Quick response (QR) codes just seemed to appear one day in the late 2000s. Now they’re everywhere: plastered on advertising, social media, even Coke bottles, all begging for your attention. But QR codes were designed for manufacturing, not marketing. It was Denso, the Japanese industrial giant closely linked with Toyota, that developed the code in the early Nineties.
This story originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Road & Track.
A QR code is essentially a better barcode. Traditional barcodes serve your local supermarket just fine, but have a number of limitations. They can only encode around 20 alphanumeric characters horizontally. They can’t be used for Japanese kanji or kana characters. And if barcodes are damaged, they can’t be scanned at all. The manufacturing world needed something better.
“Back then, the Japanese economy was in a recession. Auto and electronic industries had to change their manufacturing to high-mix, low-volume production,” says Masahiro Hara, co-creator of the QR code. “In order to adopt the change, companies in those industries had to manage a large variety of parts and were required to store more information on one product in their system. That caused a decline in the efficiency at factories, as workers had to scan barcodes more frequently, which was difficult and fatiguing.”
The QR code was ready by 1994. It was designed to encode information both horizontally and vertically, and could store around 7000 characters, including kanji and kana. Additionally, it could be scanned from any angle, thanks to squares at three corners of the code that work as position detectors. Co-creator Takayuki Nagaya developed an error- correction function for QR code readers, so if the code was damaged or stained, it could still be processed easily. Hara says the QR code wasn’t designed for the auto industry specifically, but the Toyota Group was the first to adopt it.
Toyota is ruthless in chasing efficient production. It pioneered most of what’s known as lean manufacturing, a philosophy that promotes the complete elimination of waste. Part of this process has become known as “just-in-time inventory,” which requires precise tracking of parts inventories and careful coordination with suppliers. At Toyota’s factories, only the minimum number of parts required for assembly are on hand. New parts are only ordered when necessary. QR codes were a perfect solution.
“Our initial plant survey form asked how many days of inventory were in the [Toyota] plant,” a passage from The Machine That Changed the World reads. “A Toyota manager politely asked whether there was an error in translation. Surely we meant minutes of inventory.”
The QR code wasn’t the first high-density barcode, and today, it’s not the only one. But it’s the one that spread. While its position locators and error-correction abilities made it particularly appealing, it was Denso’s decision to open up the patents behind the QR code that spurred its mass implementation. “We believe that it is important to create an environment where everyone can use new technology in order to encourage widespread adoption,” Hara says.