Barcodes 101 What are they, how can they help us, and why we should make the investment

1D. 2D. UPC. Datamatrix. PDF417. Code 39? All very confusing!

If there is one common request for assistance that we receive from many organizations, it usually centers around “barcoding”. The terms, methodologies, and capabilities are a foreign language to most companies. With this short paper I hope to communicate a basic understanding of this marvelous time and money saving group of technologies.

Barcodes are a machine-readable representation of data. For example, a part description:


Code 128 Wing Skin 1D Barcode

QR Wing Skin

QR Code Wing Skin 2D Barcode

Both will return the same data when scanned. A purpose-built scanner, digital camera, or even the ubiquitous smart phone can all “read” these, decode the data through software, and present the data to some other application for further use. In their most basic forms, barcodes and readers are simply another form of input device for a computer.

So, if they are so simple, why are we surrounded with them in daily life? The main reasons for utilizing these powerful tools are:

  • Error reduction
  • Speed- Humans vs barcode scanner
  • Customer requirements
  • Process standardization
  • Centralized data management


Let’s explore a little deeper into each of these reasons to better understand how they impact your organization and daily operations.

Error Reduction
Humans generally make one substitution error in every 300 keystrokes. Barcodes are typically quoted as one error every 15k- 36 trillion scans depending on the technology employed. Errors of this type generally start out small and grow into bigger issues the further from the point where the error occurs. Example- a miscount of parts in your warehouse is relatively inexpensive and easy to correct. However, if that same error is not discovered until the order is onsite at your customer, pending install things are far more impactful and potentially expensive to correct. Proper application and process integration can greatly reduce the error factor when handling materials and paperwork.

Speed- Humans vs barcode scanner
Barcodes can and should contain information specific to the task at hand. Anytime this information is needed to record data or trigger an action the speed at which this occurs is rapid AND accurate. Reads speeds can vary according to the equipment and technology used, the scanning environment, any post read processing, and software application acceptance.

Customer requirements
In many business relationships, your customer may have a specific use case or need to have information presented on materials at the time of receipt into their organization. Their standard terms and conditions may dictate this or it may apply to specific purchases. A good example of this is with the use of Advance Shipping Notices in many ERP systems. The sending company transmits the data surrounding a shipment to the receiving entity and then places a corresponding barcode label on the materials at time of shipping. When it crosses the dock at the receiving company, they locate and scan the ASN barcode. Their system can then find the transaction and continue the receipt process.

Process standardization
Barcodes lead to building standardized repeatable processes. When properly integrated into operations workflow, they can reduce cycle time and increase throughput velocity of material and data. Coupled with mobile data terminals, data entry can move to real time and increase visibility into operations. 

Centralized data management
How many times have you seen the same item with two or more different descriptions attributed to it? “¼” Bolt” vs. “.25 inch Bolt”?  does “bolt” = “Bolt”?

By controlling the master data used in your organization these types of data differences can be minimized. Providing common data entry items in barcode format with a simple reader will eliminate most of the variations. 

There are just a few benefits of implementing a standardized barcode system within your operation. It does not have to be complicated or expensive. A properly scoped and designed system will create a ROI that will be easy to calculate and measure. 

There are many factors to consider when implementing a robust barcode system. Careful planning, system design, equipment selection, consumable selection, and data architecture along with effective change management will enable your organization to enjoy many benefits.