Diving Deep into the 8 Major Barcode Varieties

Have you ever wondered about those strange, maze-like squares on a package or product? Or questioned the meaning behind the various barcode designs on everything from cereal boxes to aircraft parts?

This comprehensive guide will satisfy your curiosity and more! You‘ll get an illuminating overview explaining exactly how the 8 most important barcodes work and why we find them virtually everywhere modern commerce touches.

Barcodes 101 – A Quick Primer

Before jumping straight to the nitty-gritty details, let‘s step back and briefly cover what barcodes actually are.

Barcodes are labels that use combinations of lines and spaces to encode data in optical machine-readable form. They allow information like product numbers, serials, amounts, dates and more to be scanned by laser readers known as barcode scanners.

The fundamental structure of a barcode is the pattern of varying width lines and spaces

This automated identification technology revolutionized retail and inventory management by eliminating tedious manual entry of product codes at checkout or during warehouse workflows.

The first commercially successful barcode system emerged in the 1970s with the Universal Product Code (UPC) system in the USA. But barcodes come in many shapes, sizes and capacities – including QR codes storing entire web pages!

Now let‘s explore the 8 major varieties in more depth:

1. UPC ??? The One That Started It All

The Universal Product Code (UPC) was the original modern barcode system that made the technology commercially viable. It was invented specifically to meet growing retail demand in the 1970s for automating checkout systems.

red ucc-12 barcode

UPC barcodes encode 12-digit numbers into the pattern of lines and spaces representing commercial product identifiers. Scanning the code looks up the product in the retailer‘s point-of-sale database to retrieve pricing, taxes, inventory and other information in an instant.

| UPC Barcode Facts ||
| Inventor | George Laurer |
| Year Invented | 1973 |
| Type | 1D / Linear |
| Total Characters | 12 numeric digits + start/stop frames|
|Check Digit | 1 digit |
|Application Identifier Prefix | No |

You‘ll find UPC barcodes on virtually every retail product out there from cereal boxes to candy bars thanks to this efficiency and standardization. They utterly transformed shopping and how modern supply chains operate!

Fun fact – the first product ever scanned with UPC was a pack of Wrigley‘s chewing gum at an Ohio supermarket back in 1974!

2. EAN/JAN ??? International Evolution of UPC

EAN stands for International Article Number (originally "European Article Number"). This barcode standard emerged from the European Article Numbering Association in the late 1970s alongside UPC adoption.

EAN-13 barcode

EAN barcodes build directly on UPC, adding 2-3 extra digits to identify country/currency codes and optional supplemental data. But the formats remained fully compatible.

| EAN-13 Barcode Facts ||
| Total Characters | 13 digits + start/frames|
|Country Code | 2-3 digits |
|Check Digit | 1 digit |
|Application Identifier Prefix | Yes|

Over time these 13-digit EAN codes gained broader global adoption and rebranded as Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN). Now you‘ll find them on all kinds of items and packaging internationally.

3. Code 39 ??? Highly Portable Barcode

Invented back in 1974, Code 39 was one of the early barcode symbology formats. The Code 39 character set contains 43 characters including numbers, uppercase letters, some punctuation and control codes.

Code 39 barcode

Some advantages of Code 39 are:

  • Self-checking – single printing defect doesn‘t affect readability
  • No length restrictions
  • Easy printing/scanning requirements
  • Highly portable between systems

You‘ll frequently encounter Code 39 used in:

  • Military and government agencies
  • Industrial manufacturing (assembly lines, wiring harnesses, electronics components)
  • Healthcare settings (patient wristbands, lab specimen labels)

| Code 39 Barcode Facts ||
|Inventors| David Allais & Ray Stevens |
|Type | 1D / Linear |
|Total Characters Encoded | 43 (High ASCII)|
|Length | Variable |
|Industries | Industrial, military, healthcare |

While it has limitations on data capacity compared to newer codes, Code 39 remains widely used today thanks to its versatility and lenient printing/scanning requirements.

