Barcode 101: Information You Need to Know

When the barcode was first scanned, no one could have perceived just how far a simple scan would revolutionize the advancement of businesses for years to come.

This simple black and white image can generate the transportation of a package from a single location to anywhere in the world with one flash of a scanner.

We previously published an article about how to make a barcode inventory system; now let’s go more in-depth to help understand the ins, outs, and whys of a barcode’s structure so you can officially get started on printing your own!

What are Barcodes & Why Are They Used?

The first consumer product to ever have a barcode scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s gum in the summer of 1974. This one small act completely changed the game on data collection and automation forever.

So, what exactly are barcodes?

Barcodes are images expressed as a combination of black bars and white spaces. These combinations represent data that then relays information to a computer or mobile source when scanned. Barcodes can include numbers, letters, and characters as a means of further identification.

Because they house an abundance of information, barcodes are a fast and reliable option for businesses to collect data and help reduce human error.

Barcodes aid in:

  • Inventory Tracking & Management
  • Shipping & Transportation
  • Product Identification
  • Lot Numbers
  • Organization

Keeping track of data by hand or spreadsheet can add unnecessary time and work, as well as a high possibility for miscalculations. By using barcodes, all of this can be marginally cut down. It is also less expensive overall, helping to lower unnecessary costs for a company.

Just about every industry can or does use barcodes.

Warehouses and logistics require barcodes to aid in shipping and tracking items through the supply chain. Healthcare professionals can use them to identify patient information, such as medicine and dosage amounts, and tracking in locations like blood banks. Libraries utilize them to track the movement and location of books as they are checked-out and returned, as well as to see what is available in their system. Clothing retailers scan barcodes as a means of product identification (i.e. size, color, style, etc.). Grocery stores scan items for purchase and inventory, not only for that specific store but also for the customer (i.e. a receipt).

 Barcodes Can Be Used In:

  • Apparel Stores

  • Groceries & Markets

  • Warehouses & Logistics

  • Healthcare Industries

  • Libraries

  • Automotive Industries

Industries That Use Barcodes

How Does a Barcode Work?

When it comes to the type of information that barcodes hold, the possibilities are truly endless. They are able to range from simple to detailed and complex; the only question is how much information do you want to convey?

For example, a box in a warehouse that’s labeled with a barcode can disclose:

  • the product
  • the product specifications (size, color, type, etc.)
  • production time & date
  • production location
  • specific warehouse location
  • operator who produced the item

One scan of a barcode can relay all of this information and trace the product back to the beginnings of its productivity, right down to the ingredients used to make it.

Barcodes tell companies how many products they have, which can help them manage warehouse and inventory space better. This cuts down on costs and ends up saving funds that would otherwise go to waste due to incorrect information.

Laser scanners are the primary source used to read barcodes, whether they are stationary at a register or a mobile, handled scanner. LED lights scan over the black bars and white spaces, which then converts into text. The text is delivered to a software system that then reads and translates the information.

One necessary element to reading a barcode is known as the “Quiet Zone”. This “zone” is a blank space on the left and right side of barcode. Without this space, the scanner would be unable to identify where the barcode begins and ends, making it incapable of reading the information.

Handheld Barcode Scanner

Quiet Zone

Types of Barcodes

Deciding the right barcode to use means deciding what kind of information is being stored and communicated.

There are 2 types of barcodes: 1-D and 2-D. Each type of barcode is able to hold a limited amount of information and is used in different industries world-wide.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at these barcodes and how they differ from one another.

1-D Barcode Types

1-D (one-dimensional) barcodes are horizontal and linear, consisting of vertical lines that vary in widths with specific spaces in-between each line. The combinations result in particular patterns that make each barcode unique to each particular product.

Depending on the type, 1-D barcodes are contrived of:

  • Numeric-Only –¬† consists only of numbers (0-9)
  • Alpha-Numeric – consists of both numbers (0-9) and letters (A-Z)

1-D barcodes are wider in size but limited to how many characters they can hold, typically between 8-25 but possibly as many as 85 total. This also limits the amount of information they can carry. 1-D are most commonly found on consumer goods in retail environments, but are used in other establishments such as libraries, hospitals, and warehouses.

The most common 1-D barcode type is the UPC (Universal Product Code), which is found on virtually every type of consumer packaging in the US. These barcodes are scanned at the point-of-sale with a handheld or stationary scanner.

How to Read a UPC Barcode

The typical UPC-A barcode has 12 numerical digits, starting from left to right. The very first digit is known as a standard number system character. This number is assigned by GS1 and identifies a product category, either general or specific. The first set of 5 digits identifies the product manufacturer. This number is specific to the company and remains the same on each item.

The second set of 5 digits classifies that particular product. Each product will have its own unique number in this sequence. The last digit of the barcode is called the check number. This number is an error detection code that accurately verifies the 11 digits preceding it and matches the information that was entered into the UPC database.

Laser scanners are used to read 1-D barcodes, illuminating and detecting the specific sequence of bars and spaces. It records and translates the data before sending it to a computer database to be used.

Types of 1-D Barcodes

  • UPC-A & UPC-E

  • EAN-13 & EAN-8

  • Code 39

  • Code 128

  • Interleaved 2 of 5

  • Codabar

  • MSI

  • PostNet

Reading a UPC Barcode

  • Single Digit Standard Number System Character

  • 5 Digit Manufacturer Code

  • 5 Digit Product Code

  • Single Digit Check Number

UPC vs SKU

A subset of 1-D barcodes includes UPC’s (Universal Product Code) and SKU’s (Stock Keeping Unit). Both of these variations serve the same objective but are different in their specific make-up.

SKU

  • For internal use

  • Unique to a particular company

  • Alpha-numeric

  • Used by warehouses, marketplaces, fulfillment centers, & e-Commerce sites

  • More customizable tracking of products

  • Used for internal operations & inventory tracking

UPC

  • For external or universal use

  • Standardized for a business or company

  • Numeric-only

  • Used in retail

  • Can be registered with GS1 organization

  • Must be purchased and licensed

  • Remains constant throughout product shelf life

2-D Barcode Types

Two-dimensional barcodes (2-D) are square or rectangular, and store information in two dimensions (vertical and horizontal). These images are made up of various dots, squares, and geometric patterns.

While small in size, 2-D barcodes hold hundreds of characters, supporting much more data per unit than 1-D barcodes. They are useful when marking objects that would be too small for 1-D barcodes, and are still able to be scanned even if they have a bad resolution.

The most common type of 2-D barcode is the QR Code. QR stands for “quick response.” This consumer-focused barcode makes for swift data sharing and is utilized primarily for tracking and marketing purposes, such as on magazines or advertisements. An image-based scanner is required to read 2-D barcodes. They operate in conjunction with most smartphones, allowing for quick and easy readability, especially since they don’t require perfect scanner alignment to be read.

Users simply hover the camera reader on their phone over the barcode. The reader interprets the information within the barcode and directs the browser to the relevant website linked within the code.

2-D barcodes can also be used to access and hold data such as photographs, fingerprints, and signatures; this is most useful in government-run organizations. They are also able to assist with transportation, such as plane tickets and boarding passes, making the process faster and smoother.

Types of 2-D Barcodes

  • QR Code

  • Data Matrix

  • PDF 417

  • MaxiCode

  • Aztec

QR Code & Image Scanner

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, now that we have the basic knowledge of what a barcode is and how it works, we can finally look into the process of how to generate and make a barcode.

Choosing to make barcodes for your small company can be the next big step to expanding your business. Check out our latest article on how to make a barcode for your inventory system!