Have you ever wondered about all those different barcodes you see on everyday products? Those simple symbols help businesses efficiently track inventory, ring up purchases, and ship items worldwide. But did you know there are actually many different types of barcodes, each with their own specialized uses?
In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll explore the history, benefits, and limitations of 8 major barcode varieties. Understanding these technologies provides intriguing insight into an infrastructure most people take for granted. Let‘s dive in and demystify the world of barcodes!
A Brief History of Barcodes
Before we cover specific barcode types, it helps to understand how these ingenious symbols evolved. The story began back in 1948 when graduate students Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver filed the first patent on a "Classifying Apparatus and Method." Their system used Morse code-like symbols to encode data.
The word "barcode" itself entered parlance later in 1949 when a newspaper article described Woodland and Silver‘s linear symbols as looking like a "bar code." However, it took over 20 more years for barcodes to be commercially adopted. The grocery industry spearheaded early retail applications in the 1970s and 80s.
Here‘s a quick history highlighting major barcode milestones:
1952 – Woodland and Silver patent the bullseye barcode and linear formats.
1966 – The National Association of Food Chains investigates barcode scanning for grocery stores.
1970 – The UPC black and white linear barcode is chosen as the US grocery standard.
1974 – The first live UPC scan rings up a pack of Wrigley‘s gum at an Ohio supermarket.
1981 – Code 128 is invented allowing encoding of the full ASCII character set.
1991 – 2D barcodes arrive with PDF417, encoding up to 2710 alphanumeric characters.
1994 – QR codes and Data Matrix codes emerge to provide small, scannable 2D symbols.
Today – Barcodes are scanned over 10 billion times daily worldwide on billions of products.
This innovation timeline shows the progression from simple linear 1D barcodes to more complex 2D symbols storing sizable data. Next let‘s look at how the most prevalent technologies filled their niches.
1. UPC Barcodes
The now-ubiquitous UPC (Universal Product Code) was the original retail barcode adopted back in the 1970s. UPC symbols enable fast, accurate scanning at checkout to lookup pricing, maintain inventory, and power modern commerce.
UPC barcodes were developed by George Laurer and IBM for the grocery industry. In 1974, a supermarket cashier in Ohio scanned the first live UPC on a pack of Wrigley‘s chewing gum. This marked a major commercial milestone.
UPC barcodes encode a 12-digit number uniquely identifying retail products worldwide. The UPC system was initially implemented by US grocers but quickly spread internationally. UPCs and related EAN codes are now scanned over a billion times daily.
Each 12-digit UPC consists of:
- A number system digit identifying the product type
- A 5-digit manufacturer code
- A 5-digit product code
- A check digit to verify accurate scanning
The 12 numbers encode into a sequence of black bars and white spaces of varying widths readable by laser scanners. UPC advantages include:
- Retail standard for point-of-sale checkout worldwide
- Fast, accurate, automated scanning
- Allows tracking sales and inventory data
- Unique ID for every consumer product category
- Restricted 12-digit capacity
- Requires line-of-sight scanning
- Smudging and damage can affect scans
- Only encodes numbers
UPC barcodes revolutionized shopping. And despite new technologies, these versatile symbols remain essential for retail and will continue ringing up trillions of products well into the future.
2. EAN Barcodes
While the 12-digit UPC took hold in America, European countries developed a similar system called EAN. EAN stands for International Article Number, later renamed European Article Number.
The European Article Numbering Association launched EAN in the late 1970s. It provides 13-digit product identification and barcodes to complement UPCs in Europe. An extra initial digit in EAN symbols indicates the geographic region or country.
- 40-46 = EAN country code for Germany
- 50 = EAN country code for the UK
Like UPC codes, EANs encode data into a sequence of bars and spaces of different widths. But the expanded 13-digit format allows more product numbers within retail sectors.
EAN and UPC barcodes are collectively known as GTINs – Global Trade Item Numbers. Though they vary slightly, GTIN symbols are universally scannable worldwide. Retailers and shoppers needn‘t worry about interchangeability.
