Every so often we are asked questions by businesses and the wider community about barcoding and technology.  We have put together a list of some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) to help with your queries and projects. Technology is subject to continual change and evolution, so the information we have provided is for reference only. If your are considering a barcoding project or would like more information please contact us for expert advice.

General Barcoding

How does a barcode work?
A barcode is quite simple. It is a way to encode information into an optical machine-readable data representation. This data representation is printed or etched onto objects for future data capture via an optical reading device such as a barcode scanner or mobile computer.

Strictly speaking, a barcode refers to the 1-dimensional (1D) barcode, depicted as a combination of black and white lines representing different numeric or alpha-numeric character sets. The barcode represents data by varying the widths and spacings of the parallel lines, variations in the lines create a different text output. To decode, the barcode scanner reads the black and white bars and translate this into text your computer can understand.

Recent technical developments have advanced the barcode with many new encoding designs, the latest design is the 2 Dimensional (2D) or matrix code, which is commonly referred to as a ‘barcode’ through the design has no bars! The 2D barcodes can encode much more information as they organise information vertically and horizontally in the design.

What information is held on a barcode?
Barcodes can encode any numeric or alpha-numeric text you want depending on the symbology used. Typically, the barcode will describe something about the object that it is attached to. The barcode on a product may denote what the product is, origin, type, or location so when scanned your barcode software can decode it and identify it via your database.
How many characters are held on a barcode?
It depends on the type often referred to as the symbology. The number of characters held on a barcode ranges from up to 128 characters on a 1D barcodes to 4000 on a 2D barcode.

What are the different types of barcodes?

Barcode types can be broadly put into two camps the 1D linear barcodes and the 2D barcodes. Within these two there are many different types of barcodes developed over the years for specific applications, including:

1D Barcodes

UPC Codes – 12 numerical digits 1D barcode used predominantly in the USA for retail and consumer goods. This barcode is the type you see on your retail and consumer purchases. The UPC codes consist of a five-digit manufacturer number and a five digit product number with a one digit number system identifier at the start of the code.

EAN Codes – The European equivalent to the UPC codes. The code is different from the UPC code in the respect that the additional first digit determines the country of origin code. There are also variations such as ISBN and ISSN for more specific applications.

Code 39 – Used in defence and automotive the Code 39 as the name suggests can contain up to 39 characters in the barcode. The code 39 is the easiest of the alpha-numeric and is designed for character self-checking and is often used by small businesses for internal use.

Code 128 – Used in transport and logistics the code 128 is a high-density code for ordering and distribution. The Code 128 encodes both numeric and alphanumeric text. Targeted towards internal supply chain use, the code 128 barcodes can store diversified information.

2D Barcodes

QR Codes – One of the most common 2D codes. The QR codes are 2D matrix codes with a strong consumer and marketing focus. QR codes support numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary and Kanji.   The QR codes are free to use and available in the public domain.

Datamatrix codes – These 2D codes popular for logistics and operations have tiny footprints and are ideal for labelling small items such as electronic components. The codes have the advantage of having high fault tolerance and fast readability.

PDF417 – These codes can store huge amounts of data up to 1.1 KB. The codes are ideal for government applications such as driving licenses as they can store photographs, fingerprints, signatures, text, numbers and graphics. The code is publicly available and free to use.

How do I know which barcode to use?
If the items are to be scanned or sold via retail then the best barcode type to use would be the UPC or EAN barcodes. Consider also the amount of data that you require, if alphanumeric is required then Code 39 or code 128 is the best option. Also consider the size of the items you are barcoding and the system you will be using as 2D barcodes are much smaller but may not be supported by your system or that of your supply chain partners.
Do I need a barcode
Barcodes have been instrumental in driving efficiency by increasing the speed and accuracy of data capture in business operations. Businesses can use barcodes in several different ways including:

  • Keeping track of stock. By barcode labelling your raw materials, WIP or finished goods you can track the location of stock, count your inventory, and optimise production. Barcoding allows your business to reduce the paperwork with manual stock counts and enable the timely information that will allow you to improve management visibility over operations and production, ultimately improving customer fulfilment and customer services.

