Barcodes are so mysterious, aren’t they? Just one little scan with a red line of the barcode reader, and suddenly you have a bunch of information on a screen. The information includes that product’s price, description, location, and much more. All of this begs the question: how does such a little barcode store so much information? If you have ever been curious about that question, you are about to learn the answer. So exciting!
The Truth About Barcodes
The truth is that a barcode, by itself, does not contain any information. That’s right, you heard it here first. And now that you know the sad truth, we will simply call it a day. Goodnight, folks!
Okay, just kidding. That is only part of the truth. So you don’t have to worry. We will eventually answer the other part of the question: where is that information stored? But first we will draw out the suspense. Because it makes obtaining the answers we are seeking so much more fun, don’t you think?
Most barcodes you scan contain no information about the products they are on. Zip, zilch, nada. There is a common misconception that barcodes actually do have all of the information that appears on a computer screen when they are scanned. Yet the solution to the riddle of how barcodes work is quite fun to unravel.
How Barcodes Access Information
Something I read in an article made me think about this topic and urged me to set the record straight. That article is entitled “Barcode Scanner Software Provides Incredible Efficiency.”1 In it, the author says, “Barcodes store information in a way that computers can read.”
Now that is interesting. It is almost like when you scan a barcode, you are completing a circuit. Or it is like you are sending a messenger off on a lightning-fast mission to gather reference data. The point is that scanning a barcode enables your inventory management system to home in on a particular item in its files. Then it brings that item to your screen. To put it another way, barcodes are little more than calling cards, in most instances.
Different Barcode Types Work Differently
If we were to end the discussion here, it would be a disservice. The reason, of course, is because this is far too simple and incomplete of an answer. After all, there is more than one type of barcode. The one we have been discussing here is the most basic type: the UPC. That is short for Universal Product Code. While it may be the most ubiquitous type of barcode, it is far from the only one.
It is true that the PDF417 barcode type actually contains detailed information that is read by a computer when it is scanned. But PDF 417 barcodes, which are often referred to as two-dimensional barcodes, are fairly uncommon. Delivery companies, like DHL, FedEx, UPS, and USPS, often use them for shipping purposes. They look kind of like a snowy TV screen.
You have probably also seen them in magazines, on business cards, and in retail stores. They are a great way to get customers to visit a website and complete other tasks simply and efficiently. So maybe it is unfair to call them uncommon. They certainly were 10 years ago when the article above was published. But they have become much more popular over the past few years.
The vast majority of barcodes, however, do not contain any information about products. They only contain a reference number for a computer to go into its knowledge base or database and find the information it is looking for. This is true of UPC barcode, EAN barcode, code 128 barcode, RSS, and other different types of barcodes.
Here is a good rule of thumb. If a barcode looks similar to a Universal Product Code or UPC code, it is a 1D barcode or a linear barcode that most likely follows the rules mentioned at the start of this blog post. If it looks more like a PDF417 barcode, it is a 2D barcode and is more dynamic.
An Inventory Management Tool
Hopefully barcodes are not so mysterious anymore.
Barcode software is a great tool for inventory management. Fishbowl offers apps and solutions that let you turn your smartphones and tablets into barcode scanners. Get an online demo of Fishbowl to see how barcode inventory system can benefit your company.
Robert Lockard is a copywriter with Fishbowl. He writes for several blogs about inventory management, manufacturing, QuickBooks, and small business. Fishbowl is the #1-requested manufacturing and warehouse management software for QuickBooks users. Robert enjoys running, reading, writing, spending time with his wife and children, and watching movies.