What Is a Barcode and How Does It Work?

February 21, 2024
14 min read

Barcodes, a series of black lines and spaces, are more than mere marks on a product; they are the language through which items speak to computers, telling tales of origin, identity, and destination. Simply, from the humble beginnings of an idea born to streamline grocery checkouts to their pivotal role in today’s digital economy, barcodes have evolved into a critical tool for businesses worldwide.

This article delves into the genesis of barcodes, answering the question, 'What is a barcode?' and exploring how they function and their transformative impact across industries. We will also delve into the world of UPC and EAN barcodes and uncover the technology that powers this silent communication and how it continues to shape the efficiency of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). 

Join us as we decode the lines and spaces that connect the physical to the digital in the world of commerce.

What Is a Barcode?

A barcode is a way to represent data in a visual, machine-readable form. Initially designed to label railroad cars, it quickly found its way into the retail industry, revolutionising the way businesses track inventory and manage transactions. It is composed of a series of parallel lines (bars) and spaces of varying widths that can be scanned and interpreted to retrieve information about the product it labels.

The History of Barcode Technology

The concept of the barcode was first patented in 1952 by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, who were inspired by Morse code to create a system that could automatically read product information during checkout. 

However, it wasn't until the 1970s that the technology gained commercial traction. The first product to be scanned using a Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode was a pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum in 1974 at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. This event marked the beginning of their widespread adoption in retail, leading to the development of various standards and formats to cater to different industries and applications worldwide.

How Barcodes Work

The process begins with the creation of the barcode by choosing a specific format (e.g., UPC, EAN, etc.) and encoding the desired information (such as a product number) into a visual pattern.

When a scanner shines a light on the barcode, it detects the reflected light from the white spaces between the bars and converts the pattern of light and dark into electrical signals. These signals are then decoded by the scanner's software, translating the lines and spaces into a string of numbers or characters that a computer system can understand.

This encoded information typically includes a product identifier or other data relevant to the item's tracking and management. For instance, in the retail industry, it can provide quick access to pricing, stock levels, and product details, facilitating efficient checkout processes and inventory management.

Types of Barcodes 

Barcodes have evolved into various formats, each designed to meet specific needs across different industries. Understanding these types is necessary for businesses to select the most appropriate system for their operations. 

Overview of Barcode Types

Barcodes are broadly categorised into two types: 

  • One-dimensional (1D), such as UPC and EAN barcodes, consist of lines and spaces of various widths that represent data. 
  • Two-dimensional (2D), like QR codes, contain patterns of squares, dots, hexagons, and other geometric shapes to encode information not just horizontally but vertically as well.

1D Barcodes
Universal Product Code (UPC) BarcodeA 12-digit code widely used in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and other countries for tracking items in stores. 
They have two main components: 
The manufacturer's identification numberThe product number
The first six to ten digits are the manufacturer's identifier, assigned by a standards organisation, while the remaining digits (excluding the last, which is a check digit) represent the item's unique identifier. 
UPC barcodes are primarily used in retail to label consumer goods and facilitate the checkout process, inventory tracking, and reordering.
European Article Number (EAN) BarcodeNow known as the International Article Number (IAN), it is a standard similar to the UPC but used internationally. It comes in two main formats: 
EAN-13, which consists of 13 digits.EAN-8, a shorter version with eight digits used for smaller products.
The structure of the EAN-13 format includes a country code (first two to three digits), a manufacturer code, a product code, and a check digit. 
EAN barcodes are widely adopted in global commerce, making them essential for products that are exported or sold in international markets.
2D Barcodes
QR CodesCan encode a wide variety of data types, including numeric, alphanumeric, byte/binary, and Kanji. QR codes can store much more information than 1D forms and are commonly used for marketing, ticketing, and payments, as well as linking to digital content online.
Code 128A high-density linear barcode that can represent all 128 ASCII characters (numbers, letters, and control codes). It's used extensively in shipping, packaging, and logistics for its versatility and capacity to encode full alphanumeric data.
Data MatrixA format that can inscribe text or raw data in a square or rectangular pattern.Data Matrix codes are used in various applications, including electronics manufacturing, healthcare, and postal services, for their ability to cover a lot of information in a small space.

The Role of Standards in Barcode Technology

The seamless operation of barcode systems across the globe is underpinned by a set of standards that ensure uniformity, compatibility, and efficiency. These are pivotal for businesses to effectively implement and leverage the technology. At the forefront of these standardising efforts is GS1. 

