Which barcode label is right for your business?
What is a barcode?
Simply put barcodes are printed symbols that contain machine-readable data. According to GS1 UK, a not-for-profit consortium that sets barcode standards, the idea of the barcode was conceived in 1948. Since the first scan of a packet of chewing gum in a US supermarket over 40 years ago, the barcode has literally transformed the retail, food services and healthcare sectors, plus many more besides.
Barcode labels are used routinely across many industry sectors for identification purposes and to track products as they move through the supply chain; they play a vital role in traceability and allow automatic tracking by multiple parties.
Types of barcode
From humble beginnings, there are now over 300 different forms of barcode each having a different specification and function.
One dimensional (1D) barcodes are still the most recognisable and have varying widths of parallel lines and spacing to represent the data. Listed below are some of the most commonly used 1D barcodes:
EAN / UPC barcodes:
Probably the most familiar barcodes as they are primarily used at the point of sale in retail outlets. EAN barcodes represent 8 characters and are often used on small products, like makeup, where space is at a premium. UPC barcodes contain 13 numeric characters.
Code 128 barcodes :
Code 128 barcodes can support any characters in the American Standard Code of Information Interchange (ASCII) 128 character set, alphanumeric and symbols; which means they can store very diverse information. They are compact, high-density codes and are often used in the logistics industry.
Code 93 barcodes:
Code 93 barcodes support a 43 alpha-numeric character set, including 6 special symbols. They
are used across retail, manufacturing and the logistics industry.
Code 39 barcodes:
Code 39 barcodes, also known as 3-of-9 barcodes, are commonly used across many sectors. They can support a 44 alpha-numeric character set, including 7 special symbols.
ITF / 2 of 5 barcodes:
ITF barcodes have a high printing tolerance and can even be printed on corrugated surfaces.
UPC Case codes :
UPC Case codes work in the same way as ITF barcodes, but with a check digit and
normally starts 050.
Two dimensional (2D) barcodes, like 1D barcodes, are a visual representation of machine-
readable information; the difference being they hold data both horizontally and vertically.
2D barcodes, like QR codes, have the advantage of being able to represent
significantly more data. The most commonly used 2D barcodes are data matrix codes and
quick response codes:
Data Matrix codes:
Data Matrix codes are 2D barcodes that can hold up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters and, since they are compact, are often used to label small items.
Quick Response (QR) codes:
QR codes are 2D barcode that can hold up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters. Unlike barcodes, QR codes cannot be read using a laser scanner but instead, a smartphone app is needed to decode the information. This has led to their growing use in the marketing and promotions sector, with their popularity rising in line with smartphone usage. Once scanned, QR codes trigger an ‘action’ like opening a website, downloading an app or firing off a tweet, which makes them perfect for marketing applications.
QR codes essentially do the same job as barcodes and have the added advantage that they can hold more data. They are more reliable too; a smaller error margin meaning that QR code labels can be damaged or dirty and still work!
The adoption of QR codes in the retail and logistics sector has probably been slow as it would be costly for many organisations to replace traditional barcode scanners. However, with the advantages of reliability and data storage potentially leading to cost savings, the popularity of QR code labels is likely to gain pace.
Barcode label colour combinations
For the time being 1D barcode labels are likely to remain a popular choice for many users, in which case ensuring that they are as accurate as possible is a top priority. To create a barcode label that is easily scannable there needs to be high contrast between the colour of the bar and the background colour of the label or tag. Many barcodes are simply printed with black bars on a white label material giving excellent contrast and good readability.
Other barcode label colours can be considered too and, when it comes to choosing the best colour combination, a good place to start is with the. Whilst the GS1 standards may theoretically represent best practice though, we would always advise testing barcode label colour combinations to see how they work in your own setting; we are always happy to test colour combinations that may not seem ideal, but can actually scan successfully.
Optimum barcode label size
The optimum size of a printed barcode label is dependent on a number of factors – from the sophistication of the barcode scanner to the life of the label. As with colour combinations, we have found that it is possible to reduce the size of a barcode whilst maintaining GS1 standards. The benefits of this are obvious in terms of cost-saving so it is well worth considering.
You can find out more about how much you could save here.
Managing variable data barcodes
Where each barcode label needs to contain a unique piece of information, important consideration needs to be given to how the data will be managed.
You can find out more about specifying variable data labels here.
Verifying and testing barcode labels
Since it’s vital that barcode labels scan properly and do not fail in an operational situation, we use a calibrated barcode verifier to check that all printed barcode labels meet the required standards.
In addition, we recommend that customers do their own rigorous testing, especially if the size, colour combination or label material has been changed from an existing specification.
In conclusion, though 1D barcode technology has been around for a long time it remains the mainstay of traceability in the retail, food services, manufacturing and logistics sectors. The advantages of 2D barcodes, and QR codes, in particular, has been seized by the marketing sector and almost certainly will be the future for other sectors too.
There are lots to consider when specifying a barcode label and, whilst GS1 standards remain the start point, we are always happy to try new label sizes and different colour combinations to help you get exactly the label they need. Please get in touch if you would like to talk it through.