Benefits provided by EAN barcodes include:
- Retail checkout standard across Europe
- Larger data capacity than 12-digit UPCs
- Globally scannable on most barcode equipment
- Built-in verification check digit
Downsides to EAN technology involve:
- Restriction to only numeric data
- Susceptibility to damage and errors
- Requirement for line-of-sight scanning
EAN barcodes enabled European commerce to benefit from streamlined point-of-sale checkout similar to UPC adoption in the US. GTIN codes continue powering retail and trade around the world.
3. Code 39 Barcodes
Code 39 emerged in 1974 as one of the first barcode symbologies able to represent both letters and numbers. It was developed by David Allais and Ray Stevens at Intermec Corporation.
The "39" in Code 39 denotes its capacity to encode 39 characters – the numbers 0-9, the letters A-Z (in capitals only), and 7 special symbols like the asterisk (*) and minus sign (-).
Code 39 encodes data into a series of 9 bars/spaces using 5 bars and 4 spaces for each character. Barcode readers can scan these patterns highly accurately. Code 39 is a self-checking discrete symbology, meaning each character has a start/stop pattern built-in to eliminate misreads.
Key advantages of Code 39:
- Highly accurate and secure scanning
- Self-checking symbols prevent misreads
- Flexible alphanumeric character encoding
- No extra check digit required
- Wide industry adoption across sectors
- Restricted data capacity per symbol
- Limited to capital letters only
- Requires ample quiet zone spacing
Code 39 fills needs for variable data ticketing, name badges, equipment tags, inventory forms, and industrial labeling. It remains a versatile 1D symbology where scan accuracy is paramount.
4. Code 128 Barcodes
Code 128 debuted in 1981 as an advanced barcode able to encode the complete ASCII character set. It was developed by Computer Identics Corporation to boost the limited capacity of Code 39.
As the name implies, Code 128 can represent all 128 ASCII characters – the entire alphabet (upper and lower case), digits, punctuation, control codes, and special symbols. This expanded range allows encoding more diverse data types.
For example, Code 128 can seamlessly integrate:
- Numeric product IDs and inventory quantities
- Alphanumeric part numbers and serial codes
- Full names and addresses
- Programming commands and special characters
Code 128 uses variable width patterns to encode data efficiently in the smallest barcode. It can even switch modes automatically within one symbol, like alternating between numeric digits and text fields.
Benefits provided by Code 128:
- Ability to encode complete ASCII range
- Variable width compression boosts capacity
- Automatic in-symbol mode switching
- Built-in check digit for accuracy
- Widely used across retail, industry, healthcare
- Higher printing resolution requirements
- More complex programming
- Limited overall symbol length
Code 128 excels at encoding small amounts of numeric and text data. It strikes a versatility sweet spot between limited legacy codes like Code 39 and the high capacity of 2D formats.
5. QR Codes
QR codes (Quick Response codes) are two-dimensional symbols able to encode substantially more data than 1D barcodes. QR codes were invented in 1994 by the Japanese corporation Denso Wave.
While 1D barcodes like Code 128 store data just horizontally, 2D QR codes pack information both vertically and horizontally. This enables greater data density in a smaller footprint.
QR codes get their "Quick Response" name from their rapid scannability by imaging devices. Smartphone cameras can snap QR codes omnidirectionally from any angle. This is faster than aligning 1D laser scanners.
QR codes are also damage resistant. Obscuring or destroying up to 30% of the symbol still allows successful scanning due to built-in redundancy.
Advantages of QR codes:
- Exponentially greater data capacity than 1D
- Omnidirectional scanning by smartphone cameras
- Damage resistance and error correction
- Smaller footprint than 1D for same data
- Nearly universally scannable on smartphones
- Ugly black and white squared appearance
- Won‘t scan on laser-based 1D scanners
- Slow scan times on some low-end mobile devices
While QR code uses have not grown as explosively as once anticipated, they fulfill important niches today in contactless payments, crypto addresses, web URLs, ticketing, identification, and product authenticity.
6. Data Matrix Barcodes
Data Matrix is a two-dimensional barcode able to encode text and numeric data in a square grid pattern. Like QR codes, Data Matrix can pack substantial data into a tiny printed symbol.
The Data Matrix system was invented in 1994 by International Data Matrix Inc. It was one of the first 2D symbologies geared toward compact product labeling applications.
Data Matrix codes remain scannable even when produced just a few millimeters square. This makes Data Matrix ideal for electronics components, medical devices, and small plastic parts requiring permanent labels.