GS1 standards provide a common language that businesses can use to identify, capture, and share information about products, services, and locations seamlessly, regardless of the industry or country. [1] They ensure that barcodes are unique, universally recognised, and capable of being scanned anywhere in the world. 

GS1's role also encompasses various supply chain standards, including RFID, EDI, and GDSN (Global Data Synchronisation Network), facilitating a more interconnected and transparent international trade environment.

How to Obtain UPC and EAN Barcodes

Obtaining UPC or EAN barcodes for your products involves a few key steps, ensuring your items are ready for the retail environment and compliant with global standards:

  1. Become a GS1 Member: The first step is to join your local GS1 Member Organisation, which provides access to the system.
  1. Get a GS1 Company Prefix: Upon joining, you'll be assigned a GS1 Company Prefix, a unique identifier for your company. This is the foundation of creating barcodes for your products.
  1. Assign Product Numbers: Use your prefix to assign a unique product number to each item or variant.
  1. Generate Your Barcodes: With your prefix and product numbers, you can now generate barcodes. GS1 provides tools and guidelines for maintaining accuracy that meets global standards.
  1. Test Your Barcodes: Ensure they scan correctly and contain the right information by testing them with verification equipment.

Implementing Barcode Standards

Adhering to barcode standards is not just about compliance; it's about ensuring operational efficiency, accuracy, and global interoperability. Here are some best practices for businesses:

  • Educate Your Team: Ensure that your staff understands the importance of standards and how to properly handle and scan items.
  • Maintain Quality: Regularly check your barcodes for readability and adherence to standards. Poor quality barcodes can lead to scanning errors and operational inefficiencies.
  • Stay Updated: GS1 standards evolve to meet changing industry needs. Keep abreast of updates to procedures and technologies to ensure your barcoding practices remain current and effective.

Implementing Barcodes in Your Business

The first step in implementing barcodes is selecting the type that best suits your business needs. Consider the following factors:

  • Industry Requirements: Different industries may favour specific types. For instance, retail commonly uses UPC and EAN barcodes, while logistics and shipping might rely on Code 128.
  • Product Information: Determine the amount of information you need to encode. Simple product identification can be achieved with 1D barcodes, whereas the 2D kind is suitable for encoding more complex information.
  • Scanning Environment: Consider where and how they will be scanned. High-volume retail environments may benefit from ones that support fast, omnidirectional scanning, such as UPC or EAN.

Barcode Scanners and Readers

Selecting the right scanning technology is essential. The main types of scanners include:

Laser ScannersIdeal for environments with frequent scanning needs, such as retail checkouts. They can quickly read 1D barcodes from a distance but cannot read 2D forms.
Imager ScannersCapable of reading both 1D and 2D formats by capturing images and decoding the information. Suitable for environments requiring versatility.
Mobile Scanners and SmartphonesWith the advent of apps designed for scanning, smartphones can now be used as a cost-effective method, particularly useful for small businesses or on-the-go scanning.

Barcode Printing Solutions

Once you've selected the appropriate barcode type and scanning technology, the next step is to choose a printing solution. Consider the following:

Direct Thermal PrintersBest for labels that have a short lifespan, such as those used in shipping. They do not require ink, toner, or ribbon, making them cost-effective for certain applications.
Thermal Transfer PrintersSuitable for creating durable labels that must withstand extreme conditions over longer periods. These printers use a thermal ribbon to transfer ink onto the label and are ideal for retail product tags.
Inkjet and Laser PrintersCan be used for printing barcodes on paper or cardboard packaging. While versatile, they may not offer the same robustness as thermal transfer prints.

Applications and Benefits of Barcodes

As highlighted above, in the realms of eCommerce and logistics, barcodes play a pivotal role in streamlining processes, enhancing accuracy, and optimising the supply chain. This section delves into their specific use cases in these areas, highlighting how they contribute to operational efficiency and business growth.

In Retail and eCommerce

  • Inventory Management: Barcodes allow for real-time tracking of stock levels, reducing the likelihood of overstocking or stockouts. Businesses can quickly update inventory records, making it easier to manage stock across multiple locations and reduce associated costs.
  • Order Fulfilment: They expedite the picking and packing process, ensuring that orders are fulfilled accurately, thereby reducing errors and leading to higher customer satisfaction and fewer returns.
  • Point of Sale (POS) Efficiency: They speed up the checkout process by enabling quick scanning of items, reducing wait times. This efficiency is pivotal in retail environments, where fast service can significantly enhance the customer experience.

