A common misconception is that barcodes are only used in the supply chain and retail. In reality, barcodes are applied in a variety of industries. If you’re wondering what barcodes are and whether your business needs them, we’re here to provide you with all the necessary information.
In this guide, we’ll explain where barcodes are used, which types of barcodes exist, and how they are generated and read. Additionally, we’ll recommend some of the best barcode scanning devices on the market.
What Is a Barcode?
A barcode is printed, digital information placed on the scannable surface of an item. Barcodes generally consist of a unique black line pattern and a number. Together, they comprise data about specific products, shipments, etc. The lines are a machine-readable form of information, while the numbers are human-readable.
Different businesses use different types of barcodes. A barcode may be an extremely long combination of digits and letters or contain only a couple of signs. This depends on the specific products of the company and how many of the company’s product barcodes are placed on. Special devices – barcode scanners – are used to read data from barcodes. This data is then transferred to a database located on a computer and can be analyzed, edited, and tracked.
Barcodes are used in plenty of industries but are most commonly found in retail, warehousing, and delivery services. Every product requires a unique barcode for easy identification and accurate stock management. It may contain information about the name of a product, its quantity in the warehouse, destination point, and much more.
Simply put, barcodes are used in any business selling or shipping goods, for their inventory tracking, and product data storing purposes.
Apart from the above-mentioned industries, barcodes may also be used by businesses providing services. For instance, you’ve likely seen barcodes on plane tickets. In this case, they provide insights into the passenger’s data, flight’s time and date, and indicate the seat number. Barcodes are also used to mark luggage and contain information about the destination and owner.
Car rentals use barcodes to identify their vehicles; pharmacies may use them for prescriptions, and so on. In other words, barcodes have a wide application area, which is constantly expanding.
Barcodes aren’t used to encrypt data but rather to convert a large amount of information into a shorter form. In fact, even regular consumers may decode a barcode if they know what to look for and are familiar with a barcode system of a specific business.
For instance, often barcode numbers are generated in ascending order based on the timeline. Thus, a barcode can indicate whether a product is new or has been in stock for a while.
Anatomy of a Barcode
Most barcodes feature two parts: a machine-readable pattern and a human-readable number (though some may only consist of one part). The latter may contain not only numbers but also letters or even special symbols. This part of a barcode may be used to quickly share information across a workspace when there’s no barcode scanner nearby.
A human-readable number is also helpful when a barcode doesn’t scan. In this case, the characters can be typed in manually. Barcode numbers can be decoded by users who know the specific codes used by a business. It may indicate the manufacturer, product type, date of production, and other data.
Generally, the necessary data is decoded by scanning the unique barcode pattern – the black lines of varying widths. This part of a barcode may look like just a set of lines of different lengths and thickness, a QR-code, or other unique visual code. But the dimensions are important for accurate machine recognition. If a barcode is too small, a scanner may have trouble identifying the pattern.
Barcodes have certain other specifications apart from containing machine and human-readable codes. Every barcode should have some amount of blank space to the left and right of the scannable part. It’s necessary for a barcode scanner to differentiate between a code and the surrounding visual elements.
For instance, if a barcode without any blank space around it is placed on a box with a graphic pattern, a scanner may not read it correctly and not accurately scan the code. Classic barcodes featuring a line pattern also have start and stop characters. It’s crucial to seize this part of a code during scanning, as it points out to the machine that the read was complete. These symbols are also used to indicate the barcode orientation.
Different Types of Barcodes
Not all barcodes are exactly the same, though the general anatomy is similar in all types. Below, you’ll find some of the most common barcode kinds.
- 1D or linear barcodes. It’s the most popular, traditional type of barcode containing lines of varying length and width. The length of such barcodes is closely related to the amount of data they contain.
- UPC codes. UPC means universal product code. This kind of barcode is mainly used in retail and warehousing in the U.S. and Canada. They help to identify a product and provide information about it, especially at the point of sale. Generally, these codes consist of twelve (UPC-A) or six (UPC-E) characters, though variations are possible.
- EAN code. These barcodes are nearly the same as UPC barcodes. The main difference is the geographical application – EAN codes are used in Europe. They also often contain eight or 13 digits as opposed to six or 12 in UPC.
- Code-39. Just like UPC and EAN barcodes, Code-39 type of barcodes consists of lines and a unique number. However, such barcodes can only encode 39 characters. Despite the limitations, this type is quite popular as it can be decoded by almost any scanner.
- Code-128. A compact type of barcodes, which can encode up to 128 characters. It’s a relatively high data density that makes these barcodes ideal for the supply chain industry.
Additional Types of Codes
- Codabar. It’s a linear type of barcodes that’s easy to print on any surface. Their main advantage is that the human-readable number can be produced without a computer. Such barcodes encode up to 16 symbols, with four start and stop characters. In the U.S., codabars are mainly used in logistics, healthcare, and education.
- 2D barcodes store data in the form of two-dimensional shapes or symbols. They can contain significantly more data than linear codes per unit area. Another great benefit of 2D barcodes is error protection. Such codes are designed in a way that helps to avoid scanning mistakes and keep information intact even when the code is damaged.
- QR code. These codes feature fast readability, exceptional error tolerance, and are extremely versatile. QR codes can be decoded by any device with a scanning functionality, including smartphones. However, they can’t be recognized by a laser scanner. For this reason, QR codes aren’t often used in retail.
- Datamatrix code. Such codes are similar to QR codes but require less space and are generally used on documents and small items. They feature high data density and are readable even in low resolution.
- PDF417. This type of barcode features extremely high data density. It can hold up to 1.1 kilobytes of information. PRF417 barcodes often don’t contain a human-readable number. They are widely used in logistics and governmental industries.
How to Generate a Barcode
Before generating a barcode, you need to determine which type of barcode you need. Depending on that, you may have to use a certain generating method. Then, you need to register with GS1. It’s a non-profit company that maintains the international standard of barcodes. After registration, GS1 will issue you a unique company number which should be placed at the beginning of your barcodes. The second part of the barcode number can be generated randomly or feature a certain structure reflecting some information. The two most popular ways of creating the second part of a barcode are:
- Use barcode-generating websites. There are plenty of such services online.
- Using Microsoft Office. If your business requires a simple linear barcode, for instance, code-128, you can create an Excel table containing the barcode’s type, label, company number, and product number. Then, save the table and open a new Word document. Navigate to the “Mailings” tab, then click “Create Labels.” From the same tab, click “Select Recipients” and select “Use an existing list.” Use information from your Excel document to generate barcodes.
How to Read a Barcode
Naturally, the easiest way to read a barcode is to use a barcode scanner. However, if you don’t have a scanner nearby, you can decode it using a computer. Type in the human-readable part of the barcode into your database. It will show you all the information the code contains.
Today, you can also read barcodes using mobile computers. They combine scanner functionality and database information in one device. Traditional barcode scanners can recognize unique product codes but they can’t analyze and track information.
Mobile computers, on the other hand, allow you to manage the data as soon as it’s received. In other words, you don’t need to use several devices to keep track of your inventory and manage your database if you own a handheld computer.
Handheld devices like the Honeywell Dolphin CT60 are ideal solutions for fast and easy scanning. Equipped with an integrated scanner, this lightweight device streamlines the process of scanning and computing data and it comes at an affordable price.
Choose Technological Progress
Hopefully, our guide has answered all your questions related to barcodes. If you wish to invest in advanced mobile computers instead of traditional barcode scanners, contact us directly to request a pricing quote. Energy Electronics is a certified electronics distributor in the U.S. We guarantee the best offers for bulk orders and are happy to help you choose the right devices.
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