#ThrowbackThursday: Meet the Zebra (and AIDC Industry Legend) Who Designed the First Handheld Scanner – and the Scanner You Probably Have in Your Hand Right Now

Ed Barkan’s Innovative Spirit, Clever Engineering and Nearly 300 AIDC Patents Have Made All of Our Jobs Easier

Anders Gustafsson, Ed Barkan, Bill Burns and Bob Sanders of Zebra Technologies stood from left to right
by Your Edge Blog Team
May 23, 2019

Many at Zebra call him the “equivalent of Thomas Edison” for Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC). Others say he’s “the guy who invented the [AIDC] business.” Either way, Zebra Senior Engineering Fellow Ed Barkan is a man to be celebrated worldwide. Especially by anyone who has used a handheld scanner over the last four decades or will likely use one sometime in the next several decades.

Ed, though humble when approached about his many accolades, has held a total of 293 U.S. patents for AIDC-related technologies in the course of his work at Zebra, many of which have foreign counterparts in non-U.S. states. He has also filed another 34 applications for U.S. patents that have yet to be issued. (To put that in perspective, Ed alone currently holds nearly 17 percent of the total U.S. patents granted to Zebra for Data Capture Solutions (DCS), which help Zebra maintain a leadership position in the barcode scanning and printing industries.) But that’s just a sliver of what Ed, a 42-year veteran in the DCS business, has accomplished to-date in what we can all agree is a storied career.

Getting started at Symbol

Ed joined the then-emerging barcode verification company Symbol Technologies as its first full-time employee on October 3, 1977. At the time, supermarkets had just begun printing barcodes on packages and boxes. "If a barcode didn't scan," explains Ed, "the verifier could tell them why."

He began his career patenting solutions tied to barcode verification, which would soon give way to a brand-new type of innovation. Around 1979, Ed and the Symbol team learned they could repurpose and expand the technology within a verifier beyond quality-check applications; they could use technology similar to that of a verifier to make a small scanning device able to actually read barcodes.

This revelation led to the first handheld scanner – the blueprint for the ergonomics, appearance and shape we still see in scanners today.

"It made our business take off much more than it ever would have if we had just stuck to verifiers," Ed notes, "and I think it created a whole industry of handheld scanners. It helped retailers and factory automation go in directions that it wouldn't have been able to go otherwise."

Founder and employees of Symbol Technologies seated and standing circa 1998

circa 1998: Pictured are the Symbol innovators with the most patents at the time. Ed is seated at the right end of the front row. Standing behind him is Howard Shepard. Two people from Howard’s right is Jerry Swartz, the founder of Symbol Technologies. Second from the left, standing, is Dave Goren who, along with Ed, is still employed by Zebra.

Drawing from experience

As a teenager, Ed worked in a machine shop, giving him an appreciation of how parts should be designed for ease of fabrication. Early in his career he designed servo motor drives for numerically controlled machine tools, which helped tremendously later on when Symbol needed to buy, and eventually design and build, specialized scan actuators for laser scanners. 

He also had opportunities to design production fixtures for manufacturing, construct lens grinding equipment and work with lasers.

"Symbol was a very small business in 1977," Ed explains. "It was important to have people who could operate over more than one engineering discipline, and who could contribute to many parts of the complicated products we were creating. We had to invent it as we went along.

The fact that I was exposed to this variety of engineering and manufacturing disciplines enabled me to be as inventive and productive as I have been. I feel lucky to have had that opportunity, and believe that it is this broad range of experience that allows me to do what I do."​​

Leading the pack​​

Being conversant across a variety of engineering disciplines and having a firm understanding of how to design easy-to-assemble products allowed Ed to contribute to many product designs, from the world's first handheld laser scanner (the LS1000) to OEM scan modules. During his tenure, Symbol became the first technology provider to make mobile computers with embedded scanners.

"I'm proud to say that I was the first to insist on the relentless pursuit of simplicity in our designs, and that this design philosophy permeates our product offerings today," Ed explains.

Between 1980 and 2003, Ed and his team created dozens of scanners. Building the LS 2208 is one of his most memorable experiences. Still in production, there are roughly seven million of these scanners in the field today.

"The LS 2208 incorporated a bunch of ideas that we had been saving up over the years and finally put all together into one scanner," he says. "The result was a scanner that was less than half the cost but just as good as anything we'd ever made."

Handmade model of symbol's first successful handheld scanner next to a smaller scanner

The black, larger scanner pictured above is a hand-made model of Symbol's first really successful hand-held scanner, the LS7000, built by Ed and Howard Shepard in 1980. The small scanner is the LS2208 laser scanner. The 2208 design started in around the year 2000, and the scanner was first shipped in early 2003. They are still on the market today.

“Can I make something that can solve a problem?”

Ed considers his broad range of experience and knowledge of multiple technologies, rather than the accolades, to be his greatest asset to Zebra. He also maintains that innovation is a team, not individual, effort. He has many fond memories working alongside retiree and "clever engineer" Howard Shepard on handheld scanner and mobile computer projects. He said things wouldn't have been the same without him. After learning of Howard's retirement, Ed brought Mark Drzymala onto his team, who he says "has done a great job of helping continue the high level of innovation and productivity."

To this day, Ed makes a point to approach problems from multiple angles and suggest potential solutions that others had yet to consider. It's a useful ability that he says anyone can cultivate, with practice and experience.

"I intentionally get myself in a position where I expose myself to what is going on in the field -- the challenges of colleagues, what customers want, what has been successful in the market," Ed confirms. "I try to listen to those things and think about the experience I've had designing products and say, 'Can I make something that can solve a problem?'"

And that is why Ed has become prolific within the four walls of Zebra’s Holtsville facility, throughout our entire company as a Zebra Distinguished Innovator and as a leader in the AIDC industry. Thank you, Ed, for all you have done to advance scanning technology and improve the scanning experience for millions of workers worldwide!

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Editor’s note: To experience some of the innovations brought to life by Ed and his colleagues, visit www.zebra.com/scanners.

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Your Edge Blog Team
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