 

  • Keep track of assets. Barcodes enable your business to track your fixed business assets by using sequential barcode asset tags or labels applied to individual items which are recorded in an asset register database. By marking fixed assets, businesses will be able to easily audit their fixed assets, monitor depreciation, monitor asset locations, manage maintenance and improve security. Asset tracking is also particularly useful for businesses with IT assets or loaned equipment.

The application of barcoding to business is continually widening with barcode tracking being introduced for events, advertising and access control to name a few. The continual drivers are the same – greater accuracy and efficiency, and with the advent of the internet of things, business automation will continue to grow and be adopted across all sectors.

Why use a 2D barcode?
The 2D barcode has many advantages over the traditional barcode. The 2D code holds more information without having to create a long barcode. The 2D barcode works in horizontal and vertical encoding with sophisticated error checking and can store up to 4000 characters making it ideal for more advanced encoding including a web address or image. The 2D barcode also has fewer errors, the higher data capacity and built-in error checking system mean damaged code can still be read in many cases. The 2D barcode is also incredibly accessible to anyone with a smartphone and often free decoding software means no special scanners are required as the barcode can be read with the built-in camera.
How do I get a barcode?
It depends on what you want to use it for. You can create your own barcodes using Bartender labelling software which will allow you to create barcodes and labels to print in-house. If you would like to create a barcode for a product that will go through the supply chain and retail such as the EAN barcode then you will need to apply to GS1. As a nonprofit organisation, GS1 develops and maintains UPC and EAN standards. You will have to register your barcodes with them and they will ensure your barcode is stored on a global database ensuring it is not duplicated.
Can I create my own barcodes?
Yes, there are many software products out there which will allow you to create 1D and 2D barcodes such as Bartender. There are also many free online tools that will allow you to create open source barcodes for internal uses.

Barcode Printing

Can I print my own barcodes?
Yes. You can print your own barcodes professionally in-house using a barcode label printer, barcoding software, and approved labels. Printing your own labels has many advantages including flexibility and low-cost set-up. There are several options available for in-house printing depending on the label application, volume, and type of barcode. If you are printing large volumes of labels, labels that require resistance to environmental factors such as cold or chemicals or you require a high-quality design then you may consider using a label bureau service. Outsourcing your label printing enables high-volume, quality verified barcodes delivered when and where you need them, eliminating the investment and labour required for in-house printing.
What is the difference between direct thermal and thermal transfer barcode printers?
There is two type of printing methods used by barcode printers thermal and direct thermal. Thermal printing uses a thermal ribbon to transfer print to a label. This method is the most durable transfer type, producing durable long-lasting images on a wide range of surfaces. Direct thermal printing requires no ribbon, which creates the image directly on the printed material. This print method has a life of no more than a year and is susceptible to degradation to light, heat, and abrasion.
What should I consider when buying a printer?

Print Method

The first thing to consider is the ‘print transfer type’ you will be needing. The choice between thermal transfer and direct thermal print transfer printers are determined by the application of the printing i.e what are you using the printing for? If you are looking to print short life media such as tags, receipts, shipping labels then the direct thermal print method is an economical choice. For print media applications where the life of the product should be more than a year then a thermal transfer printer should be chosen, this will allow you to print on a wider range of synthetic media such as polypropylene and polyester for outdoor or harsh environments applications.

Volume

The volume of labels you intend to print is also a big influence on the printers that you will buy. The choice ranges from:

  • Desktop printers – Ideal for light printing duties and for office environments that have little space for a large printer. The Desktop printer is ideal for printing up to 500 labels per week.
  • Industrial printers – As the name suggests, the industrial printers are designed for high-volume industrial applications, typically a manufacturing site or large warehouse. The industrial printer would typically print 2000 labels per day but may printer models can perform higher print cycles than this.

Specialist Applications

Although the desktop and industrial thermal printers can print most media successfully there are specialist applications that have resulted in the development of specialist printer models.

