Barcode FAQ

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Answers to Frequently Asked Barcode Questions

Are there different barcodes?

There are about 300 different barcodes used. Barcodes can hold numerical data, alphabetical and numerical – called “alphanumeric” – data, or just alphabetical information.

There are three basic “types” or symbologies used: Linear, Two Dimensional, and Composite. Linear bar codes use the familiar black bars of varying widths separated by white spaces to hold data. Two dimensional barcodes – also called 2D – use varying graphical symbols to hold data. Composite barcodes combine linear and 2D symbologies. Common linear bar code “fonts” are Code 3 of 9 (sometimes called Code 39), UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-8, Code 128, and Interleaved 2 of 5. 2D barcodes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are broadly categorized as Matrix or Multi-Row symbologies. Matrix codes use arrangements of dots or patterns to hold data, while Multi-Row codes look like “traditional” barcodes stacked on top of one another. 2D codes are used in different industries for specialized data applications. Special printers and readers are sometimes required to use 2D barcodes.

How do barcodes work?

A barcode is really little more than a “license plate” that identifies an item. It is made up of dark and light spaces which can be read by a machine which detects the relative widths of the dark and light spaces. When the letters or numbers in the barcode are read, a computer can look up additional information about that product in a database, such as price, color, size, etc. Barcodes are read using laser lights or by scanning the digital “picture” taken by specialized readers.

How do I print a barcode?

Barcodes can be printed on virtually any printer, but the main thing to remember is that the barcode must be readable by a scanner. This requires that the barcode must be in compliance with industry specifications and that it be readable by the scanners used for that symbology. Generally, a barcode scanner has to be able to clearly distinguish between the white spaces and the black bars. Theoretically, you could print a barcode using a dot matrix or laser printer – but some printers are unable to render the barcode in the required resolution for scanners to read.
Finally, many manufacturing processes use “auto application” machinery which takes the printed labels and automatically apply them to packages – without a human worker in the process.

What size should my barcode label be?

If you don’t have to worry about suppliers or customers using the same barcode, you can choose virtually any label size you want. Keep in mind that your scanning equipment must be able to “read” the data. If you’re complying with suppliers’ or customers’ requirements, you need to first be aware of their labeling needs, which typically involve specifications for the barcode symbology, the dimensions of the barcode elements (to facilitate scanning), and the height and width of the code.

What’s the difference between Thermal Transfer and Thermal Direct?

Both Thermal Transfer and Thermal Direct printers use a heated printhead to print an image on a label. A Thermal Transfer printer uses heat to melt a wax- or resin-based material from a ribbon onto a label, while a Thermal Direct printer uses no ribbon, instead relying on the action of the heat of its printhead to darken the specially treated material on a label. There are costs associated with both: Thermal Transfer printers can use paper labels – which are cheaper – but use ribbons. Direct Thermal printers use no ribbons, but require specially prepared or treated materials for labels which react to the heat.

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