Introduction to barcodes
Barcodes have existed for over 50 years and have become indispensable for data storage. They gained popularity through UPC and EAN codes, which sped up supermarket checkouts. There are now around 30 important variants of barcodes used worldwide.
Barcodes fall into two categories: one-dimensional (1D) and two-dimensional (2D). 1D barcodes have lines that you can scan horizontally using laser scanners. On the other hand, 2D codes use vertical space and require cameras for scanning, such as imager scanners or smartphones. This article introduces popular barcode types and their characteristics.
Worldwide, businesses use UPC barcode types to label and scan consumer goods at the point of sale. They are prevalent in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. UPC codes play a dual role, expediting checkouts and streamlining inventory tracking for stores and warehouses. They ensure precise product tracking throughout the production and distribution processes.
UPC-A has twelve digits and uses the same encoding as EAN-13. However, it lacks the leading zero, which indicates North America. As a smaller version, UPC-E has six digits.
Variations: UPC-A, UPC-E
EAN barcodes are present worldwide to label consumer goods for point-of-sale scanning, with a primary focus on Europe. They look similar to UPC codes but serve different regions. The standard version, EAN-13, has 13 digits, while EAN-8, with 8 digits, is used for smaller items like candies.
EAN codes offer flexibility. EAN-13 can hold a lot of data in a small space, and EAN-8 is perfect for small products. Both are easy for 1D scanners to read, ensuring quick and smooth scanning.
Variations: EAN-13, EAN-8, JAN-13, ISBN, ISSN
Code 39 barcodes are widely used in various industries, including automotive and the U.S. Department of Defense. They allow both digits and characters and were initially limited to encoding 39 characters, but the latest version supports 43.
Code 39 is not as compact as Code 128 but still popular. However, it has lower data density, which may lead to scanning errors. To ensure data integrity, it’s recommended to use a checksum.
These barcodes are not suitable for very small items due to their size requirements. Despite this, Code 39 remains versatile because it doesn’t need a check digit and can be decoded by almost any barcode reader.
Industry: Automotive and Defense
Code 128 barcodes are compact and high-density. They’re commonly used in the logistics and transportation industries for ordering and distribution. They are mainly used for non-POS products, like supply chain applications that label units with serial shipping container codes (SSCC). Code 128 barcodes can store a wide range of information as they support any character from the ASCII 128 character set.
The greatest advantage of Code 128 is its high data density. It can store a lot of data in a small space, making it perfect for identifying shipped or packaged containers and items. These strengths make Code 128 barcodes an excellent choice for shipping and supply chain operations.
Industry: Supply Chain
ITF (Interleaved 2 of 5)
ITF barcodes, also known as Interleaved 2 of 5, are widely used for labeling packaging materials around the world. The most popular type is ITF-14, which contains 14 numeric digits.
A significant benefit of ITF barcodes is their ability to be directly printed on corrugated cardboard, making them a popular choice for product packaging. While they can only encode numbers and not letters, the advantage is that they do not require a check digit.
Logistics and retail inventory, use Code 93 barcodes for providing delivery info to Canadian Post. They offer full ASCII support like Code 39 but are around 25% shorter.
Code 93 is more compact and secure than Code 39 due to additional characters. Its small size and data redundancy make it perfect for various industries. This includes automotive, retail, and logistics.
Industry: Retail, Manufacturing and Logistics
Codabar barcodes find usage in logistics and healthcare, including U.S. blood banks, FedEx, photo labs, and libraries. They’re advantageous because they’re easy to print using any impact-style printer, even a typewriter. Users can create consecutive Codabar codes without a computer. Codabar is a discrete, self-checking symbology that encodes up to 16 characters, including 4 start/stop characters.
Codabar barcodes offer easy scanning and self-checking, reducing errors during data entry. Despite newer code forms with higher data capacity, Codabar is still commonly used in logistics, healthcare, and schools, particularly on the spines of library books.