  • Mobile printers – Getting a specialist mobile thermal printer give you the freedom from PC cables and allows you to print on the move, speeding up operational processes. The mobile printers do have some limitations such as battery limitations, and a limit on the size of the media width, but as the technology matures the mobile printer is becoming a favoured choice for warehouse workers and field agents.
  • Wristband printers – For volume wristband printing having a dedicated wristband printer has many advantages over a desktop printer. Easy loading media cartridges rather than on a role and a high resolution for clear crisp printing can make the dedicated wristband a preferred solution.
  • Ticket PrintersA dedicated ticket printer is the preferred printing hardware for events and where there is going to be higher dedicated usage. Ticket printers are designed to print on thicker paper for ticketing applications, without having to make the adjustments you might with a general thermal printer.

Connectivity

How you wish to connect your printers may influence the decision over which printer you invest in. All the leading desktop and industrial printers offer multiple connectivity options including direct connection via USB, Serial (RS232) and parallel connections. The most popular direct to PC connection is the USB and is the easiest to set-up.

For businesses who require shared printing then networked printing is something to consider. Many of the printers now have standard network port connectivity and it is standard with the industrial printers. Many printers now have WiFi printing and Bluetooth technology to allow for mobile connectivity and printing.

What is the best printer for barcode printing?
Thermal transfer printing is the best option as it produces a clear and durable print. The most important consideration is to match the printing application to the printer (see above). The most important output is that the printed barcode is readable for the lifetime of its use.
What does DPI mean?
Dots per inch (DPI). The higher the DPI the higher the image definition and clarity. Typically for a barcode 203 dpi is sufficient but for higher resolution requirements such as with smaller barcodes, including 2D barcodes, then a DPI of 300 DPI and over is recommended.
Should I use a mobile printer or fixed location printers?

Mobile printing is a cost-effective and convenient way to produce barcode labels, receipts, and shipping documents. In many warehouses and operation centres where site wide cabling is inconvenient or prohibitively expensive, mobile printers enable workers to print at a location and on the move. For Short range printing Bluetooth may be an option but to achieve wide area wireless printing there must be a wireless network installed within the organisation premises where the devices will be used. For business who are unsure on the quality or reach of their WiFi, it is worth considering having a wireless site survey conducted to ensure that the wireless range reaches where the printer needs to be used.

Mobile printing eliminates the running back and forth between a fixed location printer plus printing can be done at the customer point of contact. On the downside, there are more limits placed on mobile printers in terms of battery life, print volume and speed.

How do I integrate my barcode printer to my network?

Barcode printers have a number of interface connections to allow for easy connection to your computer system. There are wired options such as Ethernet, USB, Parallel and coax cables and there are wireless options including WLAN 802.11b and Bluetooth options. There are a number of printer management tools available for systems integration including configuring and monitoring tools.

Besides direct connection options, there are a number of advanced network connection for SAP and Oracle enterprise resource planning systems, that many printers have developed.

Barcode Scanning

How does a barcode scanner work?
A barcode scanner is simply an input device, like a keyboard. The scanner reads or “scans” the black and white lines by illuminating it with light which is reflected back into the decoder cell which decodes the analogue signal and converts it into digital text for your computer system. Barcode scanning should not be confused with barcode reading via image capture. Recent developments have seen barcodes read via image capture rather than scanning extending the reading to 2D barcodes, which traditional laser scanners cannot read.
Do I need any special software?
No, the USB scanners are easy to install and do not need custom code for transferring input data to the application program. On PCs running Windows, the HID interface emulates the data merging action of a hardware “keyboard wedge”, and the scanner automatically behaves like an additional keyboard scanner. For mobile devices running Android or IOS, the cameras can use freely available third-party apps to read the barcode images or more advanced SDK’s such as Scandit.
What is the difference between a laser scanner and image scanner?
The laser scanner can only read linear barcodes such as UPC’s by reading the reflected light from the barcode. The laser scanner is the most common and cost-effective scanner with a good scan range. The 2D barcodes are too complex for horizontal sweeping, therefore they require an image capture coupled with algorithm software which enables the camera to read the code.
What is the difference between a 1D scanner and 2D scanner?

