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Home Page > Articles > What's A Barcode

 

What's a Barcode?

Here we attempt to de-mystify barcoding and barcodes.   So if you want to know a little bit about those lines and spaces that have made themselves an essential part of our daily life, read on!

What's a barcode?

The use of barcodes in industry can be traced back as far as the 1960s. One of the earliest applications was for the identification of rolling stock for the rail road companies in the US.  Barcodes started appearing on grocery shelves in the early 1970s and today, barcodes are just about everywhere and are used for identification in almost all types of business. When barcodes are implemented in the business processes, procedures can be automated to increase productivity and reduce human error.  Studies were performed by the US military and the results are often quoted to support barcoding projects, even today.

Why are there so many types of barcodes?

Like all good technologies, the pioneers of barcoding designed barcodes for a specific task .   So today the barcode you would use for a task has been greatly simplified  and the barcode type is usually determined by the implementation; the type of data you need to encode in the barcode or how you wish to print the barcode. There are several different types of barcode standards for different purposes and these are referred to symbologies. Each type of symbology (or barcode type) is a standard that defines the printed symbol and how a device such as a barcode scanner reads and decodes the printed symbol.

If an industry standard or vertical standard has been established for your industry, then you should select the barcode symbology for your industry vertical.  Barcode standards define how to use the barcode symbology in a particular situation. For example, ISBN is a standard for labelling books and periodicals that uses the EAN-13 symbology. Below, is a table of common established barcode standards and what they are used for:

Established Standard: For Identification of:
UPC-A or UPC-E items for sale in the USA and Canada
EAN-8 or EAN-13 items for sale worldwide
ISBN, ISSN & Bookland books and periodicals
UCC-128, EAN-128 or SSCC-18 shipping cartons
SCC-14 shipping cartons
EAN-14 shipping cartons
SSCC-18 shipping cartons
SISAC serial numbers for serial publications 
SICI Code serial numbers for serial publications 
POSTNET US mail addresses for the US Post Office
USPS Special Services US mail return receipts and registered mail
MICR bank checks
LOGMARS United States Department of Defence standard

I just want to code something for my own use!

If you are not a technical person or programmer, you should try to use the self-checking barcode fonts. Self-checking fonts have checking code built-in so you do not have to calculate check characters. Check characters are used in more dense symbologies so the barcode scanner can verify it read the barcode correctly.

A Simple Guide

Below are some simple guidelines for successfully selecting a barcoding symbology that will work for you:
  • If you want Alpha numeric but only uppercase letters, numbers and these symbols (- . $ / + %), up to about 15 digits, choose Code 39. Code 39 is the most dense self-checking alpha-numeric symbology.
  • If you need full uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, punctuation, any letter or symbol appearing on the US 101 key keyboard and lower ASCII functions such as returns and tabs, up to about 20 digits, use Code 128.
  • several lines of data of any type over 20 digits, use PDF417 or Data Matrix.

If you intend to use barcode fonts when faxing documents:

We have evaluated several popular barcodes and found that the Data Matrix barcode is the most dependable in the faxing environment.  DataMatrix is one of the smallest and most dependable barcode symbologies. Compared to other barcode types, Data Matrix is approximately 30 times smaller than a Code 39 barcode representing the same data.

The most area efficient barcode symbologies:

There are many situations when the space a barcode occupies is a concern. Here, we have evaluated several alpha-numeric barcode types. These are all encoding the same data of "BARCODE12345678" with the same narrow bar width or X dimension of .03CM or 10 mils. Keep in mind also that barcode scanners read X dimensions of some barcode types better than others. For example, The Symbol Cobra Laser Scanner dependably and easily read our Code 39 barcode font printed at 6 points, but only reads the Code 128 barcode font printed at 8 points and above. This is most likely because Code 39 uses just 2 bar widths and Code 128 uses 4. The barcodes will not appear in actual size until they are printed. 

I can't read a Barcode!

There are many reasons why you may not be able to read a barcode with your scanner.

The most common cause is that barcodes are like a language and the barcode reader the translator, if the language (symbology) is not turned on in the barcode reader you will not be able to read the barcode.  Manufacturers often turn off the decoding for many languages, so often this can be remedied by re-configuring the barcode scanner.

The other main cause is that the barcode you are trying to read is not recognised as a barcode.  This can be caused by a printing error, poor layout of the barcode or even some of the barcode is missing!  All barcode Symbologies have rules, start, stop, and check characters all of which must be in their place so the scanner can "detect" the barcode.  This problem is harder to remedy as it is the barcode at fault and not the user.

How do I check My Barcode?

One of the most common methods of reading barcodes is by use of the hand held barcode scanner.  Most of the scanners we sell receive their power from the PC keyboard or USB port so no external power supply is required. When a barcode is scanned in, the data is sent to your PC as if it had been typed by the keyboard.

Most barcode scanners can read common linear symbologies such as code 39, UPC, EAN, Code 128 and Codabar if it is enabled in the scanner. Keep in mind that most scanner manufacturers usually ship new scanners with most symbologies disabled, so you should make sure your symbology is enabled before you attempt to scan. It is possible to scan barcodes that are printed at very small x dimensions (the x dimension is the width of the narrow bar in the the code). Before attempting to read barcodes that are printed with small x dimensions, check your barcode scanner manual to make sure your scanner can read it. Also, make sure your printer can accurately reproduce barcodes at these sizes.

Contact Mr Scanman for any assistance required in selecting a barcode symbology.

 

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