Data Matrix symbols also contain built-in error detection and correction to recover data if the code sustains damage. They can still be decoded even if up to 30% of the symbol gets obscured or destroyed.
Benefits provided by Data Matrix:
- Encodes up to 2335 alphanumeric characters
- Ultra small footprint for tiny product labeling
- Durable error correction capability
- Omnidirectional scanning by 2D imagers
- Flexible format options for label space optimization
- Unappealing black and white squared appearance
- Requires 2D imaging scanners
- Limited scanability on low-end smartphone cameras
While less recognized than QR codes, Data Matrix fills essential niche applications in manufacturing, aerospace, and medical products needing maximum data density in a tiny symbol.
7. PDF417 Barcodes
PDF417 is a stacked 2D barcode format able to encode entire databases into a single label. PDF stands for Portable Data File. The 417 denotes the barcode using 17 modules across.
PDF417 was invented in 1991 by Symbol Technologies (now Zebra Technologies). It was the first 2D symbology engineered for ultra-high density compression in a small footprint.
PDF417 can pack up to 2710 alphanumeric characters or 1852 numeric digits into one barcode. It uses multiple stacked rows to encode information both vertically and horizontally.
PDF417 excels at condensing large amounts of text and data into symbols that fit on identification cards or travel documents where space is tight.
Advantages of PDF417:
- Extremely high data capacity in compact symbol
- Built-in error correction features
- Stacked codeword rows for redundancy
- Capable of encoding entire documents
- Widely adopted for dense government and corporate IDs
- Requires 2D imaging scanner hardware
- Complex and expensive barcode printing
- Unscannable on low-end mobile cameras
PDF417 fills a valuable niche encoding dense databases into scannable labels. It powers information-packed corporate badges, travel IDs, medical cards, and government credentials holding data that far exceeds legacy 1D barcodes.
8. ITF-14 Barcodes
ITF-14 barcodes encode 14-digit shipping container codes using an interleaved 2 of 5 format. ITF stands for Interleaved Two of Five. This symbology evolved from the original Interleaved 2 of 5 developed back in 1972.
Interleaved 2 of 5 uses barcode patterns encoding pairs of digits. This format enhances accuracy by helping mitigate ink bleeding and smudging issues common during high-speed supply chain printing and handling.
In the 1990s, the International Standards Organization adopted a 14-digit standard container code format. ITF-14 became the symbology of choice to represent these identification numbers in an interleaved pattern on boxes, cartons, and pallets for tracking.
Unlike retail barcodes, ITF-14 symbols appear exclusively on the outside of packaging and containers for supply chain management. Benefits include:
- Efficiently encodes 14-digit container tracking codes
- Highly readable despite rough handling
- Optimized for supply chain durability
- Scans across wide range of barcode heights
- Mandatory mod 10 check digit
- Confined 14-digit data capacity
- Large label footprint required
- Specialized interleaved scanner needed
- Poor scanability on smartphone cameras
ITF-14 doesn‘t appear at the checkout counter, but it plays a major behind-the-scenes role tracking the billions of containers shipped globally. The data it encodes choreographs highly complex worldwide supply chains.
Barcode Timeline and Future Outlook
Now that we‘ve explored major 1D and 2D barcode types, let‘s briefly look at the evolution timeline and where barcode technology may progress next:
1948 – Graduate students Woodland and Silver patent early barcode concepts.
1966 – Retail industry begins investing in barcode scanning.
1970s – UPC and EAN codes are adopted as retail checkout standards.
1980s – Code 128 allows encoding full ASCII character sets.
1990s – 2D barcodes arrive enabling high density packing of data.
2000s – Camera phones enable QR code scanning to go mainstream.
Today – Barcodes scan over 10 billion times daily on trillions of products globally.
Future – RFID tagging may complement barcodes in niche applications needing wireless data transfer. But barcodes will remain dominant for simplicity and ubiquity.
Barcode technology has advanced remarkably since Woodland and Silver first pioneered the idea in 1948. These unsung symbols now quietly power commerce, inventory, logistics, and society worldwide every minute of every day. Their benefits of efficiency, accuracy, and automatic identification guarantee barcodes will continue going strong through the 21st century and beyond.