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Getting Started with Barcode

By: Rick Bushnell

What is a Barcode?

A barcode is a way of encoding numbers and letters in a sequence of varying width bars and spaces so the information can be read quickly and accurately by a computer.

Any part number or any type of information can be encoded and printed in a barcode. Purchase order numbers, lot numbers, any information can be encoded in a barcode.

Scanning a barcode initiates the same actions as keying the number below the barcode into a computer.

This is important. Whether the data is entered with a keyboard or barcoded, the data is the same.

Barcodes work like Morse Code. Instead of using a series of dots and dashes to encode information, wide and narrow bars and spaces are used. The barcode scanner decodes the bars and spaces the same way that a Morse Code operator decodes the dots and dashes.

Barcode symbols can be read quickly and accurately by a piece of equipment called a barcode scanner / decoder. The scanner / decoder sends the part number (or other information) to a computer where it is used just as if it had been entered by a keyboard.

Benefits of Barcode

Companies use barcode because scanning is easier and more accurate than key entering data with a keyboard.

Keyboard data entry creates a lot of problems. Inaccuracies and delays in updating the computer contribute to lower inventory turns, missed delivery dates, lower sales, lower productivity and a host of other important problems.

Barcode can be used for much more than inventory accuracy but to illustrate why it is being used so often today, take out a sheet of paper and make a list of the "Benefits of Inaccurate Inventories."

You won't need much paper! Conversely, make a list of the adverse consequences of an inaccurate inventory. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the negative affects ripple throughout your entire business.

More accurate and more timely information is needed to improve inventory control but keyboards aren't the right tool. Barcode is the right tool because it is fast and accurate - about 15 times faster and 10,000 times more accurate than keyboard data entry.

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Barcode Applications

Barcode is used almost everywhere data is manually entered into a computer. Manufacturers, distributors, retailers, financial services, public utilities, phone companies, government agencies, health care providers, transportation companies and virtually every other type of industry is using barcode to replace keyboard data entry. Consider the following partial list of applications:

One of the most reassuring facts about barcode is that virtually every company that has installed a barcode system is looking for other places to use it.

Many people attend our seminars because their first system worked so well that their management sends them to find more applications.

Different types of barcode

As the use of barcode became more common, different types of barcode were invented.

The original barcodes were shaped like a bullseye so they could be read from any angle. Later, barcodes went "straight" but the early forms of barcode were not capable of encoding letters. To meet the needs of companies that wanted to encode alphanumeric data, new barcodes were invented that were capable of encoding letters and numbers and punctuation marks.

Different types of barcodes are called "symbologies." If you've done any investigating on barcode, you may have heard some of the different names for barcode symbologies such as:

These different symbologies are differentiated by their character sets (numeric only versus alphanumeric), by their print density (how many characters they can encode per lineal inch), by how easy they are to print using low resolution printers and by several other attributes.

Modern barcode scanner / decoders can read all of these symbologies automatically and most barcode printing packages can print all of these symbologies and many more.

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Components of a Barcode System

The components of a barcode system can be broken into two groups - (1) Basic Components and, (2) Optional Components.

Basic Components

Optional Components

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Barcode Standards

Standards are the most confusing part of the barcode industry but they are necessary and very useful. Without them, different companies would be forced to develop their own standards and the resulting wide variety of standards would create more problems than they would solve. As it is, many different standards have already been developed by various industries.

One way to look at standards is to compare them to the standards that we use every day to measure length, volume, weight, etc. As we all know, there are at least two different standards, the US system of inches, feet, pounds, miles, etc. and the metric system of millimeters, meters, kilos, kilometers, etc. Without giving it much thought, independent trading partners agree to use one system or the other for all communications between them. When it comes to measurement, we all agree that standards are needed to prevent chaos.

However, when it comes to part numbering, most companies have developed their own system and they don't want to change. But change is on the way. The use of standard numbering systems, barcode and EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) is an inevitable consequence of increased competition and the proven competitive advantages obtained by companies that pioneer their use. Large companies and small are reducing their costs and improving their service by using standard numbering systems, barcode and EDI and their competitors will have to follow their lead or go out of business.

Standards usually define a method of identifying an individual product or a shipping container that will be scanned by an independent trading partner. The standard defines a way to identify the product, the contents of a shipping container and sometimes other pertinent information about the shipment such as lot number, purchase order number, ship to address, etc.

One example of a barcode standard is the U.P.C. (Universal Product Code). This internationally accepted standard defines a method of uniquely identifying (numbering) products and a standard barcode to encode that number.

The U.P.C. standard defines a different method of numbering and bar coding intermediate packs and shipping containers and another method to communicate that a barcode contains a purchase order number, expiration date or other information.

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Initial Implementation Action Steps

  • Assign a person inside your company as the company barcode coordinator. It takes time to learn barcode and your company will ultimately benefit the most if one person is the company barcode coordinator.
  • Get management interested and involved. Experience shows that successful company or industry-wide implementation of barcode is normally supported by a mandate from the top. There are many reasons for this but the evidence is very clear. Mandates drive the change from manual systems to barcode assisted systems.
  • Talk to people in your industry that are using barcode; get opinions and learn from their mistakes.
  • Get a copy of your industry specifications and study them until you understand them.
  • Find out how much of your incoming merchandise is already marked with a barcode and find out if the number encoded in the barcode is in your computer.
  • Pick an application to get started and structure the implementation so you can test it thoroughly.
  • Talk to your vendors about their plans and encourage them to adopt an industry standard.
  • Fund programs that will educate as many people in your company as you can afford. A fundamental understanding of barcode among a cross section of users, middle and senior managers will accelerate implementation. Ignorance leads to unrealistic expectations and unfounded fears - both delay implementation. Consider attending public seminars or sponsoring in-house programs.
  • Find out if your computer system can print barcodes or if the vendor plans to the capability.
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