Barcodes are everywhere and they touch on almost every transaction that we make on a daily basis. Yet what do they mean? How are they made? What information do they contain and how are they read? It is not really something that many people stop to think about as they go about their daily lives. We just take it for granted that when we arrive at the check-out we will hand our groceries over to be scanned and then somehow the price and the item details will appear on the till slip and we will be charged accordingly. But as clever as it is, it isn’t magic. Here are a few simple things about barcodes explained.
How are they made?
As hard as they are for us to understand or interpret, barcodes are actually very simple. All they are, are visual representations that machines can read. A typical one dimensional barcode contains information like the company that made the product and that company’s product identifier. Once the code itself has been generated it is very simple to create the label itself using barcode printing software that specializes in the creation of the black and white striped lines that we are all so familiar with.
What information do they contain?
The fancier the barcode the more information it is able to contain. The standard barcodes with which most people are familiar are the original gs1 barcode labels which are just an array of black and white lines. These are typically encountered at supermarket point of sale and other such retail environments. More recently though two dimensional bar codes have come to the fore. These are like the QR codes that mobile phones are able to read and these types of barcodes contain significantly more information.
How are they read?
Barcode are designed to be read digitally and to make sense to computers. In short a barcode is a visual representation of words with numbers and patterns corresponding to certain key words or items that are preloaded into a database. Using LED or laser light to scan the barcodes are scanned to the database, decoded and turned into human-consumable information.
The need for barcodes arose as shops, libraries and retailers started growing. If you only hold a small amount of stock it is easy enough to track things manually, or even to make it all up as you go along. But as stores got bigger and stock-holding more sizeable everything needed to be stored centrally. This made things much easier for ordering, for re-pricing and for monitoring what was selling and what wasn’t. Anyone who has ever entered something manually into a database will know that uniformity is important. Spelling mistakes or seemingly subtle differences that are not noted by humans are interpreted as separate things by computers. The creation of the barcode and the databases that sit behind it, meant that the ability for human error to complicate the tracking, ordering and pricing process was limited or completely non-existent.