October 28, 2017      3 min read

In June 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum was the first item to be scanned with a barcode in a shop. Since then, barcodes have become extremely prevalent. A barcode or universal product code provides a platform to enter numerical data into a computer very quickly. You can see them on products you buy in the supermarket or on inventory products in a warehouse. Barcodes and computers have a great advantage over humans as computers can process numbers at a far greater speed than humans.

What do barcodes look like

Interestingly though, barcodes do not understand and think as abstractly as humans. With a barcode, computers can ultimately only understand and interpret two numbers, 0 and 1. This makes it easier to understand why a barcode looks the way it does. A barcode is made of recognisable black and white bars. From a distance, they all look similar and can be identified as barcodes. However, the difference lies within and how it is interpreted by a laser. The laser is effectively a beam of pure light. When a laser scans a barcode, the black sections do not reflect the laser as easily. The black sections are then recorded as a one. While the white sections recognise the laser very well and are recorded as a zero.

A normal barcode is a twelve-digit number series. The numbers also typed under the barcode if the laser is having difficulty interpreting the lines. Starting on the left, the first number is the product type. This could be a bag of chips, a cookbook, or craft glue. The next five numbers are the manufacturer code. Moving further to the right, the next five numbers are the product code and the final number is the check digit. Each element of the barcode is divided into seven different sections, that make up bars and spaces. Each 7 spaces will be interpreted as one number only. For example, the number one would look like 0011001 or effectively white space (0), white space (0), bar (1) bar (1), white space (0), white space (0), bar (1). The laser and computer are interpreting far more than the human eye can see.

The numbers on the right-hand side of the bar code are the optical opposite to the ones on the left-hand side of the bar code. This is important when the barcode is scanned. It helps determine which way up the barcode is and keeps it the same even if it is scanned upside down. Lastly, the check digit is a type of redundancy check for errors, making sure that the number scanned in from the barcode is correct.

Capturing information

There are several types of barcode scanners. As we discussed, it can be a laser or even LED light. Other technology involves using a small video camera that captures a digital photograph. Once the photo is taken, a computer interprets the photo and converts it into a code of numbers.

Barcode scanning can be a very effective way to track items in a warehouse. Barcodes can be integrated into an online inventory management system. This automates more items and provides a real-time update about product information.

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