Learn about barcode technology.

A Short Tutorial from Panatrack’s Tracking Technology Experts

A Brief Barcode Technology Tutorial

Contrary to common belief, barcodes don’t typically contain descriptive data. Instead, the data stored in a barcode is typically just a reference number that a host database uses to look up the desired information.

For example, the barcode on an item at the grocery store is not correlated with that item’s description or price when the UPC barcode is scanned – rather, it is associated to a record in the store’s database where that information is stored. 

In simplest terms, scanning the barcode tells the system to look up the associated record and return the information stored in that record. What that means is that the database record details can be changed without the need to make any change to the label. For that reason, we always recommend that information on the label is data that won’t change.  For example, don’t put on a location as the location is something that changes.

Barcode technology has been around since the early 1950’s, and since then, a variety of different barcode symbologies – also known as languages – have been created, each with its own rules and features. Symbologies may require a specific number of characters, allow numbers only, or can include the full character set.

Linear – or 1D (1-dimensional) – barcodes are typically things like a license plate or identifier for an item in a database. Matrix – or 2D (2-dimensional) – barcodes can hold more information and may potentially even contain the data itself. 

Common symbologies:

  • Code 128 is a highly dense 1D barcode that can utilize any character in the ASCII 128-character set.
  • Code 39 (also referred to as 3 of 9) allows the use of digits and characters. It is widely used across industries and is standard for many government barcode specifications. This is a common barcode font that can then be used in reports or standard office applications like Microsoft Word and Excel.
  • ITF (Interleaved 2 of 5, ITF-14), used to identify product packing levels, is a UPC Shipping Container Symbol to mark cartons, cases, or pallets that contain products that have a UPC or EAN product identification number.
  • UPC and EAN are used on consumer goods at the point of sale. The barcode identifies the manufacturer and the specific product. The Manufacturer ID number is controlled by the Uniform Code Council. A UPC number is not required to track inventory internally or to sell products directly to your customer.
  • UCC/EAN-128 is used to encode shipping/product information. This barcode uses normal Code 128 barcodes but formats the data in a standardized way to identify the type of information contained in the barcode. Code 128 includes four special control codes named FNC1 through FNC4
  • PDF417 is a 2D barcode ideal in applications in which data must travel with the labeled item and the host database is not available. Examples include hazardous material labeling, personal IDs, and technical specifications.
  • DataMatrix is a 2D barcode which stores 1 to ~2000 characters. Because of the small footprint, it is an ideal option when a small label size is required or to encode larger amounts of data.
These various symbologies may appear different from each other, as shown below:

Barcode systems are a critical element in conducting business in today’s economy. The adoption of barcode technology provides more accurate data capture than keyboard entry, by realizing true efficiency with the ability to quickly access and display critical information with a simple scan of a barcode.

Panatrack specializes in applications for rugged mobile computers with integrated barcode scanning to streamline business operations.

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