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August 5, 2022

A Barcode Primer—1D, 2D, and Beyond

Barcodes are to warehouse managers what the North Star is to sea captains. They contain pieces of information that keep logistics operations from getting off course. One simple piece of data—and the right knowhow—can inform critical decisions. Every additional data point provides more information to combine, compare, and analyze. Collecting the right data allows organizations to set benchmarks and track metrics that guide operational success

Also like a captain’s navigation tools, barcodes have evolved throughout the years. Some characteristics remain fairly constant, while others are almost unrecognizable. The rise of QR codes and matrix codes makes it worth learning about the different types of barcodes.

Key Takeaways:

  1. A single barcode can provide a great deal of clarity to logistics operations.
  2. There are many types of barcodes, which generally fall into the categories of 1D, 2D, 3D, and 4D barcodes.
  3. Various barcode solutions exist to satisfy different use cases, so there’s a strong option for almost every inventory management need.

Origins 1D Barcodes

While the here and now matters more than the history of barcodes, a brief look at the past helps explain what brought us to today. The idea of a barcode started to evolve from an adaptation of morse code in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Decades later, in 1977, barcode scanning machines were still in only 200 grocery stores.

The tides changed quickly when a study showed the effect of bar codes. Operating costs went down, as did prices, which led to greater market share. Stores with barcode scanners experienced permanent 10-12% boosts in sales. The total ROI per barcode scanner was 41.5%. Armed with this information, thousands of stores were adopting barcode scanners by 1980.

Grocery stores were among the early adopters of barcode technology, but they were not alone. The benefits of barcodes quickly became apparent to leaders in the warehousing, manufacturing, and logistics industries. It did not take long at all for barcodes to revolutionize supply chains and inventory management.

How Do Barcodes Work?

Like morse code, from which the idea evolved, barcodes contain long and short symbols. Compared to the dots and dashes of morse code, however, barcodes are taller. Each series of thick and thin lines within a barcode represents a character. Barcodes generally contain 8-15 characters and top out around 20 characters. To get any longer, the barcode would need to physically expand horizontally. 

A barcode reader bounces a laser off of the lines and spaces to read it. The white spaces between lines reflect the laser back, while the black lines absorb the laser. Based on what bounces back, the reader is able to understand a series of characters from the barcode. 

The characters may form a UPC code, for example. The code can then be cross-referenced against a database to return additional information. This has a variety of applications for inventory and supply chain management purposes.

Types of Barcodes

Linear barcodes, also known as 1D barcodes or first-generation barcodes, use thick and thin lines to represent data. This is the type of barcode most people imagine, and what you will find on most consumer products to this day. The types of 1D barcodes include all of the following and more:

  • UPC-A
  • UPC-E
  • EAN 8
  • EAN 13
  • Codabar
  • Code 11
  • Code 39
  • Code 93
  • DataBar

There are slight nuances between these different types of linear barcodes, but all 1D barcodes look and perform similarly. The different types of barcodes got much more pronounced with the development of 2D barcodes.

A New Dimension: 2D Barcodes

If you’ve scanned a QR code with your smartphone, perhaps to pull up a restaurant’s menu, you already know how accessible and useful 2D barcodes can be.  They can convey files and information including images, documents, spreadsheets, servers, websites. The first 2D barcode came about in 1987 to store more information than 1D barcodes could. By leveraging dots, hexagons, and other shapes, a 2D barcode can hold hundreds of times as much data as a linear barcode.

How Do 2D Barcodes Work?

Like 1D barcodes, 2D barcodes use dark and white space to convey information. The key difference is that 2D barcodes, sometimes called matrix codes, hold information in two directions instead of one. This makes matrix codes more complicated to decode from a technology standpoint. 

Interestingly enough, though, it doesn’t normally take a special laser scanner to read a 2D code. 2D barcodes such as QR codes contain finder symbols and alignment symbols. As the names suggest, these shapes help cameras identify and read the codes. With a camera and an internet connection, the average smartphone can read 2D matrix codes.

The ability to read codes by camera instead of laser offers other benefits, too. For example, it’s possible to scan a 2D code from a screen. It isn’t possible to scan a classic, 1D barcode from a screen. Additionally, the accessibility to read the information contained in a 2D barcode by the general public is a major application and benefit of them.

How Do 2D Barcodes Work?

While 1D codes can only vary the thickness of vertical lines, 2D codes have many shapes at their disposal. The result is a great variety of different 2D codes. These different types of 2D barcodes include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • DataMatrix – Used to encode a large amount of data on a small space, such as on a pill bottle
  • PDF417 – Used encode large amounts of data characters for identification cards, inventory management, and transport
  • QR Codes – Popular 2D barcode used by mobile applications and easily scannable by smartphones
  • MaxiCode – Developed and used by UPS to sort and address packing slips
  • Aztec Code – Often deployed in healthcare systems to contain patient information on wristbands, blood samples, and other labeling

Of the types of 2D barcodes, QR codes have emerged as the most popular. Most of these types have similar functionality, though.

Beyond: 3D and 4D Barcodes

3D barcodes are similar to 2D barcodes, except with physical texture. Imagine a QR code that is stamped into a material, so it is raised off the surface instead of printed on the surface. That is a 3D barcode. If you’re wondering what the point of that is, then you probably don’t have any need for it. Indeed, at this point, the use cases for 3D barcodes vs 2D barcodes are few and far between.

There is a patent for 4D barcodes as well, but that is about as far as that movement has gone. Most logistics companies do not use anything beyond 2D barcodes. Further, most scanners only capture the first value from barcodes that store multiple values. 

Any use case that requires something more than a 1D or 2D barcode is likely a case for RFID instead. Radio frequency identification (RFID) refers to the communication of radio waves from RFID tags to a scanner. This ability to transmit multiple values is one of the main considerations when choosing between RFID vs. barcode scanning.

How Do I Choose a Barcode?

The choice between RFID, 1D barcode, and 2D barcode comes down to the specific logistical application. It is worth considering three components of a complete barcode solution:

  1. Surface Area – For example, with limited printable area, a QR code or other 2D barcode will be easier to read when it’s small. The code must be of a type that the available scanner can read.
  2. Scanner – As far as scanners, there is a general shift away from barcode guns and toward smartphones. Most smartphones can read barcodes (as long as they have the proper software). It makes sense to use these smart devices instead of buying equipment that only serves the one purpose of scanning codes.
  3. Database – The final element to consider is the database that helps make sense of the information stored in a barcode. On this front, the trend is away from in-house servers and toward the cloud. Apps like the Infoplus Mobile Floor and Companion Apps turn almost any smart device into a scanner. 

Barcode scanning is still the industry standard because it is easy, accessible, and affordable. Still, there are a number of warehouse factors to consider when selecting the best barcode solution for a given situation. Those who make intentional choices regarding their barcode solutions gain efficiencies. 

Because every barcode provides data, the most efficient barcode solution empowers superior data collection and analysis. Many of the top warehouse metrics and reporting hacks depend on inventory management tools like barcodes. Along with purpose-built warehouse management software, a purpose-built barcode solution streamlines operations to remove some of the IT burden.

Barcoding can help streamline your operations and reduce error, but it can seem overwhelming to set up. If you are looking to invest more in technology to manage your warehousing operations, it is worth talking to the experts here at infoplus. Reach out and we can arrange something.

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