They are so common around the world today that we rarely even notice the barcodes that appear all around us. Not only used for retail goods when you do your grocery or clothing shopping, barcodes are also utilised by business and government, and widely in the postage and logistics industries amongst countless other fields.
What barcodes are used for and why they work:
Barcodes can be used to track everything from mail, to assets within a bank or large corporation, and even employees and vehicles. Barcodes are essentially a visual version of Morse code – where the dots have been extended upwards so that a barcode scanner can pick them up within milliseconds and speed up the data capture process, whilst at the same time drastically reducing the chance of error compared to a manual input system.
Because the bars and spaces of a barcode can be arranged in many different ways, there are as a result many different barcode “symbologies” possible. These include the common retail barcode formats UPC-12 (Universal Product Code) and EAN-13 (European Article Number), which are used to link a unique product type to its unique barcode number. This means that if you purchase a 1 litre bottle of a certain brand of milk, not only are you charged the appropriate price, but the store where you have made the purchase can also update their remaining inventory of each separate item. In this way a barcode is similar to a vehicle licence plate – the number itself has no significance, but it can be linked to an array of additional information pertaining to the car and driver.
Each barcode symbology is associated with what is known as it’s specific X dimension, which represents the narrowest bar found in the code. The various combinations of the different widths bars – 2 times the X dimension, 3 times X – etc and the width of the spaces between the bars, create a code for each digit of the barcode number. The barcode scanner itself emits a beam of light and measures the amount of light reflected by the barcode’s dark and light areas, and converts this into a binary number which it can read the barcode number from, and then pull up the corresponding information from its database. When the initial X dimension is small, a high-density barcode can be produced. In a factory or warehousing situation however, a larger low-density barcode can be produced (with a correspondingly larger X dimension), producing a much larger code that can potentially be read from several metres away.
Retail barcodes – UPC and EAN:
In your normal retail shop of course, a much smaller barcode can be used as each item is scanned at such close range. Because they make the check-out process so much faster and more accurate, the vast majority of retailers will need your product to carry a unique barcode if they offer to carry your stock. This means you will need to buy barcode numbers which are guaranteed to be unique, and to never have been assigned to any other product worldwide. Because this system clearly needs to be regulated and controlled to prevent duplications occurring, the global entity GS1 was formed. All barcodes in existence today originate from GS1, although smaller companies may find it simpler to get a barcode from a barcode reseller, rather than having to complete full registration with GS1 directly; especially if you need to get barcodes quickly. Often a company only realises at the last moment that they have to purchase barcode numbers – sometimes a matter of days before they need to start supplying their retailers! In this case a reseller is likely your best option to get the barcodes and their corresponding images. If your company expands globally and it becomes necessary to prove direct GSI membership – in the case of the very large retailers like Walmart – then going through the full registration process and paying annual membership fees to GS1 starts to make sense.
Many more articles on barcodes and retail barcoding are available in this blog too.
By Cat Robinson