Barcodes are everywhere. We see them at the grocery store, on our packages, and even on our tickets to sporting events. But what are they, exactly and how do they work?
Barcodes are optical symbols scanned electronically to retrieve data. They contain a series of dark and light bars that represent different characters. When a scanner reads a barcode, it reads the pattern of bars and converts it into digital data.
A wide variety of industries and applications use barcodes. In the retail industry, barcodes help identify products at the point of sale, track inventory levels, and manage supply chains. For manufacturing, a barcode can track the production of goods, manage inventory, and ensure quality control. In the healthcare industry, barcodes identify patients and medications, track medical supplies, and automate administrative tasks. With transportation, barcodes can track shipments, manage logistics, and automate ticketing and boarding.
How Barcodes Work
Barcodes work by reflecting light. When a barcode is scanned, the scanner emits a beam of light. The light is reflected by the light bars in the barcode and absorbed by the dark bars. The scanner then measures the amount of light that is reflected to it. This information is used to determine the pattern of bars in the barcode.
Once the scanner has determined the pattern of bars in the barcode, it converts it into digital data. This data can then identify the product, track its movement, or automate tasks.
What is a 1D and 2D Barcode?
A one-dimensional (1D) barcode is a linear symbol that consists of alternating dark and light bars. It can be used to store and transmit a limited amount of data, typically up to 85 characters. A 1D barcode is the most common type of barcode and is used in a wide variety of applications, such as retail, inventory management, and shipping.
A two-dimensional (2D) barcode is a two-dimensional symbol that stores a large amount of data, up to several kilobytes. A 2D barcode is more complex to print and scan than a 1D barcode, but it offers several advantages, such as the ability to store more data and the ability to be scanned from any angle. A 2D barcode is commonly used in applications such as mobile marketing, product authentication, and supply chain management.
The most common 1D barcode styles and their uses and applications are:
- UPC (Universal Product Code): A UPC barcode is the most common type of barcode and is used in a wide variety of industries, including retail, manufacturing, and healthcare. A UPC barcode can identify products and track their movement through the supply chain.
- EAN (European Article Number): An EAN barcode is similar to a UPC barcode, but it is more commonly used outside of North America. EAN barcodes can identify products and track their movement through the global supply chain.
- Code 39: A Code 39 barcode is one of the oldest types of barcodes and is still widely used today. They are versatile and can be used to encode various data, including alphanumeric characters, special characters, and numeric data. A Code 39 barcode is commonly used in applications such as inventory management, shipping, and manufacturing.
- Code 128: A Code 128 barcode is similar to a Code 39 barcode, but it is more efficient and can store more data in a smaller space. It is commonly used in applications such as packaging, shipping, and logistics.
- Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF): An ITF barcode is a numeric-only barcode that is commonly used in applications such as warehousing and manufacturing. An ITF barcode is well-suited for applications where the barcode needs to be scanned quickly and accurately.
The most common 2D barcodes and their uses and applications are:
- QR (Quick Response) code: QR codes are the most common type of 2D barcode. They are square symbols that can store a large amount of data, including text, URLs, and contact information. QR codes are commonly used in mobile marketing, product authentication, and supply chain management.
- Data Matrix: Data Matrix barcodes are two-dimensional barcodes that are capable of storing a large amount of data in a small space. Data Matrix barcodes are commonly used in applications such as electronics manufacturing, healthcare, and aerospace.
- PDF417: PDF417 barcodes are two-dimensional barcodes that are capable of storing a very large amount of data. PDF417 barcodes are commonly used in applications such as transportation and logistics, government, and healthcare.
- Aztec Code: Aztec Code barcodes are two-dimensional barcodes that are similar to QR codes, but they are more efficient and can store more data in a smaller space. Aztec Code barcodes are commonly used in applications such as mobile marketing, product authentication, and supply chain management.
- MaxiCode: MaxiCode barcodes are two-dimensional barcodes that are designed to be scanned quickly and accurately. MaxiCode barcodes are commonly used in applications such as postal automation and retail.
Composition of Barcodes
Barcodes are composed of modules, which are the individual dark and light bars or squares that make up the barcode. The data stored in a barcode is encoded by the arrangement of the modules.
For example, in a 1D barcode, data is encoded using a series of alternating vertical bars and spaces of varying widths. The width and sequence of these bars and spaces represent different alphanumeric data when scanned.
In a 2D barcode, each module refers to the smallest square or dot that makes up the code and represents multiple bits of data. The barcode data is encoded by the arrangement of black and white modules in a matrix. Each style of 2D code is built with varying module configurations, which refers to the number of modules in a symbol. As the amount of data increases, the number of modules increases, resulting in larger, more complex symbols to accommodate more data.
