Barcodes provide an effective, operational way to represent data, but there are some key distinctions that make each barcode type more or less useful for a particular application. Across industries such as retail, shipping, healthcare, military, and automotive, barcode symbologies have evolved to enable efficient and error-free transfer of information. Today, barcode symbologies run the gamut from the ubiquitous UPC-A code and the surging QR code to the secure, data-rich PDF417.
There are two common types of barcodes. One dimensional (1D) barcodes represent data in lines and spacings of parallel lines. Two dimensional (2D) barcodes represent data using symbols and shapes. Notably, 2D barcodes require a more sophisticated digital image sensor, such as a camera, to be read, while legacy scanners at point of sale and for inventory management typically only have 1D barcode scanning capabilities.
Here are some of the most popular 1D and 2D barcode symbologies to consider for business.
A high-density, compact barcode typically used in shipping, packing, inventory management and asset tracking. Code 128 is particularly versatile: the variable-length symbology encodes the entire ASCII character set, features two forms of error checking, and encodes more densely than Code 39 or Interleaved 2of5.
One of the most widely used barcodes, it’s often employed in military and automotive industries. Code 39 is discrete and variable-length, and it supports 43 alphanumeric characters. It also incorporates error checking, meaning that a printing error can’t misconstrue one character as another.
Intended to improve Code 39, it’s denser and more compact than its predecessor. The continuous, variable-length, error-checking symbology encodes 43 alphanumeric characters and five special characters. The Canada Post utilizes this barcode type for encoding supplementary delivery information. It’s also used in manufacturing.
Used primarily by FedEx airbills, photo labs, and U.S. blood banks, this symbology is particularly convenient to print. The discrete, self-checking barcode encodes up to 16 characters, and it can be produced using consecutive numbers without a computer.
This high-density, continuous, variable-length, self-checking symbology is called such because two numeric digits are “interleaved” together: the bars typify one digit and the spaces represent a second digit. It’s one of the most popular barcode types used by the shipping and warehouse industries, as it can be printed on corrugated cardboard. This symbology typically encodes 14 numeric digits.
Widely used on retail products for point-of-sale scanning, this 12-digit, numeric symbology is utilized in the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. It’s made up of four parts: the number system (a single digit that identifies product type), manufacturer code (assigned by the UCC Council), product code (assigned by the manufacturer) and an error-checking digit. (An alternative is the UPC-E, which encodes six numerical digits.)
Also used in retail for point of sale, the European Article Numbering (EAN) system is primarily used in European countries. The numeric, continuous and fixed-length code is similar to UPC-A codes, except that it uses a 13th digit as an error-checking character.
This 2D barcode is used primarily to mark small electronic components like integrated circuits and printed circuit boards. The symbology, which requires specialized 2D barcode scanners to read, can encode roughly fifty characters of data in a 2mm or 3mm square and has high fault tolerance.
Widely used for airline boarding passes and ticketing, these barcodes are compact and efficient. Unlike other matrix barcodes, they don’t require a surrounding blank “quiet zone” and can be decoded even if the print quality of the barcode is poor.
This 2D stacked barcode symbology, used in the shipping industry, medical records, and on standard identification cards such as driver’s licenses, can encode very large amounts of data. The robust PDF417 has the capacity to hold over 1.1 kilobytes of data and allows for nine different security levels. This barcode type requires specially designed handheld 2D laser or CCD scanners to decode.
This 2D barcode is very popular due to their readability, accuracy, and flexibility. Used in retail and marketing, the symbology uses position detection patterns to maintain high-speed reading, can store huge amounts of data and has high fault tolerance. Notably, Apple iOS 11 includes native QR scanning functionality right in the camera, with no other apps required.
→ Barcode scanning is an integral component to modern retail, but not all scanning technology is the same.
Read: Image-Based Scanning vs Traditional Scanning
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