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Barcodes and Your Business

You browse the aisles of the grocery store tossing items into your cart left and right. Oh! You stop dead in your tracks. Your favorite pasta sauce (which you've been craving) is in stock. You grab the jar; cruise through the checkout and out the door with bags in tow. Within a half hour you'll be devouring the gourmet creation you dreamed up for dinner.

Do you know what just made your shopping experience a whole lot faster and easier? Barcodes.

Most of us rarely realize how bar coding not only saves us time at the store (Hello?! Can you imagine the agony of waiting for a cashier to manually enter each individual SKU number for your entire purchase?) but also the benefit bar codes could provide to businesses.

Did you know?

  • Bar coding is the most common automatic identification technology that provides timely, error-free information.
  • Bar codes accurately verify business transactions and increase productivity.
  • Slide spool assembly into cradle on top cover.
  • Studies have shown that a data entry specialist will make one error for every 300 characters manually entered.

Code's Anatomy

Just as a swipe of a jar of tomato sauce across a scanner at the grocery store provides relevant information for a sale, bar codes similarly provide a method of encoding text information that can be read by electronic scanners in other applications. But the squares of black and white lines and numbers that appear on just about every product at a retailer only accounts for about 30 percent of uses. To understand this better, lets explore how bar codes work and what can bar coding can do for your business.

Each code is made up of a series of adjacent parallel black and white bars with differing widths spaced apart creating a pattern. The pattern of bars and spaces represent characters of the alphabet or numbers and the overall pattern is called a symbology. It represents a machine readable format of information.

Like with our pasta sauce, the bar code contains characters that are unique to a product and identify the manufacturer and product. To ensure proper decoding, each sequence of characters has a start character (system character) and a stop character or check character/digit and is used to signal the scanner when to start and end the data input. Accuracy and validation is ensured through the check character which is typically determined by a calculation. The smaller or more dense the bar code is, the more vital a role the stop and check characters play. When scanned, the light of the scanner is reflected off of the black and white bars to produce a wave pattern signaling highs and lows. When converted to a digital format on/off patters the information decoded can be interpreted by a computer and the information then used.

How barcodes are read

Hey, man. What's your sign?

So far we have focused on one of the most common uses of bar codes: UPC codes used in grocery stores. But the world of bar codes is as diverse as the products at our disposal. Airlines use bar codes on boarding passes. The U.S. Postal Service uses bar codes to sort letters and packages. Bar codes have evolved from the needs of specific market segments and are typically broken into two categories: one dimensional and two dimensional bar codes.

  • Code 39 aka Code 3 of 9 - the most generic (or the marinara sauce of codes, if you will) allows free form conversion of alphanumeric characters into a bar code. With the only limitation being a 44 character maximum, this is truly the catch-all symbology. It's one of the higher-density bar codes and is used to imbed alphanumeric data. Using the least amount of space, it is ideal for applications requiring robust data in a small space.

    Code 39

  • UPC or Universal Product Codes - commonly used to mark and aid in transacting sales of retail goods, a UPC is a 12-digit numeric symbology and requires a lead character (usually a zero), a manufacturers ID consisting of five digits, a product ID consisting of five digits and a check digit which is calculated and validates the sequence of the previous 10 digits.

    Universal Product Code

  • UPC E - a 6-digit compression of a typical UPC symbology and historically used for small retail items. The methodology for compressing the code via calculation allows for uncompression where needed. Designed for magazines and periodicals this bar code is often found beside a UPC-A bar code adding depth of information.

    Universal Product Code E

  • EAN (European Article Number) or EAN13 - the European equivalent to UPC codes as used in North America but using a thirteenth digit which identifies the country of manufacture. Its variant EAN8 closely approximates UPC-E but is comprised of eight digits, two for the country code, five data digits and the check digit.

    European Article Number

  • POSTNET - a bar code developed for the United States Postal Service designed to look more linear and contains the zip code and zip+4 information. Commonly used for automatic mail sortng and routing, speeding mail delivery.

