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Designing a Retail Scanner

In the early 1980’s fixed position retail scanners were becoming the standard due to increasing consumer transaction sizes and the massive adoption of UPC codes.

The Problem

By 1985, companies were realizing that cashiers who were working at these fixed position scanners were experiencing high incidence rates for carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other upper extremity disorders.  These disorders were costing companies a fortune in direct health care costs, losses in service quality and productivity, and litigation fees to defend against the threat of class action lawsuits.

Action Taken

Prior research investments to discover the root cause of these high incident rates were unfruitful, as they were unable to discriminate between different scanner designs and working methods using traditional measurements such as strength, muscle activity, and discomfort surveys.  However, a new wearable wrist measurement apparatus developed at the Spine Research Institute (called the Biodynamics Laboratory at the time) had proven it was able to make these differentiations by quantifying the three-dimensional angles, velocities, and accelerations the wrists were exposed to.  National Cash Register (NCR) invested hundreds of thousands of dollars over a four year period to upgrade the lab’s capabilities and commission the team to evaluate and help develop a safer and more efficient scanner design.  The design that the NCR/SRI team came up with would change the industry forever.


In 1994, NCR shocked the market as it introduced the first-of-its-kind bioptic scanner at a trade show in Chicago.  The bioptic scanner allowed cashiers to reliably scan items in nearly any orientation, which drastically increased their productivity and decreased injury risk since it transferred repetitive loads to the more powerful shoulder muscles instead of the wrist.  Product orders following the trade show were nearly double compared to previous annual sales, creating an immediate payback on NCR’s research and development investment.  Only two years after initial launch, bioptic scanners comprised 85% of the global market and NCR customers were reporting that related injury claims had virtually disappeared.


Insights from Mark Hoffman, former Department Manager of Human Factors Engineering in the Retail Systems Division at NCR

  • Ergonomic research institutes where researchers clearly focus on developing methodologies and measurement technologies to understand the unknowns related to unexplained variances and outcomes was critical to garner NCRs support, funding and participation.  OSU clearly led other ergonomic research organizations that were being considered for conducting ergonomic scanner research.
  • The value of the research, basic or applied requires active participation from both the sponsors and the research team.  Sponsors provide the context for identifying research goals and objectives because of their keen awareness of issues and challenges in the problem domain.  Success is achieved through collaboration.
  • Industry research and proprietary research can occur simultaneously with the results from each providing benefits through the program execution and research outcomes.


Contact Dr. Gary Allread, SRI-Ergonomics Program Director, to Learn More: