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The Barcode Labeling System

The first Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned in 1974 in a small town in Ohio. The world hasn’t looked back since then. UPC is a type of barcode label and many of us can’t imagine a time when these black and white lines were not present on products.

Barcodes make the process of buying items in stores much faster, but these codes do more than return the price of products.

There is a whole world hidden behind barcodes and their usefulness extends far beyond simplifying shopping. There are different types of barcodes, different ways to print and read them, and even different ways to acquire or generate barcodes.

What is a Barcode Labelling System?

A barcode labeling system is a method used to collect data or retrieve encoded information about an item. Barcodes are the heart of the barcode labeling system. The simplest barcodes consist of a series of vertical black and white lines of variable thicknesses.

According to Keyence, there are around 100 different barcode symbologies in use around the world. UPC is the most common type of barcode but it can only represent numeric values. Other types such as CODE39 can represent numbers, letters, and other characters.

When a scanner is pointed at a barcode, the black lines absorb the light from the scanner and the white lines reflect it. A computer translates the pattern of lines into a sequence of characters corresponding to a specific type of item.

Scanning a barcode allows an operator to access information about an item or prompts the system to make an update that indicates a specific product has been introduced or taken out of the system. Barcodes can also be used to track the movements of people or items.

Components of Barcode Systems

Different components work together in barcode systems to achieve the desired goal. These systems will typically include:

  •  Barcode Labels: These are the printed symbols with encoded information. They can be printed on special materials attached to the products using an adhesive or printed directly on products.
  • Scanner: This is an optical device used to read the barcode and transmit the information to a computer network. Traditional scanners have light sources and detectors, but modern camera-based readers don’t need inbuilt light sources.
  • Computer network: This is the computer hardware and software the system operates on. A barcode system will need databases and a network that enables devices to communicate. The software system is also needed to retrieve or update information.

Companies that need barcodes for internal resource management will also need a barcode generator and a label printer.

Benefits of Barcode System

Barcodes automate the process of retrieving and updating information about items. This has many benefits compared to manual data handling. Some of these benefits are explained below.

Improved Accuracy

Computers handle mundane and monotonous tasks with better accuracy than humans. If people had to manually enter data on every product in a warehouse or items being checked out in a store, there would be many errors resulting in significant waste and losses.

Better Inventory Control

When a barcode is scanned, information in the database is updated in real time. Therefore, the business will have accurate information on stock levels making it easier to maintain optimal inventory levels.

Simplicity

Employees would need more training to ensure the system runs smoothly if they couldn’t simply scan barcodes. They would have to know certain product codes by heart and how to operate certain systems to update information. Barcodes eliminate the need for all that.

Affordability

The hardware and software costs of setting up a barcode system are fairly low especially if the barcodes are for internal use only. When the upfront costs are compared to the expenses and losses avoided, the value proposition of using barcodes is immense.

Standardization

Using barcodes makes it easier to standardize processes such as handling items in warehouses. Standardized processes increase productivity because employees don’t waste time figuring out what to do or where to go when bringing items into or out of the warehouse.

Types of Barcodes

As stated earlier, there are different types of barcodes but some are used more often than others. Additionally, some types of barcodes are geared toward specific use cases.

1D Vs 2D Barcodes

Before diving into the specific types of barcode symbologies, you should note that there are one-dimensional (1D) and two-dimensional (2D) barcodes.

1D barcodes are made up of vertical lines and spaces only. Data is encoded in the thickness of the lines or spacing. 1D barcodes are limited in the amount of information they can hold. One example is UPC barcodes.

2D barcodes are images made up of dots, squares, and other shapes. These barcodes store data horizontally and vertically giving them more data-encoding capacity. A quick response or QR code is one example of a 2D barcode.

Common Types of Barcodes

Some of the barcodes you’re likely to come across today are:

  • UPC Codes: UPC codes are used for consumer goods to facilitate quick processing at points of sale. These barcodes are mainly used in the US but can also be found in other countries. These barcodes are issued and managed by GS1, a global non-profit.
  • EAN Codes: These are the European equivalent of UPC codes. There are 13-digit and 8-digit codes. The latter are used on products with limited space. These barcodes are also managed by GS1.
  • QR Codes: Quick response codes are 2D barcodes that can hold alphanumeric data, binary data, Kanji, among others. QR codes are used for advertisement, marketing, tracking, etc. These codes are free to use, unlike UPC and EAN codes.
  • Codabar: Codabar codes are found in healthcare and logistics operations such as blood banks in the US and FedEx. They can encode 16 characters. Codabars are falling out of favor and being replaced by smaller barcode forms.
  • Code 39: These barcodes can encode integers and additional characters. Their use is spread out in many industries including the US Department of Defense. Due to their size, these barcodes aren’t well suited for small items.
  • ITF Codes: ITF stands for Interleaved 2 of 5. These codes are to label packaging materials. They can be printed on corrugated cardboard used for shipping which is a major selling point.
  • Code 128: These barcodes are popular in transport and logistics. They are small and high-density and support all 128 ASCII characters. The large amount of data held by these codes makes them a good option for logistics.

Some barcode symbologies also have add-on codes. EAN 2 and EAN 5 are both addon codes for EANs and UPCs. The former is used for magazines and the latter is used for books.

Where are Barcodes Used?

You may be familiar with the use of barcodes in retail but this system is very useful and other industries are adopting barcode systems as well.

Air Travel

Barcodes are used in air travel to manage inventory and track the movement of packages. Thanks to smartphones and QR codes, you can also use barcodes to check in, get vouchers, locate your baggage, etc. Access to some areas of the airport may also be controlled using barcodes.

Healthcare

Barcodes are used in healthcare to ascertain the authenticity of medical supplies. Healthcare personnel can scan the codes on medication to confirm certain information about the drugs. DataMatrix barcodes, a type of 2D barcode are commonly used for this. They can be scanned using cellphone cameras.

Warehouse Management

Warehouses are busy places and can contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of individual items. This makes it a challenge to keep track of items especially those packed in boxes. Many warehouses have internal barcodes that they use to identify different products, racks, and warehouse sections. This makes retrieval and storage of items easier and faster.

Advertising

It’s common to walk into a business or buy a magazine and find a QR code that you can scan. These codes usually contain links that take you to a webpage and companies use this for advertising and marketing.

Industrial Use Cases for Barcodes

The importance of barcodes on consumer products is easy to appreciate. However, these codes are just as important in industrial applications. In manufacturing, warehousing, construction, and similar industries, barcodes can be used for:

  • Access Control: There are hazardous and high-security areas in industry that require controlled access. Barcodes on ID badges issued to employees and visitors ensure that only authorized personnel can enter certain areas.
  • Sorting and Tracking: Manufacturing companies receive many packages. Using barcodes, employees can quickly know where a package is supposed to go. This also helps when a package, e.g., a small box of spares needs to be located later.
  • Machine Tagging: Machines and other items in companies can be tagged using barcodes. These codes can be used to retrieve different information about the machine, e.g., maintenance history and safety incidents.
  • Time tracking: Employees can be given barcoded ID badges that they can quickly scan to record when they come to work.

Creating A Barcode System for Industrial Use

Creating a barcode for internal use in industry is relatively easy. Unlike barcodes for retail products which must be paid for and are issued by GS1, all you need to set up an internal barcode system are scanners, computers, network infrastructure, and barcode labels. You can create the system by following the steps below.

Step #1: Planning

Planning is an essential step to ensure the barcode system is implemented correctly. It will help avoid issues such as barcode duplication and non-intuitive or inefficient processes.

At this stage, you’ll need to decide which items, racks, and warehouse sections need barcodes and how barcodes in different sections will be scanned, e.g., items in elevated racks. You’ll also need to review the warehouse layout, how items move in, through, and out of sections, and when they should be scanned.

Step#2: Software Configuration

Barcode systems require good inventory software. This software will have to be configured so it takes certain actions when a barcode is scanned. Check the requirements of the inventory software to confirm which scanners and symbologies it’s compatible with.

This is also a good opportunity to think about the type of scanners you’ll need for the system.

Step#3: Pick a Symbology

Choose a barcode symbology that’s compatible with your software system and scanners. The symbology should also have the capacity to encode the information you need encoded. For finished goods that will pass through different points of sale, it may be useful to get standardized UPC codes.

Step#4: Design Barcode Label and Choose Materials

There are different types of barcode labels depending on the environment, the type of item being labeled, and other factors. The labels should be designed to be readable by the scanner and a suitable material should be chosen that won’t peel off or fade.

Step#5: Generate and Print Labels

Once the label designs are ready and you have the information to be encoded, the last step is to generate and print the labels. Generating barcodes is easy with a free barcode generator. You will need a suitable printer to print the labels.

Conclusion

Barcodes are simple yet useful tools that have made inventory management and sales processing faster than they ever were. Their use has expanded beyond retail and they have become necessary tools in logistics, manufacturing, and even healthcare.

UPCs and EANs are the most common types of barcodes. However, there are many other barcode symbologies including 2 dimensional ones like QR codes which can encode significantly more information.

Setting up a barcode system for industrial use is relatively simple. You’ll need to come up with a plan for how the system will work and which software and hardware you’ll use. Once you have that, you can generate your barcodes using a free barcode generator and print the labels.

Additional Resources