The history of EAN codes and their application in trade

 

If you’ve ever scanned or looked at a product barcode outside of the US, you should be familiar with EAN codes. This stands for European Article Number. Now known as the International Article Number – primarily due to its use outside of Europe also – EAN is the dominant barcode numbering system used internationally.

EAN codes come in two variants: a 13-digit EAN-13 code or a shorter 8-digit EAN-8 for smaller products and packages that wouldn’t be able to fit a full barcode. In this article, we’ll explore the creation of the EAN standard and how they are used in trade.

Origins

The origins of the barcode are unclear but can be traced back to Miami with the American inventor Joe Woodland. As a boy scout, Woodland was interested in morse code and drew out what would become the barcode in the sand on Miami beach. His design was closer to a bullseye, but it would eventually transform into the bar shape we know today by the time it was patented in 1952.

Barcodes in the US were developed by the Uniform Product Code Council (UPCC), which created the Universal Product Code (UPC). This was initially a 12-digit UPC system developed by George Laurer. The first recorded use of this in trade was in 1974, where a 10-pack of gum was scanned using the UPC numbering system.

The European Article Numbering (EAN) Association – later EAN International - was set up in Brussels to develop a European equivalent to the UPC. Hence, the EAN-13 was created. Now, both the Uniform Product Code Council and the EAN have been combined into one global authority GS1. This authority is responsible for assigning barcodes and managing the supply chain standard to make sure codes are compatible across the world.

It is precisely GS1’s work that led to EAN and UPC barcodes being compatible. This is extremely important as retailers may have older scanning systems that wouldn't ordinarily recognise an EAN code. A UPC can be converted into an EAN-13 by placing a 0 prefix at the beginning of the number.

How it works

The 13-digit EAN-13 code is split into four constituent parts. These are:

  • GS1 Prefix (also known as a country code)
  • Manufacturer Code
  • Product Code
  • Check digit

The country code is used primarily to designate the country of origin of the manufacturer. All manufactures will need a GS1 company prefix to create a GS1-compatible barcode.

The GS1 prefixes 000-099 have been reserved for compatibility with UPC for use in the US and Canada. Similarly, GS1 has also blocked out 0000001 – 0000099 as GS1 and company prefixes to avoid confusion with EAN-8 codes.

Since 2009, EAN codes have been used to encrypt a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN). This is a unique identifier for your product. The first twelve digits relate to both the company prefix and the item indicator. Once a GS1 company prefix has been allocated to a specific company, the remaining digits in that 12-digit allowance make up your item reference. The length of this will depend on the length of the assigned company prefix.

The final digit is the check digit. This is to catch out misprints or eliminate human error. EAN check digits are calculated by summing the numbers in odd positions and multiplying by three. Then, the sum of numbers in even positions is added on. This number is then subtracted from 10 to create a check digit. This ensures the integrity of the code.

Why do we use EAN Codes (or GTINs)?

Suppose a product is manufactured in China and needs to be exported to another country like the US or the UK. If every country had their own barcode standard, this manufacturer would have to develop separate packaging for each country it wishes to export – along with tagging it with China's agreed barcode standard. If this manufacturer wanted to track the product, its systems would need to be familiar with the standard used in every country the product travels through. Any tracking scanners in those countries would need to recognise the Chinese standard. It should be clear this would be woefully inefficient - and that international standardization is crucial.

EAN codes facilitate easy tracking of goods and where products can be searched and found even across borders. This reduces the cost of administration when goods are traded internationally.

All the processing of an EAN code is completed by a computer. All a human operative like a cashier will need to do is scan the barcode. This means anyone can use a POS system, and universally recognized barcodes have led to self-checkout systems being possible without any difficulty.

GS1 plays a crucial role in ensuring global compatibility between barcode standards. By developing the GTIN standard – the modern replacement for EAN codes – GS1 removed the need for manufacturers to print different barcodes on products depending on whether they will be sold in the US and Canada or elsewhere in the world.

Final Thoughts

According to GS1, there are 5 billion bar codes scanned every day around the world. It took a genius-level foresight to develop a system that can be used so ubiquitously in every country on earth. The achievements of Woodland, Laurer and EAN International (and more recently GS1) has led to massive increasements in productivity in global supply chains, allow for products to be tracked across the world and has made product lifecycle management possible and easy. In trade, the EAN barcode is possibly one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.