS1 Board of Directors.

Just as the smartphone is a pillar of our daily lives, impacting how we engage the world around us, we can expect a similar global impact when every physical product is digitally enabled. With this digitization comes efficiency, the opportunity for new business models and the ability to improve sustainability.

What’s next

I look forward to sharing more insights on the intersection of IoT and product digitization in future blogs, including:

  • the transformation of business models,
  • the application of product data intelligence,
  • sustainability in the supply chain,
  • connecting brands and consumers through physical products, and
  • new applications driven by a connected product world.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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