A 1D scanner uses laser or CCD linear LED’s to read a 1D barcode, whereas the 2D barcode is scanned via an 2D image capture. There are other differences including:

  • 1D barcode scanners cannot read 2D barcodes whereas the 2D barcode imager’s can read both 1D and 2D.
  • 2D imagers can read barcodes from a screen whereas the 1D cannot.
  • Laser scanners have a better tolerance for movement and distance.
  • Image scanners are better at reading barcodes at off-angles.
  • Image scanners are better at capturing dirty or damaged barcodes.
  • Laser scanners are generally a lot cheaper.

Which is better, depends on the application. In many cases where there is just a 1D barcode being scanned then a laser scanner is the most economical and reliable choice.

What is the difference between a CCD linear imager and a 2D Imager?

The CCD imager or often just called a linear imager uses a straight array of LCD light to illuminate the barcode and captures an image of the barcode onto a CCD sensor which decodes the barcode. Though it is called an imager it cannot read 2D images as it can only read a linear or small horizontal sample of the barcode.

The 2D imagers capture entire images rather than just a row of pixels. 2D imagers which can also include smartphones take images and then run the image through an algorithm to detect the barcode. Scanning rates can be slow and unreliable for smartphone cameras and professional 2D scanners are recommended.

What is the range of a handheld scanner?
Extended long-range barcode scanners are specialist scanners that can read up to 13 meters away, typically laser scanners have a maximum range of 4.5 meters whilst an image scanner can only read up to 92cm away, though image scanning technology is improving and distances growing.
How does a cordless barcode scanner work?
A cordless barcode scanner uses WiFi or Bluetooth to communicate with a base station attached to a PC. Each time a scan is conducted the data is transmitted to the computer. Alternatively, batch scanning via a mobile computer or portable data terminal (PDT) stores the data and sends it to the computer at some time in the future
Which is better a wired or wireless scanner?
Wireless barcode scanners provide workers with the freedom to scan without being restrained by cables. The flexibility of not having cables allows the scanner to move to the stock rather than have the stock move to the scanner. Wireless scanners often are more rugged and can cost more but often payback in their durability and flexibility. Wired scanners are often best for fixed location scanning but for larger operations, wireless is often the better option.
Will my scanner work with my tablet or laptop?
If you wish to scan to a tablet or laptop then you can use a data collection device called a companion scanner. The companion scanner pairs with the receiving device through a Bluetooth connection to pass scanning data to it. The scanners have no screens and are required to stay in close proximity to the receiving device, 50mtr for Bluetooth. Some paired scanners have the ability to work offline and batch upload to the paired device, but you do need to check. Ensure that you are running an inventory system or data capture programme on your receiving device, as the companion scanner like the wireless barcode scanner it is simply an input device.
Can I use my smartphone for barcode scanning?
Yes, and many people do as all you need is the phones camera and a free barcode scanner app from android or apple store. The problem with this though is that consumer-grade smartphones are simply not designed for continuous use barcode scanning. Though the cameras are good and getting better, they are slow and can only really be used for one-off scans. The other issues are the durability, are they drop tested? Impervious to water ingress? How do they handle extremes of temperature? What’s the battery life? And then there is the security of using smartphones for business operations within your network. The reality is that if you are serious about scanning barcodes on a more than occasional basis then you need to invest in dedicated barcode technology.
What are the advantages of a companion scanner over a wireless scanner?
Size, they are pocket size and they are generally low cost and do not require a base station.
Can I scan a barcode off the screen?
Yes, but with a CCD scanner or 2D imager not with a laser scanner. Laser scanners use reflected light to scan whereas a screen emits light, so does not work.
Is a barcode scanner laser dangerous?
No, they use a class 2 laser which is limited to a maximum output power of 1 milliwatt. Through the viewer’s natural aversion there is no damage but continuous repeated and deliberate exposure to the laser beam may not be safe. For more information read Laser Radiation: Introduction and Safety Advice.