Printing Industry Standards for Barcodes
There are a number of printing industry standards for 1D and 2D barcodes. These standards are designed to ensure that barcodes are printed correctly and can be scanned accurately and reliably.
One of the most important printing industry standards for barcodes is the GS1 General Specifications. The GS1 General Specifications include requirements for barcode size, print quality, and placement. Check the GS1 website here!
Industry Standard Minimums for Barcodes
- For 1D Barcodes: Each bar should have a minimum width of 0.01” (0.33mm)
- For 2D Barcodes: Each module (smallest square or dot) should have a minimum size of 0.01” x 0.01” (0.25mm x 0.25mm). For example, a Version 1 QR code with a dimension of 21 x 21 modules, at minimum, would result in a total size of 0.21” x 0.21” (5.25mm x 5.25mm)
- There must be a high contrast between the light and dark bars or modules.
- Image quality must be high resolution or preferably vectored.
Common Issues with Barcodes Not Scanning
There are a number of common issues that can cause barcodes to not scan properly. These can be:
- Barcode damage: Dirt, moisture, and abrasion can all damage barcodes.
- Barcode quality: Low resolution or low quality images; use vector format when possible.
- Scanner settings: It’s important to configure your scanner settings (select the right barcode type) before you scan your barcode.
- Improper barcode size: Barcodes must be sized correctly. Barcodes that are too small or too large may be difficult or impossible for the scanner to read.
- Improper barcode placement: Barcodes must be placed on a smooth, flat surface to scan properly. Barcodes on curved surfaces or on surfaces with wrinkles or folds may be difficult or impossible for the scanner to read.
Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Proper Barcode Usage
We recommend using the highest quality/ highest resolution barcodes to ensure the best final product. Barcode generators are software applications that create barcode images. Barcode generators are typically easy to use and can generate barcode images for a variety of barcode symbologies. Some barcode software applications are Barcode Studio, Tec-It Online Barcode Generator, and Barcode Factory.
Every barcode needs quiet zones on either side, which are blank areas without any text or graphics. This is because barcode scanners need to be able to identify where the barcode starts and ends in order to scan it accurately. If the barcode does not have quiet zones, the scanner may have difficulty finding the start and end of the barcode, or it may mistake the background color of the package for part of the barcode.
Adjusting Certain 1D Barcodes for Height
Several commonly used 1D barcode styles, like UPC and 128 barcodes that have vertical bars, can be generated with very tall bar modules. The space required to fit these barcodes on some packaging may be limiting. Cropping the bar height of these barcodes for space limitations can allow barcodes to print on smaller surfaces, such as smaller product packaging. If you are considering cropping the bar height of 1D barcodes for space limitations, it is important to test it, and consult with a barcode expert to ensure that the barcodes will still be scannable and reliable. We recommend a minimum height of .25” (6.4 mm) for these style barcodes.
Printing Barcodes in 100% Black
Most printers print with CMYK, which means the printer uses four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to produce the final product. When barcode artwork is printed using a CMYK build, the printer has to mix the four colors together to create the desired shade of black. It is highly recommended to convert barcodes to 100% black before printing. This is because black ink is the most opaque color, and it will produce the sharpest and most consistent barcode lines. To accomplish this, use a barcode generator that allows you to export your barcodes in 100% black. Or, if you are using a design program, such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, convert the barcode to 100% black before submitting your artwork.
The Future of Barcodes
Barcodes are constantly evolving. New barcode technologies are being developed to improve efficiency, accuracy, and security. For example, dynamic barcodes can be updated in real time to display the most up-to-date information. Interactive barcodes can be scanned to trigger actions, such as opening a website or launching an app.
Ways Barcodes Can Be Used to Integrate Interactive Packaging:
- Scan for more information: Consumers can scan a barcode on a product to view more information about the product, such as nutritional information, product reviews, or recipes. This information can be displayed on the consumer’s smartphone or tablet, or it can be displayed on a nearby screen, such as a store display or a digital signage system.
- Scan for a demo: Consumers can scan a barcode on a product to watch a demo video of how to use the product. This can be helpful for products that are complex or that have new features. The demo video can be displayed on the consumer’s smartphone or tablet, or it can be displayed on a nearby screen, such as a store display or a digital signage system.
- Scan for product instructional videos: Consumers can scan a barcode on a product to watch product instructional videos. This can be helpful for products that require assembly or that have specific instructions for use. The product instructional videos can be displayed on the consumer’s smartphone or tablet, or they can be displayed on a nearby screen, such as a store display or a digital signage system.
Integrating interactive packaging with barcodes has a number of benefits for both consumers and businesses. For consumers, interactive packaging can provide more information about products, make it easier to learn how to use products, and provide a more engaging and interactive shopping experience. For businesses, interactive packaging can help to increase sales, improve customer satisfaction, and reduce customer support costs. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more innovative ways to use barcodes to integrate interactive packaging.