Navigating Types of Barcodes, Their Significance, and Applications

keyKey Takeaways:
  • Barcodes are machine-readable codes in the form of numbers and patterns of parallel lines of varying widths on products. You can scan them to know or input their details like price, type, weight, expiration date, or source of origin quickly and efficiently.
  • One-dimensional (1-D) barcodes and two-dimensional (2-D) barcodes are the two prominent types of barcodes. While 1-D barcodes store information only horizontally, 2-D barcodes can store information both horizontally and vertically.
  • Various popular barcode types are UPC, EAN, Code 139, Code 93, QR Code, data matrix, and Intelligent mail code. The choice of a barcode depends upon your specific business needs, data storage requirements, and the space you have to affix them.

Wheth er you are a retail store owner navigating your store’s aisles for inventory audit or a delivery manager tracking your parcels, you must be familiar with a pattern of black and white bars on products. Scanning them can immediately display an ample amount of information about your product, including name, price, origin, or weight. 

Ever wondered what these patterns are and why they are popular and virtually “omnipresent” across healthcare, retail, logistics services, and multiple such industries? 

Well, these are nothing but various types of barcodes that pave the way to easy information input and retrieval. 

Since its invention by Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland in 1948, a barcode has evolved to become a pivotal aspect of today’s business landscape due to its high-accuracy input, enhanced traceability, and cost-effectiveness. 

Moreover, a recent surge in digitization and COVID-19 have propelled the adoption of barcodes, with businesses seeking contactless solutions for information tracking and updates.

Surprisingly, the market for barcode scanners is projected to reach USD 16.86 billion by 2033 as businesses are increasingly implementing the barcode system and looking for digital technologies for scanning and analyzing data in them.

This blog covers the meaning of barcodes, their components, and the different types of barcodes widely adopted across multiple industries. It also explains why they are important and how you can create and use them for your business.

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What is a Barcode?

A barcode is a small pattern of lines (bars) and spaces affixed to retail store products, identification cards, or postal mail that help retrieve details, like:

– Product number,
– Location
– Price
– Manufacturer’s name.

The code uses a sequence of vertical bars and spaces to represent numbers, characters, or bytes.

Now that the meaning of a barcode is clear, let’s understand how it is beneficial for your business.

4 Primary Benefits of Barcodes

Barcodes are known for their accuracy and efficiency. Below are the benefits they provide.

1. Efficient data entry

Barcodes allow for automated data entry and minimize the risk of manual input errors. Further, rapid scanning of barcodes enables you to cut down on time to enter data manually, enhancing operational speed and efficiency.

2. Enhances inventory management

Barcodes provide real time visibility into your inventory levels, allowing you to track and manage them effectively. This also helps avoid situations like overstocking or stock-outs and optimizes resource utilization.

3. Enables asset tracking and visibility

Barcodes contribute to tracking and managing your assets, including your factory’s equipment or machinery in your warehouse. It helps reduce the chances of loss, theft, or misplacement, resulting in cost savings and improved asset utilization. 

4. Facilitates last-mile delivery optimization

Integrating barcode technology with route optimization software helps optimize routes and track delivery progress in real time. It, thus, helps enhance delivery efficiency, reduce delays, and keep your customers updated through real time ETAs.

Moving ahead, let’s discuss the different types of barcodes that various businesses use.

Types of Barcodes

Barcodes fall under two main categories: One-dimensional (also called linear) and two-dimensional. 

Below is a comparison table to help you understand how these two barcode types differ.

Aspect One-Dimensional (1D) Barcode Two-dimensional barcode
Basic structure Composed of vertical bars and spaces of varying widths. Utilizes a matrix or grid of square or rectangular patterns, encoding data in both horizontally and vertically.
Data capacity Have only limited data capacity and typically contain only numeric or alphanumeric characters. Have higher data capacity and can store varied data types, including text, numbers, and even binary data.
Data encoding Encodes data by varying the widths and spacings of bars. Encodes data using patterns of dots, squares, or other geometric shapes within the matrix.
Size of code Generally smaller and narrower. Compact and square or rectangular, often containing a higher density of data.
Readability Readable by laser scanners or CCD imagers. Requires specialized 2D barcode scanners, camera-equipped devices, or smartphones.
Applications Commonly used for simple identification purposes, such as UPC barcodes on products. Widely used in various applications, including marketing, logistics, and document management, due to their ability to store more information.
Industries Retail, logistics, and inventory management. Healthcare, automotive, manufacturing, and document tracking.
Error correction Limited error correction capabilities Enhanced error correction capabilities, allowing you to successfully read damaged or partially obscured codes.
Global standards Follows global standards like UPC and EAN. Various 2D barcode standards, including QR code (ISO/IEC 18004) and Data Matrix (ISO/IEC 16022)
Example code formats UPC (Universal Product Code), EAN-13 (European Article Number), Code 39. QR code (Quick Response Code), Data Matrix, PDF417.

