A Practical Barcode Introduction

A Rugged and mobile barcode hello

Understanding Barcodes
Hi there, so this article will be about barcodes. It’s a popular subject for us and one that many people have asked me to help them with. Barcodes to Rugged and Mobile are what sandwiches are to the rest of us. We live off them whether it’s for brekky, lunch or sometimes tea!

This article is designed to be high level and give the average barcode scanning buyer some good information in order to buy and implement the right barcode system. We’ll be leaving all the technical stuff like check bits, parity and the plethora of device settings to another discussion.

Barcodes in a nutshell are about being able to identify something. It could be a product where a barcode identifies a product group which can be used to look-up data such as a price. It could be to track an asset of some kind where identifying a unique piece of equipment is required or it could be for something more generic where fast/convenient entering of data is required. For example I’ve seen a rudimentary tracking system where a security guard will scan a barcode on various doors to simply confirm he had been there on his watch.

If you have a requirement to quickly ID and track something then a barcode is still a pretty useful way of doing it.

Why use barcodes?
Despite barcodes being around for decades and having a shaky technical start to its life, barcodes still remain the most reliable, inexpensive and easy to implement system of identification. When compared to younger more functional auto ID technology such as RFID (see a future article), the hardware acquisition costs alone are still streets apart. A barcode costs well under 1 pence to generate, you can generate it using pretty much any printer on the market and it can be read by cheap equipment. Most mobile Enterprise phones these days can read barcodes simply using the built-in camera along with a simple piece of software.

RFID on the other hand, costs a lot more on average putting its undeniably fantastic functionality out of reach of many projects for the time being.

Barcode labels
Just a quick mention at this point that you can print your barcodes on almost anything and there are 1000’s of types of label media that you can use. There are standard paper labels, labels for normal every day printers, labels for purpose barcode printers like the Zebra QL range for example. You can print on tear proof, water proof, fade proof (Or purposely fading) media to name but a few and there are many companies including Rugged and Mobile who you can get your media from as well as outsource your printing to.

The market is at the stage now where it is very cheap and easy to set up a barcoding solution as long as you know the pitfalls like we do here!

One word of warning is that all barcodes need to follow a strict set of rules regarding their size, contrast and structure. If your barcodes are too light, printed too small or not standards compliant in any way then the chances are you will have great difficulty when scanning them.

Bar code scanning devices don’t use magic to scan a barcode, they use technology and as such you need to make sure that your barcodes are printed correctly.

The history of the barcode
Before we go on I wanted to mention briefly the history of barcoding. Barcodes were originally developed and used in the US in the 1960’s by the railroad companies to automatically identify their train wagons. However the project ended up a failure and it wasn’t until the mid 80’s where supermarket pressure to reduce their supply chain costs sanctioned a barcoding project that would change identification forever. It still resembles pretty much what we see today in the shape of the UPC barcode. The first ever barcode scan was performed on a stick of Wrigley’s juicy fruit chewing gum in 1974 and ever since then barcodes were slowly but surely adopted by more and more businesses and markets.

It wasn’t long before IBM designed various versions of the UPC barcode in order to help it find its feet in different markets and new ones are still being developed today.  Let’s look at some of the different types of barcode in the market today.

Barcode Symbologies
There are many different type of barcodes used today, approximately 40 world-wide when I last looked, known as barcode symbologies. Some are tightly governed like ISBN or EAN codes used for book reference and others are freely usable open source like Semacode or QR Code and the rest fall into the middle somewhere.  Essentially 3 different formats of barcode are used in industry with new versions being added all the time. The most common types are:

1D or linear barcodes
Still by far the most commonly used format and you see them everywhere!  They’re used on most products you buy at the supermarket and come in a variety of sub categories.  However they’re all essentially black lines of varying thickness and can be read by almost all types of scanner. The main limitation of this symbology is the limit to the amount of data that can be stored inside the barcode and we can see this demonstrated below.

Looks OK doesn’t it?  However this barcode format only allows us to store numerical data and spaces.  Pretty restrictive these days so other standards are launched to provide more functionality.

Code39, for example can store capital letters, digits 0-9 some symbols and space characters.  Much better but there’s a cost to all this:

The barcode requires more lines to store each character and it grows in size.  Already this barcode is pretty unusable in certain applications.

If we were to store information in this barcode such as an address things rapidly become madness!

This has been reduced in size by about 50% and only shows limited address data.

Not particularly usable is it and even using other barcode formats you’’ll quickly run into the same issue.

So what am I trying to demonstrate here is that 1D barcodes still have a great use in the ID arena where an ID is required on the asset you are tracking.  Products still use UPC in some manner and Code 39, 93 128 and others are widely used too.

The parcel delivery world however demonstrates perfectly a limitation to the 1D barcode.  What if you need to store more information on the parcel itself?  In the case of parcel delivery it is common that a parcel has to go through various delivery companies, all with proprietary and incompatible IT systems.  Scanning the 1D barcode used as an ID would make sense for the company generating it but it would probably make little sense to any others who might need to scan and identify the parcel.  So to get round this many use 2D barcodes that can store much more data, the address for instance, so that if all else fails each company has a chance at automating delivery in some way.