Mobile Computers

What is the difference between a barcode scanner and mobile computer?
Mobile computers come with an inbuilt scanner, they are a computer and scanner in one mobile device. They are different from a smartphone in that they often have laser scanners built in, they have advanced scanning engines for enterprise-level scanning and they can be integrated into your IT system. Mobile computers are built for durability and can accommodate sledges or gun attachments for intensive use. Mobile computers have the added advantage of running inventory software and business applications on them whereas the barcode scanners are just an input device for your PC. Mobile computers are better for productivity as you can use it as a communication device, email, web, voice. They are built for durability including drop tests and ingress so they can be used in the field and in tough work environments.
What are the different types of mobile computer?
  • Consumer phone sized devices – Mainly running on Android, these devices provide an enterprise-grade scan engine coupled with consumer device design. The phone-sized units have a wide range of connectivity options including WiFi, Bluetooth and GSM cellular technology making them ideal for remote working and field sales.
  • Full-sized mobile computers – Built for rugged environments such as warehouses and manufacturing sites, the full sized mobile computer has a rugged design and keypad. When the business requires a form factor that is designed for full features with multiple scan options and large keypads then these are the best option.
  • Gun grip mobile computers – For heavy duty use, the gun grip makes using a mobile computer during repeated scanning easier for working shifts.
  • Wearables Mobile Computers – Worn on the wrist or clipped to your belt the wearable computer, when coupled with ring scanner,  frees up your hands, allowing for improved handling of items. The hand’s free computers are particularly useful for voice-driven applications.
  • Fixed/vehicle mount mobile computers – Ideal for forklifts and trucks the vehicle mobile computers allow the vehicle operative to use the computer for scanning and communications whilst moving around the warehouse.
Does the mobile computer come with software?

Each mobile computer comes with an operating system and a range of utility and software applications. Handheld computers are pre-installed with many different operating systems, with the two most popular being Microsoft and Android. Buyers must ensure that the operating system that they purchase is compatible with the software applications and systems they are proposing to run on the mobile handset.

The various device manufacturers provide utility software pre-installed onto the handset and can include security applications, lock down applications, mobile application development tools and support for enterprise data capabilities. As well as the main applications, there are various drivers that facilitate connectivity and integration.

How is Windows embedded different from Windows 10?
Windows Embedded is a specially developed operating system by Microsoft for handheld devices. The OS is designed to connect to existing enterprise IT systems but with the power, familiarity and reliability of the Windows 10 operating system. The Windows Embedded devices will secure, lock down and manage industry handheld devices with your existing Windows infrastructures such as Windows server, Sharepoint, Office 365 and Windows Azure.
Do the mobile computers run Android?
Yes. Many mobile computers and devices run the Android enterprise platform which has been taken up by leading device manufacturers such as Zebra. The OS provides great flexibility and a large developer community that has built many enterprise apps. The OS also benefits from adaptability and adding capabilities plus ability to connect to enterprise back-end as it is an open source OS.
Windows Embedded vs Android – which one should I choose?

It depends. Reasons for selecting a device with Windows Embedded include: you may want to continue with an OS that is familiar if you have custom applications that run on WE and you may want to integrate with the Windows infrastructure. One thing to keep in mind is that the WE will not be supported after 2020. Which is a good reason for considering the Android which has a familiar interface and is open source with a large developer community?

One thing to consider is that, which OS to adopt is becoming less important as developers are adopting web-based applications and cross-platform applications, but caution should be considered and consultation with your IT department should be sought before handhelds are purchased.

Can we use Apple OS devices for business use?
Yes, though they are generally used for low-level enterprise usage. The Apple devices have been adopted by many businesses, particularly for light enterprise applications and users who favour the consumer feel. The problem with consumer devices is that they are not rugged enough or really built for the work environment, unlike enterprise devices. The Apple OS has improved recently and moved forward with enterprise enablers for lock down, device enrolment and configuration but is still a long way off from becoming a mainstream enterprise OS.
How do I manage updates and security for multiple mobile computers?
With multiple mobile devices in your business from enterprise mobile computers, corporate smartphones, vehicle mobile computers and tablets, managing all these devices and varying operating systems can seem a mammoth task. Employing mobile device management software and services can help manage the task of provisioning, deploying, updating and securing your mobile device estate. Employing a mobile management solution such as Soti allows your business to control all aspects of your business mobility – tracking physical assets, managing applications and content, as well as keeping devices and data secure.