One-Dimensional Barcodes (Linear Barcodes)

1D barcodes have only vertical bars and spaces of varying widths. Within those bars and spaces, you can encode your data horizontally from left to right. One of the most common examples of a 1-dimensional barcode is the Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode. 

Here are the common 1-D barcodes:

1. Universal Product Code (UPC)

Named for its universal adoption and application in various industries globally.

UPC is a globally popular numeric code that you can use to track retail items in your store. Each UPC consists of scannable strips of black bars and white spaces with a 12-digit numeral under them. People also refer to this standard 12-digit version of UPC as UPC A. 

Each black bar or white space corresponds to only one numeral under it. It implies that you can represent each strip consisting of black bars and white spaces numerically in just one way. It lets you assign a unique UPC barcode to each item for its easy and fast identification. 

However, in the case of smaller packages where UPCA may not fit, you can use the UPC E version. Unlike UPC A barcodes that use a 12-digit numeric code, this UPC code variant uses a 6-digit code to uniquely identify each item. The other less commonly used variants of UPC are UPC B, UPC C, UPC D, UPC 2, and UPC 5.

Pros: Simple, widely accepted, and efficient for retail transactions

Cons: Limited capacity of information

Industries: This code is popular primarily among retail industries as it provides you with unique product identification capabilities. The 12-digit structure it has enables efficient tracking of diverse retail items to streamline inventory management and sales processes.

2. European Article Number (EAN)

Originally designed for European retailers, now used globally.

European Article Number consists of 13 or 8 digits based on which it has two versions, namely EAN 8 and EAN 13. Often used on your product’s packaging, it lets you scan and decode its numbers to find details like the price and print it on your bill. 

EAN 13: EAN-13 includes details, including the country, company, and article number. In this variant, the first digit is outside the barcode symbol, and a quiet zone indicator (>) is on the right. It prompts you to use barcode scanners in quiet zones to ensure they work optimally.  

EAN 8: Just like UPC A, EAN also has a shorter variation, EAN 8, that consists of only 8 numbers and is ideal for labeling small packages.

Pros: Globally accepted, making international retail transactions easy

Cons: Limited data capacity, rendering it generally unsuitable for complex information

Industries: This barcode type is commonly used in retail, logistics, and supply chain management industries. Due to their acceptance across the globe, they ensure standardized product identification, boosting inventory management and efficiency. 

3. Code 39 (also called Alpha 39, Code 3 of 9, Code 3/9, Type 39, or USS Code 39)

Named for its pattern of space and bars, with 3 bars and spaces being wide out of 9.

The Code 39 barcode defines 43 characters. These consist of 26 uppercase letters (A – Z), 10 numeric digits (0-9), and 7 special characters ($, +, /, and %). Each character consists of 9 elements, including five bars and four spaces. This barcode doesn’t have a check digit, but you can use it as a self-check also. 

Pros: Widely accepted, easily decodable with any barcode scanner, and easy to print

Cons: Relatively low data density and requires more space to encode data

Industries: Ideal for healthcare, logistics, and automotive industries as it provides versatility in encoding alphanumeric characters. For instance, you can use it to identify patient identification in healthcare. Similarly, you can encode diverse data on shipping labels in logistics. You can also use it to label parts like engine components or chassis elements in the automotive industry to facilitate their easy identification and tracking throughout manufacturing and assembly.

4. Code 128

Named for its ability to encode all 128 American Standard Code for the Information Exchange (ASCII) characters.

Code 128 uses an extension symbol FNC4. It is a high-density barcode that enables you to encode more information.

Pros: High data density and versatile character encoding

Cons: Requires more space than other 2D barcodes

Industries: Suitable for logistics and packaging industries as you can encode extensive information in a limited space using the high-density encoding it enables

5. Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF)

Named for its encoding method, where two digits are interleaved, and two out of 5 bars are wide. 

ITF combines or interleaves pairs of digits into a single barcode character. Each character comprises five bars (or black lines) and five spaces (or white lines) interleaved with them. The five bars represent the first digit of the pair, while the five spaces represent the second. 

Pros: Compact and suitable for marking product or ID numbers of varying lengths.

Cons: Limited to only numeric usage

Industries: Ideal for warehousing and delivery logistics as its structure facilitates compact representation, enabling efficient labeling and tracking of parcels through your entire supply chain.

