Barcodes 101: How a Barcode System Will Benefit Your Business

Barcodes are an everyday requirement across every sector of our economy. Used to relay specific data that allows your team to identify, track and manage product inventory, barcode labels have the power to optimize your business operations and automate workflow.

A major benefit of barcodes is that they streamline your data entry and management. As a result, this greatly simplifies the ordering process for the customer and minimizes error risk. In fact, barcodes boast exceptionally low error rates of less than 0.5%.

Barcodes are more widely used than any other labeling solution because they not only maximize the speed and accuracy of data reading, but most data capture applications handle large volumes of orders—which make the benefits offered by barcodes a necessity.

Differentiating Linear vs. 2D Barcode Labels

A linear barcode features parallel bars and spaces of variable widths that are arranged in a specific pattern to represent a corresponding set of numbers, letters or symbols. The data within this barcode is contained in the relative thickness and position of the barcode pattern.

Most 2D barcodes have a pattern of dark, square modules that are interlaced with white modules to create a checkerboard-type pattern. The data within this barcode is contained in the relative placement of the dark and white modules within the overall checkerboard pattern.

The Various Applications of Barcodes

Barcode labels are widely used across a variety of applications—from warehouses and manufacturing, to healthcare facilities, retailers and entertainment events. A few examples of these applications include:

  • Freight companies that need to track and manage order shipments;
  • Hospitals that need to ensure the right medication gets into the right hands;
  • Warehouses that need to manage their product inventory;
  • Retailers that need to facilitate pricing updates and faster checkouts;
  • Manufacturers that need to track a specific raw material to the finished product;
  • Entertainment events that need to manage the admission process; and
  • Food growers that need to clearly trace their foods from the field to a store for health and safety recall purposes.

If your current strategy is to purchase high volumes of blank direct thermal labels and print the barcodes yourself, I.D. Images can provide a pre-printed barcode label on a thermal transfer material for about the same price. This will provide significant time savings for your business, without the need for additional equipment or labor expense.

Selecting the Ideal Barcode Design

In order to achieve the maximum scanning capability of a barcode, it’s important to first consider the various constraints of the project at hand. These are the factors that cannot be altered. Some examples of project constraints include:

  • Scanning distance required
  • Number of characters to be encoded
  • Type of characters to be encoded (alpha and/or numeric)
  • Type of scanner (e.g., traditional infrared wand, PDA, cellphone, fixed position)

Once the constraints are identified, the rest of the barcode label can be designed. Depending upon the factors at play, you can begin by defining either the label size OR the barcode size. In both instances, be sure to include the quiet zone requirements of the selected barcode. If you start with the barcode size, you can then design the label size around those parameters. Conversely, if you start with the label size, you’ll need to design the barcode to fit within it.

If any performance issues are identified, it may be related to the print quality or symbology of the barcode. The I.D. Images team will guide you through this process and then confirm the barcode works by submitting a few samples to the customer.

Considering the Symbology of Your Barcode

At a high level, a symbology is the language of a barcode. A few examples of symbology include UPC, Code 128, Code 39, Data Matrix and QR Code. Each symbology has different capabilities—such as the amount of data that can be encoded—and its own set of rules that describe how data is incorporated into the barcode pattern. The goal is to maintain the highest degree of data integrity in the smallest area possible.

Below are five key elements of this symbology:

  • “X” Dimension: This is the narrowest bar or space in a linear barcode, or the size of a module in a 2D barcode. Usually, the larger the “X” dimension, the more forgiving the barcode will be when scanned and the longer a distance a code can be scanned.
  • Quiet Zone: This is the blank area that is located at both ends of a linear barcode. It signals the scanner where to begin and end. The quiet zone should be 10 times the “X” dimension of a symbol or one-quarter inch—whichever is greater. For 2D barcodes, the quiet zone should maintain the clearance of at least one internal module on all four sides.
  • Contrast: This is the difference in reflectance values for the “lightest” (white) space—including the quiet zone—and the “darkest” bar/module of the symbol. The contrast must be great enough for the scanner to recognize. Although greater contrast is typically better, extreme black is not always necessary and can even cause a glare spot. A variety of factors can impact contrast, including barcode colors, background colors and opacity of the label material. The substrate opacity must be sufficient to prevent background surfaces from interfering with the scanner’s readability. This often occurs when a white adhesive label is placed on a dark surface.
  • Barcode Height: A good rule of thumb for linear barcode height is that the further the distance scanner, the taller the code should be—which in turn makes scanning easier. At a minimum, bar height should be 0.25 inches or 15% of the linear barcode length—whichever is greater. A height of 0.375 inches is recommended for most close hand-scanned barcodes, while UPC, EAN and codes scanned on a conveyor should be at least one inch tall. On the other hand, the height of a 2D barcode is variable data. This is what allows 2D barcodes to be more compact in size when encoding the same data field.
  • Human Readability: It’s also important to ensure the human readability of the barcode. To do so, print the coded information near the barcode in an alphanumeric-readable font. This will allow for manual entry if the barcode is damaged and cannot be scanned.

The most critical relationship in these elements is the barcode’s density, which determines the scanning depth-of-field—or the closest and furthest point at which the code will scan. The density of a barcode is determined by the size of the “X” dimension and the ratio of wide-to-narrow elements within the symbol.

For a standard-range scanner, a 20 mil “X” dimension can be scanned from about 2-18 inches away, while a 50 mil “X” dimension can be scanned from about 3-36 inches away. This would be using a standard white material, either with or without laminate.

On the other hand, the long-range scanner has a greater depth-of-field that can be further expanded when using retro reflective material—bringing the scanning distance to more than 28 inches using a 100 mil “X” dimension. Each scanner device manufacturer has its own specifications for scanning distance.

Want to Utilize Barcode Labels to Manage Your Product Inventory? 

To learn more about our range of healthcare and pharmaceutical labeling solutions, contact our customer service team at (866) 516-7300 or