4. Code 128 ??? High Density All-Purpose Barcode

Seeking to improve on Code 39, Code 128 debuted in 1981 with a much more information-rich character encoding set. The dense Code 128 specification means vastly more data packed into a smaller barcode footprint.

Code 128 barcode

Code 128 contains:

  • All 128 ASCII characters
  • All standard keyboard characters
  • Four special code change characters

It can even automatically switch between character sets mid-stream to optimize barcode size.

| Code 128 Barcode Facts ||
|Inventor| Unknown |
|Type | 1D / Linear |
|Total Characters| 107 + 4 modes|
|Length | Variable|
|Industries | Shipping, inventory, retail labeling |

This flexibility makes Code 128 broadly used across manufacturing, shipping/mailing, inventory control systems and retail labeling.

5. QR Code – The Ubiquitous Matrix Barcode

QR codes are two-dimensional "matrix" barcodes capable of storing thousands of characters in both axes. Unlike linear/1D formats limited to horizontal data density, QR codes pack orders of magnitude more data by encoding vertically too.

qr code example black and white squares

The "QR" abbreviation stands for Quick Response, as these 2D codes are designed for ultra-rapid reads by imaging devices. The built-in redundancy also lets QR codes survive dirt, damage, and distortion.

| QR Code Facts ||
| Inventor |Denso Wave (Toyota subsidiary) |
| Year Invented| 1994 |
| Type | Matrix 2D |
| Total Capacity | 4,296 alphanumeric characters|
| Structure | Reed???Solomon error correction |

Originally created for Japan‘s auto industry to track vehicle parts, QR codes now appear on everything from marketing materials to food packaging. People frequently scan QR codes to access websites, special content, coupons, menus, WiFi login screens and more – all from a quick smartphone snap!

Their versatility across languages and innate error correction make QR code adoption truly universal.

6. Interleaved 2 of 5 ??? High Density Numerics-only Barcode

Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF) is a numeric-only barcode format encoding pairs of digits into each character. It follows conventions established in the Code 2 of 5 family.

Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode example

The "paired digit" compression allows ITF symbols to cram a lot of numeric data into a small physical barcode footprint.

| Interleaved 2 of 5 Facts ||
|Also Known As| ITF, ITF-14|
|Type | 1D / Linear |
|Encoding| Numeric digits only|
|Paired Digit Compression| Encodes 2 digits in each character|
|Primary Applications | Shipping, warehousing|

Scanners can quickly reconstruct the original number strings by reading the sequence of paired digits. But ITF doesn‘t support alphanumeric data.

Interleaved 2 of 5 sees frequent use in warehouses, shipping/tracking systems, electronics, and healthcare thanks to its high data density. You‘ll often spot it on cartons and pallet wrap.

7. Data Matrix – Tiny Surface Marking Code

Patented in 1994, Data Matrix codes are two-dimensional matrix symbols made for stamping, etching, or printing machine-readable markings onto items and components.

Data Matrix barcode example black squares white background

The ultra compact Data Matrix dots can encode up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters – even when printed at just a fraction of an inch wide!

| Data Matrix Facts ||
| Inventor|Acuity CiMatrix|
|Type | Matrix 2D|
|Total Capacity |Up to 2,335 alphanumeric characters |
|Structure | Reed-Solomon error correction|

Manufacturers commonly label small individual parts, circuit boards, computer chips and medical devices with Data Matrix codes. NASA even printed mini barcodes on dust particles in the Stardust probe!

Data Matrix‘s resilience, miniaturization and built-in redundancies make it ideal for direct item marking applications.

8. ITF-14 ??? The Shipping Container Barcode

ITF-14 barcodes are a subset of the Interleaved 2 of 5 family dedicated for supply chain labeling of cartons, pallets, packages. These tall and skinny symbols help warehouses scan contents from distances.