6. Code 93

Named due to each character being nine modules wide with three bars and spaces.

This barcode is variable in length, with each bar and space between 1 and 4 modules in width. In addition to all the 43 characters in Code 39, it defines an additional 5 special characters that you can combine with other characters to represent the entire ASCII character set. 

Pros: Compact design to cover diverse information in a small space and ensure high security

Cons: Comparatively less common among 1D barcodes and is not self-checking, unlike Code 39

Industries: Used in logistics, automotive, retail, or manufacturing as its space efficiency enables compact yet detailed encoding.

7. Codabar barcodes (Codeabar, Ames Code, NW-7, Monarch, Code 2 of 7, Rationalized Codabar, ANSI/AIM BC3-1995 or USD-4)

Each character in the Codabar consists of 7 elements, 4 bars, and 3 spaces. An additional narrow row separates each character from adjacent characters. These characters can be of three types, including basic 12 symbols (0-9, $, and dash), 4 extra symbols, and 4 start and stop symbols. 

One wide bar and one wide space can combine in all possible ways to generate 12 symbols. Three wide bars and 0 spaces represent 4 extra symbols. 1 wide bar and 2 wide spaces represent start and stop symbols. 

Pros: Simple structure, versatile, easily printable on any paper, and requires no computer to create its code.

Cons: Limited data set, outdated, lack of global standards, and lower security 

Industries: Ideal for libraries, healthcare, and education as it is simple to use due to limited numeric characters.

Now that various 1-D barcode types are clear let’s understand different types of 2-D barcodes.

Two Dimensional (2-D) Barcodes

A two-dimensional (2D) barcode consists of patterns made of squares, rectangles, dots, hexagons, and rectangles. It stores different types of data like web addresses, text, images, or coupons both horizontally and vertically. This type of barcode can store up to 7,089 characters.

Here are the common types of 2D barcodes

1. Data matrix codes

Named for its primary function of encoding data in a matrix format.

Two solid adjacent borders in an “L” shape combine with two borders comprising dark and light dots to create a dot matrix. This type of barcode contains black and white ‘cells’ (sometimes referred to as dots) in a square or rectangular pattern, called a matrix. 

A light ‘cell’ generally denotes a ‘0’, while a ‘dark’ cell denotes a ‘1’. These rows and columns of cells contain your encoded information. You can encode data ranging up to 1556 bytes in size in a data matrix. 

Pros: High data capacity, built-in error correction mechanism to prevent scanning errors, high fault tolerance capability, lower resolution to facilitate omnidirectional scanning.

Cons: Requires an expensive special laser scanner or CCD cameras instead of simple barcode readers.  

Industries: More suitable for small electronic components and pharmaceuticals where space is limited, and you can fit up to 50 characters using this code in a single symbol.

2. Quick Response (QR) code

Named after its ability to be quickly read and decoded.

QR Codes have black dots contained in a square-shaped grid and have data encoded in vertical and horizontal components. The background is typically white with some markers that you can read and process using an imaging device as simple as your phone camera. 

Pros: Bulk information storage up to 7089 digits or 4296 characters, high damage tolerance capacity, and good error adjustment capacity

Cons: Unsecured and requires an uninterrupted internet connection. 

Industries: Appropriate for retailing, marketing, ticketing, delivery, mobile payment applications, or food & beverage, as they can store varied information, including website links and contact details.

3. PDF 417

Named after each pattern consisting of 4 bars and spaces in a 17-unit (or modules) long pattern.

Portable Data File (Portable Data File) 417 is a stacked barcode format comprising 3 to 90 rows of the same width, each similar to a small linear barcode. The number of codewords (or the group of bars and spaces representing one or more numbers, letters, or other symbols) are the same in each row. 

Patterns of dark and light bars regions represent these codewords, each representing a number of 0 to 928. 900 of the available codewords are used for data and 29 for functions like shifting between modes.

Pros: Large encoding capability and support for multiple data formats, including photographs, signatures, or fingerprints. 

Cons: Comparatively larger, occupying more space, and extremely sensitive to your scanner’s angle.

Industries: Suitable for government-issued identification cards like passports or driving licenses and transportation due to its stacked design and variable data capacity.

4. Aztec code

Named for its resemblance to an Aztec pyramid.

The Aztec symbol is a square grid that has a bullseye pattern at its center to help you locate your code. It enables you to encode data in concentric square rings around the bull’s eye. The central bull’s eye can vary in dimensions, typically being either 9 x 9 or 13 x 13 pixels. The data you add is in layers, containing two rings of pixels each. 

Pros: High data storage capacity to optimize space utilization, omnidirectional scanning capabilities, and good damage tolerance.

