We’ve all seen those distinctive black-and-white lines on products we buy, but did you know there’s a whole world of different barcodes out there? That’s right — these nifty little patterns come in all shapes and sizes, each with its purpose and advantages.
In this blog post, we’ll be diving into the fascinating realm of barcodes, exploring the different types and their distinct features and applications they’re best suited for. So, let’s dive into the diverse landscape of these ingenious data encoding systems.
What are Barcodes?
Barcodes represent data through a pattern of bars and spaces that a scanner can easily read. They’re like a secret language machine that can understand, helping us keep track of items and making our lives more efficient. When traveling, you’ll often find them on products in stores, tracking packages, or on your boarding pass.
Now, there are many different types of barcodes out there. Let’s break them down below.
- Universal Product Code (UPC)
- European Article Number (EAN)
- Code 39
- Code 128
- Quick Response (QR) codes
- Interleaved 2 of 5
- Data Matrix
#1: Universal Product Code (UPC)
If you’ve ever gone shopping, you’ve undoubtedly come across those unique black-and-white striped bars on product packaging. You guessed it, that’s the Universal Product Code (UPC). These nifty little codes have revolutionized how we shop and manage inventory. The Universal Product Code, or UPC, is a unique barcode system that helps us quickly identify and track products.
It was developed in 1973, and ever since, they have made life easier for retailers and consumers. When a manufacturer creates a new product, they assign it a specific 12-digit UPC, ensuring it’s distinguishable from other items. This code is then transformed into a barcode, combining black bars and white spaces representing the numerical code. With the help of barcode scanners, retailers can quickly and accurately read this information during checkout or inventory management.
When you’re shopping and bring an item to the cash register, the cashier scans the UPC barcode with a laser scanner. This device reads the barcode by measuring the widths of the black bars and white spaces, converting them back into the 12-digit number. The point-of-sale system then looks up the product in the store’s database, retrieving the price and other relevant information. The magic of UPC barcodes lies in their ability to streamline the shopping experience for customers and simplify inventory management for retailers.
#2: European Article Number (EAN)
You’ll need an EAN code if you’re a manufacturer looking to sell your products in the European market. EAN stands for European Article Number and is a unique numerical labeling system for identifying your products. GS1 created this system to ensure that your products are easily identifiable to suppliers, retailers, and customers throughout the supply chain.
EAN codes commonly generate barcodes used on product packaging, making it easier for retailers to manage their inventory and for customers to purchase products at checkout. The code can be 8 or 13 digits long and is globally accepted. The longer EAN 13 code is more commonly used today. It is also known as Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) and can be used to identify products sold worldwide.
To obtain an EAN code, you’ll need to apply for a GTIN through GS1 in Germany. Although there are many international providers of EAN codes, it is recommended that you use a provider in Europe for better customer support and accountability. EAN codes comprise several components, including the country code, GS1 prefix, product number, and check number. Each of these components has a specific meaning embedded in the numbers.
#3: Code 39
Code 39 can encode all alphanumeric characters, including the 26 letters of the English alphabet, the 10 numeric digits, and six special symbols. This barcode was first designed in 1974 by two researchers from Intermec, and named Code 39 because it could encode 39 characters. Today, the latest Code 39 contains 9 bars, three wide and six narrow bars.
The Code 39 barcode is highly portable because a wide range of encoding/decoding equipment can read and write it. Furthermore, its reader is compatible with most readers available on the market. It is also a self-checking barcode format, meaning a single print defect cannot misrepresent the character into another character.
However, there are limitations to using the Code 39 barcode. It is unsuitable for encoding large amounts of information, and the barcode length can become too large to decode. Additionally, it is a width-encoding code, which means it can become unreadable if there is a slight ink spread during printing.
Despite these limitations, the Code 39 barcode is applicable in various industries. You can easily use it for store items, inventories, badges, employee membership cards, tracking transportation, and assembly of parts made at different locations. The U.S. Department of Defense even uses it for military equipment and in the airline and aviation industries.
#4: Code 128
Computer Identics developed Code 128 in 1981. This barcode symbol is versatile as it encodes letters, digits, and control characters such as TAB or ENTER. This feature makes it suitable for many applications, which is why it’s so popular.
What’s interesting about Code 128 is that it’s derived from the ASCII 128 character set, which includes numbers, letters (lowercase and uppercase), and some special characters. It can represent almost any data type, making it ideal for encoding product information, serial numbers, and other data types.
One of the cool features of Code 128 is the automatic switching setting. This setting allows users to optimize the barcode length automatically, depending on the amount of encoded data. This feature ensures that the barcode is always compact, even when encoding large amounts of data.
Today, Code 128 applies to many industries, including warehouse management, transportation, and retail. Major companies like UPS and DHL use Code 128 for tracking and shipping. In addition, this barcode is extensively used in packaging and shipping applications worldwide.
