September 6, 2017    3 min read

Barcodes are a useful tool to improve inventory management in any business. In particular, barcodes increase data reliability, speed up data entry and allow you to easily implement real time inventory control. A barcode is essentially an image that represents data, and although the concept behind barcodes is simple, it pays to understand the variety of barcoding options which are available – and to consider how they could work in your business.

What are barcodes?

At its most basic, a barcode simply involves encoding data within a pattern or picture. In the inventory management context, each item will be assigned a unique identifier (such as a serial number, batch number or item code). This identifier is encoded within a pattern and printed on the item. Later, when the item is received, retrieved or sold, the barcode is scanned, identifying the item.

One Dimensional Barcodes

The standard barcode is a one dimensional barcode. In a one dimensional barcode, each alphanumeric character in the unique identifier is represented by a defined pattern of black and white stripes. Each character is given a fixed amount of horizontal space (broken down into 7 units); to represent each character, each unit of the barcode is partially coloured in in a defined way. For example, the number ‘8’ can be represented as one white space, two black spaces, one white space and four black spaces.

That said, one dimensional barcodes are not uniform. There are a large number of competing barcode standards, many of which are better suited to specific applications than others. For example, for consumer goods, UPC (which allows 12 numerical digits) is the ‘gold standard’ in much of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, EAN, which allows an extra digit for geographic/region identification, is commonly used in retail applications throughout Europe and Asia. Both UPC and EAN have shortened variants, which allow for 6 and 8 digits respectively, primarily for use on small or space-constrained packaging.

CODE 128 barcodes are high density and represent a very large amount of data relative to the size of the barcode. They tend to be used for logistics purposes rather than in the retail context. CODE 128 barcodes support any ASCI 128 character (being any numerical digit, letter plus a range of punctuation marks and other characters).

Two Dimensional Barcodes

Two dimensional barcodes (also known as matrix barcodes) are slightly different, although the premise is still much the same. The data is represented in a compact, graphical form that can easily be read by a machine. Two dimensional barcodes can be arranged in a variety of ways and can even be embedded into pictures or art. That said, the most common two dimensional barcodes are squares or rectangles that contain a number of marks or dots.

The most well known two dimensional barcode is the QR code. A standard QR code is made up of black squares arranged in a square grid on a white background. Comparatively large amounts of data can be stored on a QR code – whereas a UPC barcode can store 12 numerical digits, a QR code can store just over 7,000 numerical digits, around 4,200 alphanumeric characters or (given the QR code was first developed in Japan) approximately 1,800 Japanese Kanji characters.

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