Example ITF-14 barcode for shipping container labeling

ITF-14 only encodes 14-digit Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) with brackets optionally packing more data like quantities and dates.

| ITF-14 Barcode Facts ||
|Encoding | Interleaved 2 of 5 conventions|
|Content | 14-digit GTINs + optional supplemental data|
|Size | Tall bars |
|Usage | Shipping containers, outer packaging |

The large 1.0mm+ width and tall aspect ratio helps guide distant warehouse scanners. These 14-digit variants survive damaged containers to keep goods traceable through transit and storage.

Barcode Scanner Technologies

Barcodes seem almost magical – how do the scanning guns actually work?!

The most common type of barcode reader uses a rapidly moving laser beam and sensor array to read off the reflected light patterns. But with cameras and image sensors improving fast, vision-based readers are gaining traction:

  • Laser scanners – Scan a laser back and forth over barcode and measure reflection with photodiode sensors. Very fast over short distances.
  • Camera scanners – Stationary cameras with image processing software to recognize and decode various barcode types. Flexible.
  • Image scanners – Portable cameras allowing scanning various direction just by pointing phone/device camera at barcode.

In the near future, don‘t be surprised if barcode scanning guns get replaced with smartphone cameras!

Choosing the Right Barcode

With all these options, how do you determine what barcode you actually need?

Here is a handy comparison chart to help match your use case with the optimal barcode variety:

Barcode TypeBest Suited For
UPC / EANRetail checkout and inventory tracking
Code 39General purpose, industrial labeling
Code 128High density alphanumeric tracking and labeling
QR CodesEncoding URLs and large text capacity
Interleaved 2 of 5High volume numeric encoding
Data MatrixDirect part marking, small item labeling
ITF-14Supply chain packaging levels

When selecting barcode types, consider:

  • Data types – Alphanumeric, numeric-only, Unicode/foreign chars?
  • Capacity needs – Do you need to encode lots of data or metadata?
  • Available space – Size constraints on barcode width/height?
  • Scanning environment – Are barcodes prone to damage or dirt?
  • Industry standards – Does your industry mandate any formats?

Carefully evaluate these factors and cross-reference with the GS1 barcode specifications guide.

Past, Present and Future of Barcodes

It‘s incredible to think about how far barcodes have come since the early 20th century days of simple bullseye store product codes!

What started in railroads and grocery stores as humble product identifiers now forms the foundation of modern commerce and supply chain infrastructure. Those lines and spaces guide countless aircraft, cargo crates, electronics and medical items across the world each day.

Barcode technology will only grow more versatile and pertinent:

  • Printable conductive barcode materials to confirm their own scans
  • Micro barcodes for cryptographically secure applications
  • Flexible displays allow dynamically changeable barcodes
  • New imaging techniques like radar

Expect emerging tech like augmented reality, wearables, IoT sensors and autonomous vehicles to leverage barcodes in surprising ways too.

While formats will expand far beyond the original basic model, the now-iconic UPC symbology remains beloved and ubiquitous. Like them or not, barcodes underpin modern civilization, and their prevalence only looks set to grow!

So next time you‘re shopping, pause and appreciate how far product identification has come. Those black and white codes have rewritten global trade forever!

Summary and Key Takeaways

We‘ve covered everything from 1D codes on cereal boxes to 2D dots on microchips. Let‘s recap the key takeaways:

  • Barcodes automate product identification and data capture using machine-readable optical labels
  • The UPC system enabled modern retail checkout and kicked off the barcode revolution
  • Linear/1D barcodes encode data horizontally with varying line widths
  • 2D matrix barcodes massively expand capacity via vertical + horizontal encoding
  • Older formats like Code 39 remain widely used thanks to portability
  • QR codes now appear on everything from marketing to menus, with built-in redundancies
  • Specialist codes like ITF-14 and Data Matrix serve niche labeling use cases
  • Barcodes continue advancing with materials science and imaging tech innovations

So whether you‘re streaming a cereal box or tapping phone to scan your travel ticket, remember the hidden elegance underpinning it all!

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