#5: Quick Response (QR) Codes
A QR code is a type of barcode Denso Wave developed in the 1990s, a subsidiary of Toyota. Unlike traditional barcodes, which only store limited information, QR codes can store much more data. Digital devices, such as mobile phones, can easily read them.
The black squares in this code are arranged in a grid pattern on a white background. Specialized software can read the patterns in the matrix and extract data from it. QR codes can store four types of data: alphanumeric, numeric, binary, and Kanji.
QR codes are commonly used in supply chain management to track products. They are also helpful in marketing and advertising campaigns to provide customers with more information. However, they have not been as popular with consumers as expected, as they are often associated with advertisements.
Recently, QR codes have become more prevalent in digital payments and cryptocurrency systems, such as displaying a person’s Bitcoin address. They are also applicable in transmitting web addresses to mobile phones, making it easy for users to access websites on the go.
#6: Interleaved 2 of 5
David Allais developed Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes in 1972. Barcodes are invaluable for businesses that need dependable data management, as they can swiftly and precisely encode information. An Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode has a distinctive structure consisting of pairs of numbers you can convert into a self-verifying, high-density barcode symbol. This means the barcode can store more information than other one-dimensional codes like Code 39 while taking up less space.
The character set of an Interleaved 2 of 5 code includes the numbers 00 through 99, space characters, and start/stop characters. Barcode readers can quickly read Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes created by combining every two digits into one symbol. However, it’s important to note that these barcodes only work with an even number of digits. Therefore, if there are odd digits, a leading zero is added for Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes to generate correctly.
One of the significant advantages of Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes is that barcode scanners can quickly read them, making them an ideal choice for warehouse and shipping operations. You can also print them at high densities, allowing for more information to be stored in a smaller space.
While Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes have many benefits, they also have disadvantages. For example, they are numeric-only barcodes, meaning they cannot encode letters or special characters. Additionally, they require precise printing and scanning equipment to ensure accuracy.
#7: Data Matrix
Data matrix codes are two-dimensional barcodes that encode information in a grid of black and white cells. They were invented in 1994 and are used in various applications, from manufacturing to healthcare and logistics.
One of the most significant advantages of data matrix codes is their size. They can encode much information using less space than a one-dimensional barcode, making them ideal for small products or round surfaces. This also means that users can save on consumables like labels or ink.
Data matrix codes are also more diverse than traditional barcodes. You can print them in various colors, and even a low contrast of 20% can be sufficient for the code to be read. This makes them less complicated and more error-tolerant than traditional barcodes.
Another advantage of data matrix codes is their internal error detection process. This means that even if you destroy up to 30% of the code area, the code can still read with automatic error correction.
However, there are some downsides to data matrix codes. You cannot read them with conventional one-dimensional barcode scanners. You will need special camera scanners. This can make them more expensive in some applications. Ideally, the data matrix codes are a powerful tool for tracking products and managing inventory. Their small size, versatility, and error detection make them an attractive alternative to traditional barcodes.
ITF-14 is an application of Code 2/5 Interleaved that encodes a 14-digit GTIN (Global Trade Item Number). This code comes from Interleaved Two of Five, the technology that creates these barcodes.
What sets ITF-14 apart from other barcodes is its recommended settings. GS1 recommends a module width of 1.0mm or higher, a 25mm or higher module height, a wide/narrow ratio of 2.25-3.00 (typical 2.5), and a quiet zone of a minimum of 10x module width. These settings make ITF-14 barcodes much more significant than other barcodes, like EAN 13 barcodes.
You cannot read the ITF-14 barcodes at the point of sale or checkout. Instead, they are used to designate packaging levels of individual products during transport, in receiving, and in the warehouse. For example, a box of 12 cans could be marked as packaging level 1, while a pack of 24 could be labeled as packaging level 2.
If the first digit of an ITF-14 code is “0,” it can be assumed that it contains a 13-digit EAN/GTIN-13 number. The leading “0” will be ignored when this number is read and transmitted. To encode an EAN/GTIN-13 number into an ITF-14 code, one can simply left-pad it with a “0.”
Overall, ITF-14 barcodes are an essential tool for supply chain management. They allow for efficient and accurate tracking of products during transport and storage, ultimately leading to smoother operations and better customer satisfaction.
Barcodes are a fascinating aspect of modern technology that we encounter in our daily lives. From the Universal Product Code (UPC) that revolutionized the way we shop to the Quick Response (QR) codes that store more data and can be read by digital devices, barcodes come in all shapes and sizes, each with its purpose and advantages.
We’ve explored the different types of barcodes, including the European Article Number (EAN), Code 39, Code 128, Interleaved 2 of 5, Data Matrix, and ITF-14. Each of these barcodes has unique features, from the portability of Code 39 to the versatility of Code 128 and the internal error detection of Data Matrix. Whether for inventory management, product tracking, or digital payments, barcodes make our lives more efficient.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©MVelishchuk/Shutterstock.com.