It is common for consumer electronics to be quicker to innovate than automakers. It is a heavy industry and it needs slower reaction times. However, there are exceptions, such as QR code the Quick Response.
Today we see these codes everywhere, such as advertising, social networks and on the label of all kinds of products. But QR codes were invented for industrial production, not for marketing and to take us to a website or app. The QR codes were invented by Denso, owned by Toyota, in the early 90s.
A QR code is basically a more elaborate barcode. A classic barcode can store up to 20 alphanumeric characters horizontally. The problem is that since they are horizontal, they do not work for the kanji or kana characters used in Japan.
The kanji are the sinograms used in the writing of the Japanese language, that is, the traditional characters, while the kana are the two syllabaries of the Japanese language (for terms or names of foreign origin that do not have representations in kanji). And it is that in a language that is read vertically and has three scripts (kanji, kana and romaji, that is, the Latin alphabet), the classic barcode fell far short.
The QR code was invented by a Denso engineer Hara Masahiro, 25 years ago. As Hara explains in nippon.comDenso used barcodes to track the parts of cars being shipped, especially to Toyota, but the system was inefficient. “There were more than ten barcodes in a box,” says Hara.
“Employees got tired of having to scan the same box several times, and this led us to look for a code that would allow a large volume of information to be transmitted with a single scan pass.” Out of the need to keep better track of auto parts came the QR code.
QR codes can contain a large volume of information, from a simple url to a large volume of information consisting of up to 7,000 alphanumeric characters, including kanji and kana. In addition, it can be scanned upside down, for example, since the QR includes three placeholders, and can be read even if it is damaged or stained, thanks to an error correction function.
The QR code is inspired by the go board
A Hara, inspiration came playing go. At lunchtime, Hara used to play go and one day when reordering the black and white pieces it occurred to her that it would be a very direct way of presenting the information. “It was an eureka moment,” she recalls.
While Hara is recognized as the inventor for his inspiration, it was Denso’s development team that was responsible for creating the codes we don’t know today. “Having an idea is one thing,” says Hara, “but you also need a system that supports its use.” Denso lacked the resources to develop the technology on his own, and instead decided to release the patents in hopes that other companies would use QR codes.
And it worked. Soon, other companies started using QR codes. The one that gave the first big push was Toyota. In the Japanese giant they are obsessed with not wasting time or resources. This has led to what is known in the industry as “just-in-time” and that all manufacturers have adopted.
It is a system in which the factory has no stock of spare parts or parts (in any case, no more than 24 hours at most in some specific cases). It is a process that requires great coordination between suppliers and stock management, as well as great precision when it comes to knowing where the necessary parts are, how much there is, for what model they are, how long they will take to arrive, etc.
In the case of Toyota, the stock is reduced to its smallest expression. And even more. They count in the book The Machine That Changed the World, that the authors sent a questionnaire to the management of Toyota in which, among other things, they asked how many days of stock they had. One of the managers humbly asked if there was a translation error. “Surely, they will have meant for how many minutes of inventory,” explained the manager.
The QR code is not the only barcode that can store a lot of information, but it is the most widely used in the world. Its ability to correct reading errors by itself and the three placeholders make it very versatile, but at the same time it was the Denso’s decision to share patents with the world so that it could be massively adopted, which allowed its success.