Ever since the old Codebar barcode used in the first automated library systems to the recently developed Intelligent Mail System and the information-rich PDF417 barcode, there are many different choices available, depending on what your application is and how simple you would like the barcoding process to be. Simply choosing a 2D barcode because it stores a lot of information is blind to the cost of implementing a 2D barcode scanner or other imaging solutions, not to mention the special decoding software you will need to operate the whole system.
So what's out there in terms of barcoding technology, how will it benefit your business and most importantly, how much does it cost? All this depends on what you might want to store on the barcodes and whether you want to make the most of the latest technological innovations to get the most out of carrying information along the supply chain.
First of all, the barcode symbology, or the type of barcode, is simply a standard way of encoding ASCII (letters and digits) into a format readable by devices that capture light and process its formation, also knowns as a handheld barcode scanner.
Many of the products you see on the shelves are EAN-13 or EAN-8 format, referred to as a 1D barcode, readable by all laser barcode scanners and CCD barcode scanners. These barcodes are simple in their structure and simply contain a string of numbers which are usually placed underneath the barcode. If the EAN-13/8 barcode is damaged, the user can input the barcode into a POS for example and the result is the same. This number (or ID) is typically assigned to a product or piece of stock information, generated automatically by the stock control software or assigned manually as stock arrives into the warehouse.
For inventory management, this type of barcode is useful because you can control what those barcodes represent and read them easily with any type of barcode scanner or PDA device. This results in a low-cost, easily implemented solution which will instantly save time and increase productivity in an environment that has access to the same product information and IDs (usually in a company that shares a product database but may have multiple sites).
One obvious problem with the the EAN-13/8 and other 1D barcodes such as Code 39 is that the information stored in the barcode is dependent -- that is it needs to relate to something else. For example, if a piece of specialist equipment is sent from the supplier to a business that do not hold common product information databases, a 1D barcode that contains a 12-digit number will not hold any value to that business. Therefore, all of the product information, including specifications or whatever else that the company will need to know when receiving that piece of equipment, will need to be included in the barcode itself.
2D barcodes are far more complex in their physical structure and the type of information they hold, understandable when you consider the fact that up to 2000 characters can be stored on a PDF-417 barcode or up to the physical restraints of the printer on a DataMatrix barcode. As a result, these barcodes are much more appropriate to compensate for the downfalls of a 1D barcode. However, 2D barcodes can only be read by a 2D barcode scanner or a CCD barcode scanner, the latter capturing the 2D barcode as an image and processing it using software algorithms.
The best use of 2D barcodes are when you want to transport the data associated with that product independently. In other words, we do not need to rely on the receiver of the goods to hold a shared database that will translate an ID into product information - all of the information stored about the product is held on the barcode itself. This is especially useful in postal situations, where a 2D barcode would hold names, postal addresses and return addresses. The receiver of this information could easily use a CCD barcode scanner and store this information for future purposes into a relational database, thus enriching their inventory management system with contact details etc.
The PDF-417 barcode may be ideal for this concept, but what if you need to identify very small pieces of equipment such as a circuit board? Due to the nature of the algorithms used to create PDF417 barcodes, you will only be able to produce around 170 bytes per square cm. With a DataMatrix barcode, however, the numbers of bytes stored is simply dictated to how accurate your printer can reproduce barcodes at their smallest size. Due to this restriction, it's recommended to use only the highest quality thermal laser printer for such a task.
Using a High Quality Barcode Scanner
Not only that, the 2D scanner you choose to scan the barcode with, whether it is a red laser scanner or a high quality CCD barcode scanner, is very important. If the barcode is too small and the CCD imaging technology isn't as accurate, errors will occur in the scanning process or the scanner will simply not recognize the barcode. For example, the Symbol DS7600 barcode scanner can read a datamatrix barcode as small as 1.1 inch using its 1.3 megapixel CCD sensor.
So, with 1D barcodes, the considerations are fairly straightforward - choose the most appropriate barcode and use a regular laser barcode scanner or CCD scanner. However, with 2D barcode scanning, you will need to select a barcode symbology that is compatible with your application, select a barcode printer that will be up to the task and lastly choose a scanner that will be able to cope with small barcodes if need be. Don't let the myriad of options scare you aware from using 2D barcode technology but be aware of what you need to consider when implementing such a solution.