Bi-Optic ScannerContemporary Designs of Bi-Optic Scanners - NCR Corporation

NCR enjoyed great success with the 7820 "F" model checkout scanner and its sister product, the 7824 scanner scale. These products were technical improvements over earlier models and supported the broad retail acceptance that was finally achieved beginning in the mid 1980's, almost a full decade after the first scanning demonstration in a supermarket.

Through the balance of the decade, NCR was the clear market leader. A major software innovation, Pacesetter, dramatically improved reading performance on poorly printed or damaged labels, by stitching together multiple partial reads (scan lines that did not cross all the bars) to re-construct the bar code data.  An impressive demo at the time was the reading of a bar code that was cut into five separate pieces and laminated on a card.  When the first president Bush saw this demo at an industry event he remarked how amazing it was. This created quite a flap as the press interpreted his remarks as if he had never seen a checkout scanner and was isolated from the real world.  NCR missed the PR opportunity of a lifetime to bail Bush out and show the world what was so amazing.

Entering the 1990s, the bar code scanner market in the U.S. was achieving dramatic penetration among supermarket and mass merchandise chains, and Europe was well into the early majority stage of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. The stakes could not be higher. What would NCR do to extend its market leadership through the next generation of product as the market continued to expand? The answer was not obvious.

Market Research

In order to develop the product requirements to guide the development team, Product Management developed a survey covering a wide range of feature alternatives and required customers to choose between feature tradeoffs. This survey was administered to 50 U.S. and European customers, prospects and users of competitive equipment. The results were definitive - there was a clear priority for faster throughput and to a lesser extent, better ergonomics (minimized hand movement). The engineering group could achieve both faster throughput and less product orientation, but with a trade off - a vertical housing would need to extend above the scan deck for the additional optics that would enable "wrap around scanning".  The new housing would create a barrier between the checker and consumer and could potentially interfere with other equipment at the checkout such as check writing stands.  However, the results of the market research were so emphatic that NCR moved forward with the development of prototype models with minimal additional concept testing.

When the prototype units of the new 7870 "Bi-Optic" scanner were first demonstrated to customers, theNCR 7870 Bi-Optic Scanner common reaction was euphoric.  The additional scan lines exiting from the vertical plane now allowed for scanning bar codes on the front, back, bottom and side of the product - thus minimizing the hand movements required to position the bar code and dramatically speeding the scan operation. The 7870 was a major success for NCR and achieved its goal of extending NCR's market leadership in scanning through another generation of product. The Bi-Optic scanner design was so successful that all competitors eventually copied it, with the innovation in the market during the next decade focused on achieving a more complete wrap around scanning design while providing different sizes of scanners for a variety of checkout configurations.


As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." NCR's Pacesetter and the Bi-Optic scanner innovations prove the quote. Customers were literally floored when viewing these early demonstrations. The product developments exceeded customer expectations and were a testament to the engineering talent at NCR.  Market research, as conceived and conducted by the product manager, played a critical role in the development of the Bi-Optic scanner.  It provided the direction to the team that radical design changes and tradeoffs would be acceptable to achieve the additional throughput that customers most demanded.  It also gave NCR management the confidence to make the necessary investments in the development project.


Submitted by:  Michael Kapp

Role on Project:  Director of Product Management