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A barcode or bar code is a method of representing data in a visual, machine-readable form. Initially, barcodes represented data by varying the widths and spacings of parallel lines. These barcodes, now commonly referred to as linear or one-dimensional (1D), can be scanned by special optical scanners, called barcode readers, of which there are several types. Later, two-dimensional (2D) variants were developed, using rectangles, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns, called matrix codes or 2D barcodes, although they do not use bars as such. 2D barcodes can be read using purpose-built 2D optical scanners, which exist in a few different forms. 2D barcodes can also be read by a digital camera connected to a microcomputer running software that takes a photographic image of the barcode and analyzes the image to deconstruct and decode the 2D barcode. A mobile device with an inbuilt camera, such as smartphone, can function as the latter type of 2D barcode reader using specialized application software. (The same sort of mobile device could also read 1D barcodes, depending on the application software.)
The barcode was invented by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver and patented in the US in 1951. The invention was based on Morse code that was extended to thin and thick bars. However, it took over twenty years before this invention became commercially successful. An early use of one type of barcode in an industrial context was sponsored by the Association of American Railroads in the late 1960s. Developed by General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) and called KarTrak ACI (Automatic Car Identification), this scheme involved placing colored stripes in various combinations on steel plates which were affixed to the sides of railroad rolling stock. Two plates were used per car, one on each side, with the arrangement of the colored stripes encoding information such as ownership, type of equipment, and identification number. The plates were read by a trackside scanner, located for instance, at the entrance to a classification yard, while the car was moving past. The project was abandoned after about ten years because the system proved unreliable after long-term use.
Barcodes became commercially successful when they were used to automate supermarket checkout systems, a task for which they have become almost universal. The Uniform Grocery Product Code Council had chosen, in 1973, the barcode design developed by George Laurer. Laurer’s barcode, with vertical bars, printed better than the circular barcode developed by Woodland and Silver. Their use has spread to many other tasks that are generically referred to as automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). The first scanning of the now-ubiquitous Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode was on a pack of Wrigley Company chewing gum in June 1974 at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, using scanner produced by Photographic Sciences Corporation. QR codes, a specific type of 2D barcode, have recently become very popular due to the growth in smartphone ownership.
Other systems have made inroads in the AIDC market, but the simplicity, universality and low cost of barcodes has limited the role of these other systems, particularly before technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) became available after 1995.
There are different types of barcode languages (data carriers) to satisfy the many types of barcode applications.
The UPC-12 is the most widely used
and most recognized symbol in the United States. Its primary usage has
been for product identification in the retail industry.
This symbol has a fixed length of
twelve numeric characters. The data encoded within a UPC-A conforms to a
standardized format (See illustration). The twelfth digit of a UPC-A symbol is
a calculated check character computed from the eleven prior numbers.
UPC-E only codifies 8 numbers. This
data carrier is referred as “zero suppressed” since it represents a
condensed version of the twelve data characters of a UPC.
EAN-13 bar code is exactly the same
as a UPC-12, however the first digit is not assumed to a zero. All scanners
which are able to read a UPC-12 can also read an EAN-13. This barcode is
widely used globally outside of the United States.
Code 3 of 9 (Code 39)
Code 3 of 9 (also referred to as Code
39) is a very common bar code language which can represent alphanumeric
characters of varying length. The start/stop characters for Code 39
symbols is always an asterisk.
Interleaved 2 of 5 (I 2/5)
Interleaved 2/5 is a high density code
of variable length. Only an even number of numeric data can be encoded
within this symbol. This “double density” symbol encodes odd positioned data in
the bars, and even positioned data in the spaces.
The ITF-14, is used to mark cartons,
cases, or pallets that contain products which have UPC or EAN identification
numbers. The container symbols are used by retailers, manufacturers, and
distributors for accurate logistical and inventory handling. The data carrier
used to encode the ITF-14 is Interleaved 2of5.
Code 128 is a very compact and
versatile language which allows the encodation of the entire 128 ASCII
character set. This symbology is self-checking and is designed with geometric
features to improve scanner read performance.
This language is a variation of the
Code 128 symbology designed primarily for product/shipment identification
applications. The GS1-128 specification uses the same code set as Code 128,
however a special character (function 1) is used as part of the start code in
the symbol. In addition, this symbol symbol utilizes standardized
application identifiers (AI’s).
The GS1 DataBar (formerly known as
RSS or Reduced Space Symbology) was formally adopted by the global supply chain
in January 2011. It can carry all 14 digits of a
manufacture’s GTIN and is more than 50% smaller than the currently
used UPC and EAN symbols.
Codabar is a self-checking language
which encodes 16 data characters:0-9,6 special characters (-$:/.+).
The Postnet (Postal Numerical
Encoding Technique) barcode was developed by the US Postal Service to encode
ZIP code information on letter mail. Postnet symbols differ from other
barcodes, because the individual barcode height alternates rather than the bar
QR Code is a 2 dimensional barcode,
commonly used for mobile marketing campaigns.
PDF417 is a high density, two
dimensional barcode consisting essentially of stacked lower barcode sets. This
symbology is able to encode all the ASCII table characters (255).