An overview of bar codes

Johannesburg, 10 Dec 2019
Read time 5min 10sec

If you have a small business and you're looking to grow your company and expand your product range to potentially sell in retail stores globally, you will need to bar code your products. If this is all very new to you, here is a guide to everything you need to know about bar codes!

What are bar codes?

According to the definition found on Wikipedia, bar codes can be described as “an optical, machine-readable, representation of data; the data usually describes something about the object that carries the bar code. Traditional bar codes systematically represent data by varying the widths and spacing of parallel lines.” Bar codes are also referred to as universal product codes (UPC barcodes) or, more commonly, European article numbers (EANs). Bar codes are adhered or attached to products to allow for fast identification of those products by a bar code scanner (or even sometimes by cameras on smartphones).

Why should you use bar codes?

The main benefit of bar codes is that they make the procedure for manually inputting codes into computer systems far quicker. They also help lower the risk of error that is intrinsic in any system that involves a human having to manually input information because they allow for the capacity for better automation in a range of areas of business and industry. This is especially useful in retail for point of sale systems.

What can you use bar codes for?

Bar codes can be used for many different reasons in many different areas, but here are some of the most popular uses:

  1. On products in retail shops that are scanned at checkout points.
  2. On items of value to show their serial number.
  3. To label assets owned by a business.
  4. To price books and to allow them to be located easier.
  5. On baggage labels or tickets at airports.
  6. On hospitals to identify patients or medicines.
  7. On trees to stop illegal logging.

What are the different types of bar codes?

Bar code types are called symbologies because they are intended for different purposes and come in one-dimensional and two-dimensional (even sometimes three-dimensional) forms. Some linear bar codes are: EAN 8 and 13, Code 39, ISSN, ISBN codes and Codabar. Some two-dimensional bar codes available are the QR code, data matrix and the Aztec code.

Bar codes on retail products:

Each bar code that is found on a retail product is meant to be unique to that specific product. In order to ensure this, all bar codes sold by legitimate bar code sellers are registered with GS1 – the global authority on bar codes.

Bar code implementation in your business:

There are some initial important questions which you need to answer before you register a barcode. The answers will determine what type of bar code you need and what type of devices you need:

  1. Are the bar codes you want to use in your business on products that you buy from the person who supplies to your business?
  2. Are the bar codes intended to be for products your business produces and sells?
  3. Do you want to implement bar codes for internal stock control purposes?

Once you have answered these questions, you can dive into the guidelines below:

1. Bar codes for items you have purchased:

If your problem is that you need to be able to read products purchased from another business, then you need a bar code scanner that can interpret the type of bar codes on the products you have purchased – which will usually be an EAN-13 bar code.

2. Bar codes on your manufactured products:

If this is your situation, you will need to purchase your own unique bar code from a legitimate barcode generator. This will ensure your bar codes will be one of a kind. The type of bar code you need is dependent on what kind of product you create, but yet again, the most commonly used are EAN-13.

3. Bar codes for internal stock control:

If your bar codes are only for your own personal use within your business, then you can create your own codes and do not need to purchase them from any bar code seller. The best type of bar code for this would be a code 39.

Bar code scanners:

As with bar codes, the type of scanner you need will be dependent on what it is being used for and what kind of working environment they are being used in. This is important because some scanners cannot read bar codes that are too small or big, or cannot function properly in dirty or dusty conditions.

Bar code printers:

The kind of printer you need is dependent on what kind of bar code label you need printed. Some printers cannot print very small bar code labels. The standard of the print must also be of a high enough quality so that the scanner is able to read it. In certain circumstances, you might need a special bar code printer, like if the label has to be weatherproof, in which case you will need a thermal printer.

So, as you can see, while bar codes are a tremendously useful tool for business productivity and management, you will need to take some time to consider the requirements of your business before you can choose a bar code that will suit your business needs. Making hurried and poorly thought out decisions might end up costing your business more than anything else, and will hinder your development and success. 

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