Today, you can’t buy a product in a supermarket without scanning a barcode, but that wasn’t always the case. On June 26, 1974, the first nationally barcoded item to be scanned at a supermarket checkout was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum (currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History). With this first scan, barcode technology was introduced to the world creating a revolutionary system that could identify any item anywhere in the country, regardless of its shape or brand.
Since its first commercially successful introduction in 1974, barcode technology has been evolving at an incredible pace - pushed by customer requirements, industry regulations, cost minimization and increased production. At the time of this writing, more than 1,900,752,322 barcodes have been scanned just TODAY around the world! Barcodes, although application specific, are as relevant today as they have been since their first use. The Universal Product Code (UPC) symbol first applied to the Wrigley’s gum packaging, is still in common retail use. The UPC symbol was also the first barcode selected and approved by GS1 - an organization that develops and maintains global standards for business communication.
Currently, there are more than 100 different barcode symbologies or data carriers to choose from, and no single barcode has a universal business application. That’s why finding the symbology that works best for your specific application is extremely important.
How can your business navigate among all the different kinds of available barcodes? How can you make the right choice that will ensure a proper long-term job for your company? What factors need to be considered when implementing a specific type of barcode for your organization?
IDEAL BARCODE IN THE REAL WORLD
The "ideal barcode" can be described as "the right barcode in the right place which scans the first time every time". Knowing that your barcode is “ideal” will be when you have the barcode with the correct symbology and the correct size.
Location of the barcode is also important - especially for automated systems. To assure that your barcodes are scanned the first time every time, you need to make sure the print quality of the label is satisfactory.
When a label is scanned and is unreadable, or contains incorrect code or text format or data, this slows down the process of the ease of the electronic exchange and requires manual support. If the symbol is not performing as it should, it is the equivalent of taking a can of food from your pantry without a label. “Electronically”, the product cannot be quickly and properly identified. With barcodes being extensively implemented across many different industries, a barcode error or inability to properly decode the symbol may lead to consequences worse than simply upset or confused customers.
Barcode Symbologies or data carriers, even though similar, have different attributes. Typical linear codes have bars, spaces, and quit zones (a few symbologies encode with height).
Figure 1. Example of 1D barcodes
2D symbols have 4 physical components including:
- Solid border
- Broken border/clock pattern
- Data storage
Figure 2. Example of 2D barcodes
6 CRUCIAL FACTORS TO CONSIDER
To begin your search for the correct barcode symbology for your application, ask yourself the following:
- Will the product be scanned at the point of sale in retail stores?
- Which character set needs to be supported?
Are you only encoding numeric data or are you going to acquire alphanumeric?
- How much space is available on the product packaging?
- Which material will you print the barcode on?
- Which barcode type supports the largest amounts of data?
- Do you have issuing agency specifications, such as GS1, and what are they?
Start your plan with compliance and quality and mind. Consider all of the above factors at the beginning of your search, which will help you create the most efficient quality plan for your labeling process. As an example, if you have a small area on your label for your symbol but require large strings of alphanumeric data, a Code 128 may not be ideal for your needs. Even though Code 128 can encode alphanumeric data, the more data you enter, the larger the symbol becomes.
If you are in an industry that has an accredited issuing agency such as GS1, Health Industry Business Communications Council (HIBSS), ICCBBA or ISBT 128, you must understand their specifications including barcode types, data formatting, etc. Be sure you know the approved barcode types for your agency’s standards and properly enter the data in the format as it is specified by the agency’s standards.
These three codes have the same data carrier – Code 128, but the way the data is encoded defined the barcodes as GS1, HIBCC, or ICCBBA.
Figure 3. GS1, HIBCC and ICCBBA Code 128 examples
GS1 provides symbology specifications tables. The tables provide a great reference on which symbology certain industries can use, as well as provide needed guidelines for the selected symbol.
So, if your label is scanned at a retail POS, you would most commonly use a UPC or an EAN symbol.
Figure 4. Examples of barcodes used in retail.
Produce at a retail POS may use GS1 DataBar Omnidirectional or a GS1 DataBar Stacked Omnidirectional. Understanding symbologies will help you make the most informed decision for your labeling requirements.
Figure 5. DataBar Stacked Omnidirectional
2D, Data Matrix and QR Codes
As mentioned above, one-dimensional, or 1D barcodes, are the traditional and most well recognized barcode types such as UPC, EAN, and Code 128.
Two-dimensional (2D) barcodes represent data using two-dimensional symbols.
2D barcodes are similar to a linear 1D barcode but can encode more data per unit area. These include barcode types such as Data Matrix and QR Code types.
Figure 6. Example of a two-dimensional barcode - PDF 417
The Data Matrix symbology recommended for direct part marking, owned by Microscan, is a two-dimensional matrix symbology that is normally square. One of the benefits of the Microscan Data Matrix symbology is that it has error correction - allowing the symbol to be more robust for many applications, which is a great benefit when faced with an application requiring direct part marking.
With many companies moving towards 2D codes or Digimarc barcodes (where the UPC/EAN is imperceptibly overlaid over the surface of the entire product), use of the basic technology is still prominent. Each symbology type has its own pros and cons.
Figure 7. Examples of DataMatrix and QR Code
EMBRACING THE VALUE OF BARCODING
Whether you are a beginner making your first steps in the brave new world of barcoding or a professional considering barcode quality aspects or inventory management improvements, barcode technology is advancing at a rapid rate. It is important to utilize new barcode reading, verification and inspection technology to ensure compliance, avoid costly fines and increase production.
Learn more about barcode symbologies and barcode quality from our GS1- certified expert through our on-demand webinar on Barcode Symbologies.
Microscan offers many support areas that can assist such as:
- Barcode Verification and analysis provided by our Verification experts
- Training provided by certified GS1 Standards professional
- GS1 compliant Verification systems
For more information, visit www.microscan.com
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