Sunday, October 10, 2010

Waiting in line, made faster by more lines? I'll explain

Most days I wander through my day oblivious to my surroundings. I know that is a shock to some of you, but I believe many of you do the same. In our modern world, we are constantly surrounded by technology, even if we don't realize it, and even if we hate it.

Having once been a working cowboy, (yes they make horses big enough to haul me around) I have met my share of people for whom anything with a microprocessor is a "gadget" and gadgets are not to be trusted.

A waterproof digital watch with an alarm clock and stopwatch function? No thanks, get that plastic piece of crap away from me. I have a Timex that I bought at a Sears ten years ago, it works fine. A smart phone? I wouldn't know how to turn it on. An iPad? I would never use it ( pssst, what's an iPad? )

Now some of this hostility and apprehension is warranted. When many of these technological breakthroughs came to the market, some we not ready for prime time. A bad first-experience with a gadget that was supposed to make life easier, or replaced something that worked well, leaves a bad impression.

No matter your comfort level with technology, you simply cannot escape it. As I said, it's all around us. The good news is, technology does make our lives better, and I can prove it.

Have you ever heard of Bernard Silver, or Joseph Woodland? I hadn't either until I started doing a little research. These two gentlemen have made an impact our lives in a very real way, and we don't even know who they are. The way we buy things, the way stores stock their products, the way business is done around the world is all made possible by their invention. So what did these guys invent? The barcode.

I know, how does that funny looking little line-thingy on a can of soup affect my life? In more ways that you can imagine. Let's go into a tech-saturated home for a minute. Let's say you want to order a new book or DVD online. You go to a website, buy the DVD, and in three days, or tomorrow if you want to pay the extra shipping, you can be watching your new DVD. Behind the scenes, that barcode is the key to you munching away on your popcorn as you enjoy Die Hard 7.

The retailer puts a product number barcode on the DVD and tracks how many are in inventory, how many are going out that day, how many they need to restock and by when. The warehouse guy pulls the order, scans the DVD, and packages it. The package now gets a new shipping barcode and heads down the road. The retailer, the shipping company, and even you, can track that package through the entire process. That shipping barcode will be scanned a dozen times in different local receiving centers, airports, regional shipping centers, down to the delivery guy, scanning it as he hands it to you while you're still in your slippers.

Without the humble barcode, the selection and availability of every product bought through a retail store would suffer and the price would go up. Efficiency is the name of the game in retail, and barcodes are a primary way to collect, track, sort and manage data. Not to mention how much they speed up checkout! Remember the clerks punching in the price of every item at the grocery store, if you are over 40 you do.

So how about the not so tech savvy guy? Well, that wheel bearing for your combine uses that same type of bar code to get from the factory where it's made to the John Deere dealer and into your hands just in time to finish the harvest. Not bad for bunch of little lines eh?

There are hundreds of technological breakthroughs we use in our everyday lives. Some you will never even notice, and some you say, why didn't I think of that.

So the next time you are in line at The Nugget and someone stops the process to write a paper check, and you start tapping your foot thinking this is taking forever, just think about Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland. If not for them, a full basket of groceries used to take about five minutes to ring up, if the checker had fast fingers.

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