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What are barcodes?

Barcodes or “machine-readable codes” (MRCs) are collections of symbols that can be scanned and read electronically by a computer.

What are barcodes used for?

Barcodes are used to encode products with information such as product numbers, serial codes and batch numbers. As such, barcodes are an industry standard and widely used for improved efficiency, safety and reliability.

Invented initially to speed up the supermarket scanning process, barcodes were first used to scan a pack of Wrigley’s gum at Marsh Supermarket in the small town of Troy, Ohio, back in 1974.

Today, barcodes come in all shapes and sizes and play a key role in stock management, logistics and consumer engagement. They help businesses and consumers alike quickly identify and track products as they flow through the supply chain.

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The evolution of this technology

More than just a price tag, barcodes have evolved to suit different industries’ individual needs and adapt to technological advancements such as mobile phone scanning. These different barcodes look and act differently; they can alter packaging types, printing methods, and the decoding equipment needed to read them.

The evolution-driving industries include, but are not limited to:

o          Retail Point of Sale (POS)

o          Retail Inventory Management

o          Industrial and Manufacturing

o          Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals

o          Supply Chain, Logistics

o          Packaging

What are the most common barcodes?

Thanks to their use by supermarkets, the most commonly used barcodes are 1D (one dimensional) barcodes. 1D barcode symbols consist of a zebra-like pattern of stripes. They include some of the most well-recognised barcode types, such as GTIN 8 and GTIN 13 codes (often still referred to as EAN and UPC bar codes) – the types you’d see on most products scanned at the supermarket.

However, growing regulations around consumer safety and product information, alongside the demand for improved warehouse and operations efficiencies, have created a need for barcodes to hold more pieces of information. This information needs to be both human and machine-readable to allow scanners and cameras to easily read and extract the required data. Consider fresh goods producers who will need information such as batch numbers, expiration dates and weight etc., encoded onto barcodes.

Generally, the term barcodes should only refer to the 1D variations as they physically look like “bars”. However, this word is actually a colloquialism! The preferred terminology is “machine-readable codes” and can be used for both the 1D and 2D (two dimensional) varieties. However, people still use the term barcode to describe them. With that in mind, let’s look into what 2D barcodes actually are and how they are coming to replace 1D barcodes.

Example of a QR code printed on cardboard boxes

What are 2D barcodes?

Consider 2D barcodes as the next step in the evolution from 1D barcodes. They look like small squares that contain countless small, individual squares or dots inside.

Compared to 1D barcodes, they’re easier to scan, more robust and hold much more information in a smaller area. Where most 1D barcodes contain 13 or 14 characters and take a relatively large amount of packaging real estate, 2D barcodes usually contain around 70 characters despite being less than 20% of the size. Built-in error correction in 2D codes also means that the codes are more robust with built-in redundancy in case of damage.

2D Barcodes can store images, text, website addresses, geo-coordinates, voice and other examples of binary data. This makes 2D much more versatile than 1D – especially with the volume of data currently necessary for products to be compliant.

Example of a 2D barcode printed onto pharmaceutical packaging

Challenges

When humans read something, it’s open to interpretation. Whereas for barcodes, there is no interpretation – each machine will read and understand the same thing. This is excellent for consumers and providers as it means a guaranteed read every time, drastically improving efficiency. However, this is only guaranteed if the manufacturing/packaging operation created the barcode correctly. A small mistake higher up in the chain can snowball into more significant issues further down the line, derailing the entire production process without anybody noticing.

With so many different uses and growing regulatory demands on product packaging, it’s critical to choose the right barcode. However, as there are so many to choose from, this can often be confusing. This confusion can lead to mistakes at any point in the process and have a noticeable impact on efficiency.

This means that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The “holy trinity” of 2D – printing, handling, checking (with vision systems) – must be optimised to prevent these small mistakes from happening in the first place. Even the slightest imprecision can affect code quality drastically, resulting in rejections, aggregation failures, and impacting OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) and overall yield.

These potential risks are key reasons why Domino provides turnkey solutions such as the Cigarette Pack Coding Station (CPCS), which aim to minimise errors and rejections.

The Importance

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital economy significantly, with an influx of online shopping and countless brands scrambling to sell their products online in response to the lockdowns. As a result, the prevalence of 2D codes, like QR codes, has also risen dramatically.

With retailers of all sizes needing to track, trace, process and store goods for both domestic and international markets, 2D codes will come to be a necessity due to the volume of data required. Correctly coding these barcodes will ensure improved traceability, supply chain efficiency and consumer protection. The use of internationally based standards, such as GS1, also benefits interoperability between different stakeholders and countries.

If you would like to know more about how our solutions could help your business, get in touch with our team.

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