    POSTNET Barcode

  • Codabar - a variable length symbology developed in 1972 by Pitney Bowes, it was intended to be a readable bar code even when printed on dot matrix printers. Commonly used in libraries, it consists of numeric only codes separated by four alpha characters indicating the separation between streams of numeric information. These streams contain diverse information packed into one overall code.

    Codabar Barcode

  • PDF417 (Portable Data File 417) - a two dimensional bar code containing more than 2,700 data characters and capable of imbedding more than 400 words. Effectively, this is a matrix of a series of smaller bar codes bound within one bigger structure.

    PDF417 Barcode

  • Maxicode - a matrixed symbology originally developed by United Parcel Service (UPS) which can be read in rows or from any other direction. Effectively a two dimensional bar code it looks like more graphic sequence of dots (a complex Morse code like sequence) containing an abundance of information. Although it's a fixed size, it can contain up to 93 characters. In fact, they contain two messages, a primary and a secondary as well as two distinct levels of error handling. A maxicode bar code could have a significant amount of the image destroyed or damaged and still be functional. Up to 8 codes can be linked together.

    Maxicode Barcode

Variety: the spice of life

Today there are more than 400 bar code symbologies in use. Besides retail, bar codes are rapidly replacing data entry used in the government, industrial and health care sectors. Basically, bar codes are the new black. Why? Bar coding is about 20 times faster and 20,000 times more accurate than keyboard data entry. Plus, the applications are endless. Prime example? Just look at how bar codes streamline the relationship between the store and its suppliers. When an item such as a jar of sauce is scanned as it leaves the store, the bar codes allow the transmission of data via an Electronic Data Interchange system to reach suppliers. The suppliers can then replenish inventory automatically.

Hook Me Up

So, now that we've moved on from the "Oh, I only thought bar codes existed at the grocery store" mentality, we'll breakdown bar coding systems and take a brief look at how you can outfit your business in order to use this technology (if you've earned the title of bar code sensei by now, please bear with me).

Bar codes are commonly used in many systems:

  • Point of Sale
  • Inventory Control
  • Credit Card Processing
  • Accounts Receivable
  • Marketing and Business Reply
  • Time and Attendance
  • Biometric Applications
  • Voice Recognition
  • Custom Applications

By now you most likely have a keen understanding of bar code technology and the value of the data as a replacement for manual key entry. In future installments we will examine how to produce the most accurate bar codes and how to choose a printer and the best labels for your application.

Most existing systems normally do not need to be modified to support bar coding technology. Keyboard wedge products (we'll clarify in a minute) are available for most terminals and PCs. When the bar code is scanned, data appears as if it was manually typed into the computer and can be captured into any software program.

A keyboard wedge is a hardware device or software program that interfaces with a computer through the keyboards communication port to translate data read by another device such as a magnetic strip or a bar code reader.

Bar code systems come in varying types and complexities. The type of system required for your business is determined by the application. Basically, what do you want bar coding to do for you?

Back to Basics - A basic bar code scanning system theoretically contains a scanner, a decoder, a computer and a printer. The scanner and decoder together input and read bar codes into a computer system while the printer generates bar codes for labeling.

Decoders - There are three types: wedge decoders, software decoders, and serial decoders.

  • Wedge decoders are external devices that wedge between the keyboard and terminal.
  • Software decoders perform the complete decoding in software running on a PC.
  • Serial decoders connect into the communications (COM) port of the PC. Decoded scanners can either connect via the keyboard wedge or via the serial port.

Scanners - There are two types: contact and non contact.

  • Contact scanners require physical contact to scan.
  • Non-contact scanners can be several inches to several feet away.

Printers & Labels - Common printers and Labels used for printing your own barcode labels.

In future updates we will explore bar code scanners in more detail and common pitfalls when selecting bar code systems, scanners, printers and software.