Cons: Requires complex laser scanners instead of general barcode scanners and requires considerable learning.

Industries: Ideal for transportation, ticketing, payment applications, and healthcare industries due to their high storage capacity and visually distinctive encoding of complex data.

5. Intelligent Mail Barcode (One Code Solution, 4-State Customer Barcode)

Named for “intelligent mail” services offered by the United States Postal Service for domestic mail delivery.

It is a height-modulated barcode that encodes up to 31 decimal digits of mail-piece data into 65 vertical bars. This code has four distinct symbols, with each bar containing the “central” tracker position, and may contain an ascender, descender, neither, or both.

Pros: High data capacity, versatility, and automated sorting 

Cons: Significantly longer than an ordinary bar code, necessitating more characters than the data it encodes. Limited to only 31 characters of data, including numbers, letters, or characters.

Industries: Mostly used in postal & courier services.

6. MaxiCode

MaxiCode looks like a 1-inch square, has a bullseye in the center, and a pattern of hexagonal dots surrounds it. This symbol stores around 93 characters of information and you can chain up to 8 Maxicode symbols together to convey more data. It is a machine-readable and public-domain symbol initially created by UPS. 

Pros: Versatility allowing encoding of different information types, including purchase order number, customer reference, and invoice number, and rapid scanning in any orientation.

Cons: Comparatively low storage capacity compared to other 2D codes.

Industries: Tailored for logistics and shipping as it facilitates effective package tracking, providing comprehensive and easily scannable representation of your parcel information.

Now that you are clear with all the major barcode types, the next section takes you through the process of creating and leveraging barcodes for your business.

10 Steps to Barcode Creation and Implementation

Creating barcodes and using them involves the following steps with the help of a real life industry example of delivery logistics.

Step 1: Determine your purpose and data requirements

Before you implement a barcode system, defining your purpose and data requirements is crucial. You should determine the type and amount of data you need to encode. It lays the groundwork for selecting an appropriate barcode type and designing a barcode system catering to your business requirements. 

For instance, if you own a last-mile delivery logistics company, your aim is to enhance your package tracking efficiency. The data you require will include unique package identifiers to help you track your parcels in real time.

Step 2: Select the right barcode type

Choosing the right barcode is indispensable as it helps you ensure integration with existing systems, scannability, and data storage capacity. Different barcodes serve varied purposes, including product identification, inventory management, or package tracking. You should consider the type, industry standards, data you must encode, and scanning equipment you need for that barcode.

Continuing from the above example of delivery logistics, you can pick the QR code as it provides high storage capacity and versatility. It can encode alphanumeric data and is compatible with mobile scanning devices that your delivery personnel use.

Step 3: Generate your unique identifier

This step entails assigning a distinct code to each of your items or products. This code serves as the key information of your product’s data that you will encode. Depending on your barcode type and data requirements, you can keep your identifier numeric or alphanumeric or define specific formatting rules.

As a delivery logistics manager, you can assign each package in your industry a unique alphanumeric identifier that you generate using your logistics management system. This identifier can be the basis of creating your QR code for each package.

Step 4: Encode your data

Encoding your data is the process of translating your unique identifier or data set into a specific pattern of black and white lines (bars and spaces) that represent your barcode symbol. This encoding process may require specialized software or tools to generate barcodes and may vary from one barcode type to another. Make sure you format your data correctly to ensure accuracy in scanning and decoding. 

In delivery logistics, you can use barcode generation software to encode your unique alphanumeric identifiers into your QR Code format. This encoding ensures that data is represented accurately within your QR code symbols.

Step 5: Design and print your code

In this step, you need to create a visually clear and easily readable (or scannable) representation of your encoded data. You can consider factors like barcode size, placement, and contrast to optimize your scanning performance. To print your barcode, you can choose thermal printing, laser printing, or inkjet printing while ensuring durability.

Your QR Code barcodes are generally suitable to print on adhesive labels, which you can paste on each package. These labels contain clear instructions on how to scan your barcode for your delivery personnel.  

Step 6: Place your barcode properly

Placing your barcode properly is essential for easy and accurate scanning throughout your product’s lifecycle. You should place your barcode in a secure location to prevent the risk of damage or difficulty scanning it. The position you place your barcode may vary depending on factors like your packaging material, product size, and scanning environment.

In delivery logistics, you can consider factors like package size, material, and handling specifications to place your barcode labels strategically on each parcel. In general, you can place your QR code on the lower-right side of the back of your package. You can also consider placing your barcode at least 8 mm away from any edge. Besides, you should refrain from placing your barcode on the bottom of your package. 