In Logistics and Supply Chain

  • Tracking and Traceability: Barcodes provide a means to track products throughout the supply chain, from manufacturing to delivery. This visibility is essential for managing logistics operations, identifying bottlenecks, and ensuring timely delivery of goods.
  • Shipping and Receiving: They streamline the shipping and receiving process, allowing workers to quickly scan shipments and verify their contents against purchase orders. This process minimises errors and improves the accuracy of shipments.
  • Asset Management: They are used to track assets within a company, from equipment and machinery to vehicles. This capability facilitates maintenance scheduling, asset utilisation analysis, and theft prevention.

Future Trends in Barcode Technology

As we look toward the future, barcode technology continues to evolve, adapting to new challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. These advancements promise to further enhance operational efficiency, data accuracy, and connectivity across various industries.

Advancements in Scanning Technology

Emerging scanning solutions are expected to offer greater flexibility in terms of the types of barcodes they can read, including both 1D and 2D formats, and the conditions under which they can operate, such as low-light or high-speed environments. Additionally, advancements in mobile technology are making it more accessible through smartphones and tablets, enabling businesses of all sizes to implement such systems without the need for specialised hardware.

  • Wearable Scanners: These can be integrated into gloves, rings, or eyewear, allowing for hands-free operations, enhancing ergonomics in logistics and manufacturing settings.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) Scanning: AR technology is being explored for its potential to overlay digital information onto physical products through barcode scanning, offering innovative ways to interact with products and access data.

Emerging Barcode Formats

As the demand for data-rich and secure solutions grows, new barcode formats are being developed to meet these needs. They aim to encode more information, offer enhanced security features, and improve readability under challenging conditions.

  • High Capacity Colour Barcodes (HCCB): Utilising a palette of colours to encode data, HCCBs can store significantly more information than the traditional black-and-white kind, opening up new applications in document security and multimedia.
  • Cryptographic Barcodes: Incorporating encryption to secure the data they contain, cryptographic barcodes are becoming increasingly important in combating counterfeiting and ensuring the authenticity of products.

The Role of Barcodes in IoT

The integration of barcodes with Internet of Things (IoT) technology is transforming how businesses track and manage assets, inventory, and operations. They serve as critical identifiers in the IoT ecosystem, linking physical items to their digital counterparts and enabling automated data collection and analysis.

  • Asset Tracking and Maintenance: In industrial settings, they can monitor the condition and usage of equipment, scheduling maintenance or flagging issues automatically.
  • Enhanced Consumer Engagement: Retailers can connect consumers to digital content, such as product information, reviews, or promotional materials, through a simple scan, enriching the shopping experience.

Elevate Your eCommerce Logistics With Bezos

In an industry where efficiency and precision are paramount, understanding and implementing barcode technology can significantly elevate your eCommerce operations. Bezos stands at the forefront of this revolution, offering SMEs the opportunity to harness the power of advanced order fulfilment previously accessible only to industry giants. Our comprehensive suite of services, including storage, picking, packing, dispatch, and delivery, is designed to streamline your logistics, allowing you to focus on growth and innovation.

Our extensive network spans 63 centres in 16 countries, ensuring your products reach new customers with ease and efficiency. By partnering with us, you're embracing a future where logistical headaches are a thing of the past. Our AI-driven technology proactively identifies and resolves logistics issues, ensuring your operations run smoothly. With dedicated account managers and real-time tracking, you'll enjoy unparalleled transparency and control over your order fulfilment process.

Embrace the opportunity to expand your business, improve your customer experience, and enjoy significant savings on logistics tasks. Speak to an expert today.

Conclusion –  What Is a Barcode? 

Barcodes serve as the backbone of modern commerce, streamlining operations across various sectors, from retail to logistics. Their evolution from simple product identifiers to complex data carriers reflects the growing demands of a digitalised global market. As businesses continue to seek efficiency, accuracy, and scalability, their role will only expand. 

Remember, Bezos stands ready to revolutionise your eCommerce logistics, leveraging barcode technology to ensure seamless fulfilment and delivery. Speak to an expert today to get started.

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