Variations: Codabar, Ames Code, NW-7, Monarch, Code 2 of 7, Rationalized Codabar, ANSI/AIM BC3-1995, USD-4
Industry: Logistics, Healthcare and Education
GS1 DataBar barcodes, previously known as Reduced Space Symbology, are commonly used by retail outlets to identify consumer coupons, produce, perishables, and small healthcare items. Compared to regular consumer-facing barcodes, GS1 DataBar codes are more compact. In the U.S., they became the mandated barcode type for retail coupons in 2001.
These compact barcodes provide several advantages, such as helping leading retailers reduce point-of-sale transaction times.
Variations: GS1 DataBar Omnidirectional, Truncated, Stacked, Stacked Omnidirectional, Expanded, Expanded Stacked
Industry: Retail and Healthcare
MSI Plessey barcodes are used in retail for inventory management, like labeling supermarket shelves and warehouses for accurate inventory checking.
They can only encode numbers but can be of any length, accommodating large amounts of data. However, their binary format is less reliable and efficient than newer barcodes.
QR codes are one of the barcode types primarily used for tracking and marketing purposes, including advertisements, magazines, and business cards. They come in various sizes, have high fault tolerance, and are easy to read quickly, though laser scanners cannot read them. QR codes support four data modes: numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, and Kanji. Additionally, they are in the public domain and available for free use by anyone.
Industry: Retail, Entertainment and Advertising
Data Matrix Code
Data Matrix codes label small items, goods, and documents. Due to their small footprint, they are perfect for logistics and operations with tiny products. The U.S. Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) suggests using them for labeling small electronic components. Like QR codes, Data Matrix codes have high fault tolerance and quick readability. They offer high data density, taking up less space on products and assets.
Data Matrix codes are designed to be readable even in low resolution or with unideal scanning positions, and like other 2D barcodes, they have strong fault tolerance.
Variation: Micro-Data Matrix
Industry: Electronics, Retail and Government
PDF417 codes store large amounts of data, making them ideal for applications like storing photographs, fingerprints, and signatures. They can hold over 1.1 kilobytes of machine-readable data, making them more powerful than other 2D barcodes. Like QR codes, PDF417 barcodes are public domain and free for anyone to use. Due to their data efficiency, PDF417 codes are used in various applications, including transport and inventory management.
They are also well-suited for creating paper boarding passes and state-issued identification cards.
Variation: Truncated PDF417
Industry: Logistics and Government
Aztec codes are commonly used in the transportation industry, especially for tickets and airline boarding passes. They can still be decoded even with bad resolution, making them useful for poorly printed tickets or those displayed on phones. Aztec barcodes don’t require a surrounding blank “quiet zone,” allowing them to take up less space compared to some other 2D barcode types. They are highly space-efficient and can hold massive amounts of data while remaining relatively small. They also have excellent error correction to prevent scanning errors.
Although Aztec codes don’t support the same range of characters as QR codes, they are still powerful tools for transportation, healthcare, and other industries.
Find the Best Barcode for Your Business
Now that you have a better understanding of the most common 1D and 2D barcode types and their uses, here are some questions to help you find the right barcode type for your enterprise:
1. For retail stores, what type of barcode is commonly used for point-of-sale scanning?
- UPC and EAN barcodes are ideal.
2. If you need to support alphanumeric characters, which barcode types should you consider?
- Code 39, Code 128, and QR Code support alphanumeric characters.
3. If you have limited space on the product packaging, which barcodes are suitable?
- EAN8, UPC-E, Code 128, and Datamatrix have small form factors.
4. If you plan to print the barcode on corrugated cardboard, which barcode type is recommended?
- ITF is great for printing barcodes on corrugated cardboard.
5. If you need to store a large amount of data, which barcode type should you use?
- PDF417 codes are excellent for storing huge amounts of data.
Vasilina Maglara is a Digital Marketer from Greece. She works at Megaventory, a company that makes ERP software for medium-sized businesses. Eager to learn and grow, Vasilina is helping Megaventory and its customers succeed through effective marketing and content creation.