Step 7: Scan and decode your barcode

This step involves your delivery executives scanning your barcodes using handheld scanners or mobile devices. These scanners emit light that reflects and converts your barcode into an electrical signal representing your encoded data. Your scanning accuracy may vary based on barcode quality, type of scanner, or environmental conditions. 

Following this scanning, barcode decoding follows, which involves interpreting the pattern of bars and spaces to extract your encoded data. This process requires specialized software known as barcode readers or decoders that decode data and pass it on for further processing, including inventory management order fulfillment.

Your delivery personnel can scan your QR Code barcodes at key stages and processes in last-mile delivery, including pick-up, in-transit, or upon delivery. You can then decode the scanned QR Code in real time using mobile scanning devices to track package details, delivery locations, and statuses.

Step 8: Update your database or information system

In this step, you can integrate your decoded barcode data into your organization’s backend systems, like inventory management systems, tracking software, and sales tracking solutions. It helps facilitate timely and accurate data updates to boost your operational efficiency and inventory accuracy.  

Your decoded barcode data gets transmitted to your company’s central database. It updates your system in real time, providing you with up-to-date information on package locations and delivery statuses.

Step 9: Utilize your data for your business operations

Leverage the information you capture to make informed decisions regarding inventory management, order fulfillment, supply chain optimization, and sales analysis. This access to barcode data enables you to streamline operations, improve efficiency, and boost customer satisfaction. 

Your company leverages your barcode data to optimize your routes, schedule deliveries, and communicate with your customers. Real-time last-mile carrier tracking information enables proactive decision-making and enhances overall delivery efficiency. 

Various route optimization software like Upper also provides advanced routing algorithms to optimize and readjust your delivery routes based on traffic constraints, preferred delivery time slots, or distances of destinations. It helps you complete deliveries on time and enhance customer satisfaction levels.

Step 10: End-user interaction

This step involves your customers or stakeholders interacting with barcode–enabled products or services. They can scan QR codes to access product information, redeem promotions, or make purchases. These interactions enhance your customer engagement, provide valuable insights for decision-making, and facilitate personalized experiences. 

In delivery logistics, you can send SMS or email notifications to your customers that contain a QR code for package tracking. Scanning these QR codes can help them access detailed delivery information and estimated arrival times, and provide delivery preferences.

Frequently Asked Questions

Several types of barcodes are available, including UPC (Universal Product Code), EAN (European Article Number), Code 39, Code 128, QR Code, and Data Matrix. There is no fixed number of barcode symbologies as you can customize some open-format barcodes to suit your specific business needs.

In general, one-dimensional and two-dimensional barcodes are available in the market. While 1D barcode

UPC-A, a variant of the UPC barcode, is a 12-digit barcode mostly used in North America.

The main difference between EAN-8 and EAN-13 barcodes lies in their length. EAN-8 consists of 8 digits, while EAN-13 has 13 digits. You can use both variants for product identification, but their choice depends on the number of digits you require for encoding your data.

PDF 417 and QR code have the highest data storage capacity per square inch among 2D barcodes.

UPC and EAN barcodes are suitable for retail industries.

Barcodes typically store product information such as price and weight, date of manufacture, expiration date, and the manufacturer’s name.

Barcode scanners use a light source (e.g., laser or LED) to read reflected light from barcode lines and spaces. A photoelectric sensor converts this information into a digital signal, which a decoder interprets to extract data, aiding in inventory, sales, or other applications.

Barcode systems work by assigning unique codes to products, which are represented by patterns of lines and spaces. When you scan a barcode, a barcode reader captures the pattern, converts it into digital data, and decodes it to reveal product information. This facilitates efficient inventory management, sales tracking, and streamlined business processes.

Laser, handheld, CCD, and image scanners are four main types of barcode readers.

EAN-8, UPC-E, and Code 128 have small form factors.

Barcodes: Your Key to Seamless Information Management

Barcodes provide a standardized and reliable way to capture information swiftly and accurately and hence, are key to streamlining your data management and boosting operational efficiency. There are different types of barcodes available that vary in size, capacity, linearity, and checksum. 

Your choice of a barcode depends upon your specific business requirements. Considering factors like your storage requirements, the type of data you want to encode, and the space you have to affix them can help you arrive at the right type of barcode. 

Author Bio
Rakesh Patel
Rakesh Patel

Rakesh Patel, author of two defining books on reverse geotagging, is a trusted authority in routing and logistics. His innovative solutions at Upper Route Planner have simplified logistics for businesses across the board. A thought leader in the field, Rakesh's insights are shaping the future of modern-day logistics, making him your go-to expert for all things route optimization. Read more.