Barcodes provide an effective, low-cost way to transfer data, but there are some key distinctions that make barcode types more or less useful for a particular application.
Across industries such as retail, healthcare, grocery, and warehouse/logistics, barcode symbologies have evolved to enable the efficient and error-free capture and transfer of information.
Today, barcode symbologies—or the different types of barcodes— run the gamut from the ubiquitous UPC-A code and the surging QR code to the secure, data-rich PDF417.
There are two main types of barcodes. One dimensional (1D) barcodes represent data in lines and spacings of parallel lines. Two dimensional (2D) barcodes represent data using symbols and shapes.
Notably, 2D barcodes types require a more sophisticated digital image sensor, such as a camera, to be read, while legacy scanners at point of sale and for inventory management typically only have 1D barcode scanning capabilities.
When determining the type of barcode to use, it’s important to plan ahead, as choosing the wrong type can lead to scan errors, worker inefficiency, and unnecessary costs.
At Aila, we’ve been helping businesses create seamless experiences by replacing legacy scanning devices with ultra-versatile imaged-based scanning technology that captures data from 1D/2D codes as well as driver’s licenses, medical IDs, OCR and more — unlocking a new world of engaging experiences and high-value workflows at a fraction of the cost of expensive legacy systems. Try scanning your barcodes with our free demo app in the App Store.
Here are some of the most popular 1D and 2D barcode types to consider for business.
Used primarily by FedEx airbills, photo labs, and U.S. blood banks, this symbology is particularly convenient to print. The discrete barcode encodes up to 16 characters, and it can be produced using consecutive numbers without a computer.
Codabar is also a self-checking barcode, which means that a printing or scanning error won’t convert one of the bars on the barcode into another (incorrect) character, resulting in erroneous scans. Rather than reading as an incorrect code, the scanner will simply read the code as a bad scan.
A compact barcode typically used in shipping, packing, inventory management and asset tracking. Code 128 is particularly versatile: the variable-length symbology encodes the entire ASCII character set, features two forms of error checking, and encodes more densely than Code 39 or Interleaved 2of5.
Code 128 is considered a “high-density” barcode, meaning that it can fit a high number of characters in a small amount of space.
One of the most widely used barcodes, it’s often employed in military and automotive industries. Code 39 is discrete and variable-length, and it supports 43 alphanumeric characters. It also incorporates error checking, meaning that a printing error can’t misconstrue one character as another.
Intended to improve Code 39, it’s denser and more compact than its predecessor. The continuous, variable-length, error-checking symbology encodes 43 alphanumeric characters and five special characters. The Canada Post utilizes this barcode type for encoding supplementary delivery information. It’s also used in manufacturing.
Also used in retail for point of sale, the European Article Numbering (EAN) system is primarily used in European countries. The numeric, continuous and fixed-length code is similar to UPC-A codes, except that it uses a 13th digit as an error-checking character.
EAN barcodes, like UPCs, come in two main variants: EAN-13 is the primary format, while EAN-8 is used on smaller products since it has fewer characters.
Products with EAN-8 barcodes are used throughout retail for small items like cigarettes and chewing gum. However, brands also use EAN-8 codes to identify products that are only sold in their stores.
Where EAN-13 is the equivalent of UPC-A, EAN-8 is the analog of UPC-E. However, EAN-8 codes are not compatible with UPC-E codes in the way that their larger counterparts are.
Also unlike UPC A and E, there is no way to translate EAN-8 codes into EAN-13. This means that items must be stored in databases as different products.
GS1 DataBar codes come in seven different variants and contain a range of information. Primarily used for fresh foods in grocery stores, the GS1 DataBar can contain things like:
- Product codes
- Batch numbers
- Expiration dates
Pictured above is a Stacked, Expanded GS1 DataBar code, which can contain up to 74 numeric and 41 alphanumeric characters. GS1 DataBars can come a in a range of variants:
- Stacked + Extended
This high-density, continuous, variable-length, self-checking symbology is called such because two numeric digits are “interleaved” together: the bars typify one digit and the spaces represent a second digit. Interleaved 2of5 is one of the most popular barcode types used by the shipping and warehouse industries, as it can be printed on corrugated cardboard. This symbology typically encodes 14 numeric digits.
Widely used on retail products for point-of-sale scanning, this 12-digit universal product code (UPC) is a numeric symbology utilized across the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
It’s made up of four parts: the number system (a single digit that identifies product type), manufacturer code (assigned by the UCC Council), product code (assigned by the manufacturer), and an error-checking digit.
Retail products can range vastly in size. For small items, such as a single stick of lip balm, UPC-A codes didn’t prove practical and were taking up too much valuable space on the product.