2D “stacked” barcodes
As the need to store more information in the barcode increased, the ‘stacked’ barcode became more popular. This barcode looks like a 2D barcode (see next) but it is essentially just a bunch of 1D barcodes “stacked” on top of each other. This meant that for instance a name and address details could be stored in a barcode, where it would have been impossible before. These barcodes can still be read by most laser or CCD based scanners by dragging the scan line down as you scan, depending on the scanner’s software or set-up.

The above actually stores our whole address in it in a 4 column PDF417 2D barcode. You’ll see these barcodes frequently used in the parcel delivery trade where the need to store data with the parcel is required. In fact you usually see a whole range of barcodes on a parcel as different ones are used for the identification process as are used for simply storing more data for the delivery drivers.

The need to store even more information within the same space, along with attempts to secure the data have given rise to the 3rd main barcode symbology, the Matrix barcode.

2D Matrix barcode
Again commonly seen and used on parcel delivery labels and adopted by the Japanese in full force, the 2D Matrix barcode can store even more data and are typified by their blocky almost artistic nature! You need a 2D scanner to read these types of barcodes.

The below shows QR Code and Aztec 2D barcodes storing the same full address data:

You can store much more in these types of barcode with efficient increases in size.

Postal barcodes
These are the last barcode type we’ll mention here.  They’re now on every letter you receive and are the odd black or bright orange lines you see on the front of your letters.

The below barcode is our postcode translated into Royal Mail 4 state customer code (RM4SCC):

Primarily developed for the mail sorting machines to identify letters better, there are an increasing number of handheld scanners and PDA’s that can now read them opening up a whole bunch of new opportunities for letter identification post delivery.

There are more barcode symbologies but they pretty much fall into all the above categories apart from a few such as Microsoft’s Tag barcode that uses colour to store a whole new dimension of data depth. However it is the opinion of Rugged and mobile that by the time a lot of these standards could be adopted, RFID and other newer technology could end up killing them off so it’ll be interested watching them but inevitably other technologies will take over.

A look to the future
The future bodes well for barcodes as the technology continues to adapt to new social needs whilst maintaining low costs to implement. We are still seeing new symbologies launched. Postnet is now the staple barcode for postage and in the past 18 months we have seen more and more handheld devices reliably reading it which opens up fantastic new opportunities.

Microsoft and Nokia are using barcode technology, along with your location so that you can scan a poster, say a movie poster, which will take into account your location and then automatically download information to your phone based upon this. In fact we’re working with someone right now on this very technology and i’ve tested it and it’s pretty cool to be able to scan a barcode on a poster and quickly get information on the product as well as the nearest retailers and a coupon for my troubles!!

Barcodes look set to stay for the near future at least!

Next we’ll look into the basics of barcode scanners and see what kinds of technology have been developed to actually scan barcodes in various guises.

Don’t forget to check out some of our fuller PDF downloadable articles and join our newsletter by going to www.ruggedandmobile.com

The Rugged and Mobile blog.

9 Responses

  1. Francois

    Great article it has really helped because I find barcodes confusing but we have to use them.

    Are you saying that there are loads of different types of barcode and can we print out our own barcodes with our own information in them?


  2. DerekM

    There are many many types of barcode and you can set them up in lots of different ways.

    I liked this article. It kept it up high for the non-technical amongst us and I would like to talk to you about a project we are tendering. Can I ring you?

    • ruggedandmobile

      Hi F and Derek

      Cheers for such quick comments. I think I recognise you both from my twitter feed?

      Yes there are many “symbologies” as we call them but to be honest in the UK we tend to stick to 5 or 6 main types unless you’re doing something special. WRT printing out barcodes, certain symbologies are best used for this and it depends what you are doing. Code39 in the example above is often used internally and you can either print these yourself using any code or have them printed by a company as long as you know sequentially what codes you want.

      You can go ahead and stick them on your assets as needed then.

      DerekM cheers for the comments, I think thats what we try and do here, do good articles for the layman as these are the types of customers we tend to get. On the home page of our site you’ll find PDF’s to download that will help you with all aspects of barcoding, again in laymans terms as much as we can. You’ll also find our number and emails etc there too so feel free to call us any time.


  3. Pinkle

    Nice article, not sure about the comment on UPC being used in supermarkets though.

    You gonna write anything on barcode scanners? Could do with some help on that.

    • ruggedandmobile

      Cheers Pinkle. UPC-A was used as the first barcode and is still used on most supermarket products today in some form or another. There are exceptions though depending on the product and the country you’re in. I am based in the UK so this is all UK aimed. I have heard about the new GS1 databars code which is used for fruit and veg if my memory serves me right but I remember that being more about getting info on the product, such as its class, code and £/KG etc so that the till operator doesn’t have to call someone to check than putting a price on the actual product like a barcode does.

      My next couple of articles are about scanners. One is an excerpt from a whitepaper I have prepared for my website and is a more in depth look at scanning technology, the other I just might post later today or tmw morning and is a kind of top tips when buying a scanner!!

      Hope this helps

  4. FrancesF

    Hi Dave,

    Great article, really interesting! Its pretty amazing to think that such a large amount of information can be stored in such a small barcode.

    Thanks for a great read and I look forward to the next article!