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How do barcodes work

How barcodes work and why you need them for your business

We’ve all seen barcodes on products and we all know what they’re for, but have you ever thought about how barcodes work? Or how they can help your business?

These simple devices were first patented in the United States back in 1951, and 70 years later they are one of society’s most important contrivances.

What are barcodes?

The barcode was invented by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver who based it on the dots and dashes of Morse Code.

The idea didn’t take off immediately because the technology to make the process speedy was some way off in the future, but in the 1960s American Railroads started to use barcodes to identify train cars.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that barcodes became commercially successful, having been taken up by supermarkets as a way to quickly tally items at the checkout, a system which is now universally used today.

self-serve checkout

How barcodes work

A series of black and white lines make up a barcode, each representing a number.

Once a product arrives at a store, the barcode is scanned into the system and a price for that particular product is matched to its code.

When a purchase is made at the counter, a laser reads the code and the price is automatically added to the receipt.

This is just one example of what barcodes can be used for, and it’s the one we’re all familiar with, so it’s a good example to keep things simple.

Barcodes are more complicated than you think

Barcodes are not that simple.

There may only be 12 numbers on a barcode, but when a laser from a computer scans a barcode it’s actually scanning through a series of ninety-five evenly spaced columns!

Computers only think in terms of binary, ones and zeros, so for each of these 95 columns, it either recognises it as black (one) or white (zero).

So after reading all the columns, the computer comes up with a number that is 95 digits long, made up entirely of ones and zeros.

These ones and zeros are then grouped into 15 different sections; 12 of the sections are used for the numbers that you see at the bottom of the barcode, with the other 3 acting as “guards” – two at each end and one in the middle.

Wait, it’s even more complicated!

The guard in the middle divides the 12 numbers into two groups, left and right.

This is important because the codes on the left always have an odd number of ones and begin with a zero, and the codes on the right always have an even number and begin with a one!

Splitting this 12 digit number into two groups allows the scanner to tell if the barcode is upside down or not. If it is, then the system simply turns the number the right way up before processing.

You’ll also notice the first and last numbers are outside the guards – this brings us to an even more complicated system of formulas and code which we’re not even going to try to explain!

Suffice to say, barcodes are an essential part of our everyday lives.

how barcodes work

Why use barcodes for your business?

Barcodes are not only for making life easier when buying your groceries, but they also have a wide range of practical business uses.

Accuracy and speed

Using barcodes for your stock and inventory is simply faster. For twelve characters of data, keyboard entry takes 6 seconds. Scanning a twelve character barcode takes 0.3 seconds. Multiply that by hundreds if not thousands of products and you’re saving hundreds of man-hours.

Barcodes are also more accurate than human processing. The average error rate for typing is one in every 300 keystrokes, and that’s for a professional. The error rate for barcodes ranges from 1 substitution error in every 15,000 to 36 trillion characters scanned (depending on the type of barcode).

Foundation for growth

You might be thinking your business is too small to use barcodes, but think again.

It’s never too early to start planning for the future.

You might only have a few products now, but what happens when your inventory starts to grow? Is it not better to have a system in place that can handle it rather than try to deal with it when things start to blow up?

Prevention is better than cure, and setting up a barcode system now will save you a big headache further down the line.

More professional system

Having a barcode system in place will also make you look more professional, even if you’re a one-man show.

Nothing screams amateur like working things out on a pen and paper in front of a client, but simply scanning an item for whatever information you need shows that you know what you’re doing as a company and gives confidence to clients and customers.

Barcodes on clothing

Let us take care of all your barcode needs

You would be hard pushed to find stocked products that wouldn’t benefit from a barcoding system, regardless of the size of the company.

Many small businesses are still using an Excel spreadsheet or even pen and paper to keep track of everything, mostly because they fear a barcode system is for “bigger companies”.

We’re here to tell you this is not the case.

Barcode systems are surprisingly cheap to get up and running, and we can help you to set up a system that is perfect for your business.

We use secure, online transfer and verification processes, ensuring the accuracy and integrity of your product’s specific information is maintained throughout your supply chain.

We can also integrate your brand imagery with your barcodes and labels, by using self-adhesive labels, price tickets (‘kimbles’) and direct printing onto your swing tags.

If you would like to know more about how we can help your business set up barcodes and Variable Data labels, then contact us today.

One of our friendly and experienced team members will be happy to have a chat with you and answer any questions you might have.

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