UPC-E barcodes were developed as a response to the issue of space-saving in retail. Where a UPC-A code uses 12 digits, including zeros, the UPC-E code omits all trailing and leading zeros and contains just six characters.
While UPC-A and UPC-E are the most common variants of the universal product code. There are several others that are used to a lesser degree.
Widely used for airline boarding passes and ticketing, these barcodes are compact and efficient. Unlike other matrix barcodes, they don’t require a surrounding blank “quiet zone” and can be decoded even if the print quality of the barcode is poor.
This 2D barcode is used primarily to mark small electronic components like integrated circuits and printed circuit boards. The symbology, which requires specialized 2D barcode scanners to read, can encode roughly fifty characters of data in a 2mm or 3mm square and has high fault tolerance.
UPS needed a way to label, sort, and ship packages around the world in the most efficient way possible. So, in 1992 they developed the predecessor of what would eventually become the MaxiCode. The dot-matrix code helps UPS sort packages on a high-speed conveyor belt.
This 2D stacked barcode symbology, used in the shipping industry, medical records, and on standard identification cards such as driver’s licenses, can encode very large amounts of data. The robust PDF417 has the capacity to hold over 1.1 kilobytes of data and allows for nine different security levels. This barcode type requires specially designed handheld 2D laser or CCD scanners to decode.
PDF417 also comes in a “micro” variant for smaller objects.
The QR (Quick Response) barcode is very popular due to their readability, accuracy, and flexibility. Used in retail and marketing, the symbology uses position detection patterns to maintain high-speed reading, can store huge amounts of data and has high fault tolerance. Notably, Apple iOS 11 includes native QR scanning functionality right in the camera, with no other apps required.
Increasingly, we’re seeing QR codes used within apps that let users simply scan their phone to check-in, receive reward points, or make payments. These codes are often personalized or branded with the retailer’s logo or brand colors.
QR codes, like PDF417, also come in a “mirco” variant for use on smaller objects or screens.
Choosing barcode types for retail and grocery
Retailers worldwide rely on a system of standardization that makes it easier to manage inventory, supply chains, and to complete transactions. GS1, a non-profit organization is responsible for this system and has over a million members across retail and grocery.
When a company creates a new product to be sold in retail stores, they typically use GS1 to acquire a barcode that will be used to identify that product. GS1 works with a number of different symbologies, including:
- QR Code
Outside of identifying products, QR codes are increasingly used in retail to apply rewards points and complete payments. Due to the ability to contain large amounts of information, QR codes are even seeing use in retail to give unique identifiers to individual products. For example, retailers can use unique QR codes that consumers can scan on their phone to confirm that the product they purchased is authentic.
Choosing barcode types for healthcare
Barcodes are used in a number of healthcare settings. From scanning a patient’s ID to confirm their identity and scanning their insurance card to ensure coverage, to scanning prescriptions and blood samples.
In the medical world, a data entry error could be a life-or-death scenario. In a lab, specimen labeling mistakes can be caused by missing draw times, incorrect patient name, or missing or illegible initials from whoever drew the sample.
Specimen tubes are often labeled with the following barcode types:
- Code 39
- Code 128
- DataMatrix (GS1 DataMatrix codes are the only 2D barcodes used to legally label healthcare products)
Government-issued IDs which are used to identify patients or guardians typically use PDF417. The information held within the code on the ack of a patient’s U.S. driver’s license, for example, contains information like name, date of birth, address, and more.
Choosing barcode types for warehouse and logistics
The warehousing, logistics, and transportation industries have some of the most demanding environments for barcode scanning. Codes need to be captured quickly, often at a distance. Sometimes codes are damaged while being transferred. Other times codes are obscured by plastic wrap, or are difficult to scan due to particularly dim or bright settings.
To further complicate matters, a number of different codes are used, often in the same warehouse, to identify boxes, pallets, skids, and products. Sometimes these objects even have multiple types of barcodes on the same product, which can cause decoding errors.
Commonly found barcodes in warehousing, logistics, and transportation include:
- Code 128 – a GS1 standard, high-density code commonly found on shipment labels
- UPC/EAN – a GS1 standard used to label individual products
- MSI – often for matching shelving with the products they’re used to store
Many businesses may find that they need to change the type of barcode they use. This can occur because the barcode cannot store enough or the right type of data, or because their current barcodes are posing difficulties to workers in the field.
For this reason, we suggest using a scanner and scanning software that is able to quickly enable new barcode symbologies. Aila’s TrueScan technology—which is integrated into the Interactive Kiosk for iPad and SoftScan for iOS—can scan 45+ 1D and 2D barcode types. Businesses can even quickly enable and disable barcodes for faster scanning.
To learn more about Aila’s image-based scanning technology can help your enterprise, contact us:
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