What are barcodes?

Barcodes, also known as “machine-readable codes” (MRCs), consist of symbols that can be electronically scanned and read by a computer.

What are barcodes used for?

Barcodes serve the purpose of encoding products with information like product numbers, serial codes, and batch numbers, making them an industry standard widely adopted for enhanced efficiency, safety, and reliability.

Originally invented to expedite the supermarket scanning process, barcodes made their debut by scanning a pack of Wrigley’s gum at Marsh Supermarket in the small town of Troy, Ohio, in 1974.

In contemporary times, barcodes vary in shapes and sizes, playing a crucial role in stock management, logistics, and engaging consumers. They facilitate quick identification and tracking of products as they move through the supply chain, benefiting both businesses and consumers.

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The evolution of this technology

Beyond being a mere price identifier, barcodes have progressed to meet the distinct requirements of various industries and align with technological advancements like mobile phone scanning. Diverse barcodes exhibit different appearances and behaviors, influencing packaging formats, printing techniques, and the equipment essential for their decoding.

The industries propelling this evolution encompass, among others:

  • Retail Point of Sale (POS)
  • Retail Inventory Management
  • Industrial and Manufacturing
  • Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals
  • Supply Chain and Logistics
  • Packaging

What are the most common barcodes?

Thanks to their widespread adoption by supermarkets, the most frequently used barcodes are 1D (one-dimensional) barcodes. These symbols consist of a zebra-like pattern of stripes and include some of the most familiar barcode types, such as GTIN 8 and GTIN 13 codes (commonly known as EAN and UPC barcodes) found on products scanned at supermarkets.

However, increasing regulations related to consumer safety and product information, coupled with the need for enhanced warehouse and operational efficiencies, have led to a demand for barcodes to carry more information. This information must be both readable by humans and machines, enabling scanners and cameras to easily extract the required data. For instance, producers of fresh goods may need information like batch numbers, expiration dates, and weight encoded onto barcodes.

Technically, the term “barcodes” should only apply to the 1D variations since they physically resemble “bars.” However, this term has become a colloquialism. The preferred terminology is “machine-readable codes,” which can be used for both 1D and 2D (two-dimensional) varieties. Despite this, people still commonly use the term “barcode” to describe them. With that in mind, let’s explore what 2D barcodes are and how they are gradually replacing 1D barcodes.

Example of a QR code printed on cardboard boxes

What are 2D barcodes?

Consider 2D barcodes as the natural progression from 1D barcodes. They resemble small squares containing numerous tiny squares or dots.

In comparison to 1D barcodes, 2D barcodes are easier to scan, more durable, and can store significantly more information in a smaller space. While most 1D barcodes consist of 13 or 14 characters and occupy a relatively large portion of packaging, 2D barcodes typically contain around 70 characters, despite being less than 20% of the size. The built-in error correction in 2D codes enhances their robustness, providing redundancy in case of damage.

2D barcodes have the capability to store images, text, website addresses, geo-coordinates, voice, and other forms of binary data. This versatility makes 2D barcodes much more adaptable than 1D, especially considering the current need for products to comply with extensive data requirements.

Example of a 2D barcode printed onto pharmaceutical packaging

Challenges

When humans read something, there’s room for interpretation, but barcodes leave no room for ambiguity—each machine reads and comprehends the same information. This consistency benefits both consumers and providers, ensuring a guaranteed read every time and significantly enhancing efficiency. However, this assurance is contingent on the accurate creation of the barcode in the manufacturing/packaging process. A minor error upstream can escalate into more significant problems downstream, disrupting the entire production process without detection.

Given the diverse applications and increasing regulatory requirements for product packaging, the selection of the right barcode is crucial. Yet, with numerous options available, the decision-making process can become confusing, leading to potential errors at various stages and adversely affecting efficiency.

In essence, the chain’s strength relies on its weakest link. Optimizing the “holy trinity” of 2D barcodes—printing, handling, and checking (using vision systems)—is essential to prevent these minor errors. Even the slightest inaccuracy can significantly impact code quality, resulting in rejections, aggregation failures, and repercussions for OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) and overall yield.

To address these potential risks, Domino offers comprehensive solutions like the Cigarette Pack Coding Station (CPCS), designed to minimize errors and rejections.

The Importance

The Covid-19 pandemic has expedited the growth of the digital economy, marked by a surge in online shopping and numerous brands hastily adapting to selling their products online during the lockdowns. Consequently, the prevalence of 2D codes, such as QR codes, has experienced a significant increase.

Given that retailers of all scales now need to monitor, trace, process, and manage goods for both domestic and international markets, 2D codes are becoming essential due to the extensive data requirements. Properly encoding these barcodes is vital for enhancing traceability, optimizing supply chain efficiency, and safeguarding consumer interests. The adoption of globally recognized standards, such as GS1, further facilitates interoperability among various stakeholders and nations.

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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