Understanding Barcode Symbologies: Types and Applications

Barcode symbologies

Share This Post

Barcodes are essential tools in numerous industries, seamlessly facilitating quick and accurate data capture. These carefully designed sets of lines and patterns store vast amounts of data in a compact form that a barcode scanner can read.  

Each barcode’s design is centred on what’s known as a barcode symbology. Barcode symbology defines the rules for arranging the bars, spaces, and sometimes additional elements to encode information in a visually readable format.   

Understanding the types and functionalities of various barcode symbologies not only aids in selecting the appropriate type for specific needs but also enhances the effectiveness of the technology employed. So, without further ado, let’s get started. 

What is Barcode Symbology?

Meaning and five types of barcode symbologies

Barcode symbology, also sometimes referred to as barcode symbol, refers to the specific encoding scheme used to represent data within a barcode. This scheme dictates how information is converted into symbols, bars, and spaces that make up the visual pattern of a barcode

Each symbology follows a unique set of rules for structure and encoding data. These rules ensure that the barcode is readable by barcode scanners and relevant software. Moreover, they define not only the appearance of the barcode but also dictate its capabilities and limitations. 

For instance, some symbologies are designed to encode large amounts of data within a compact space. In contrast, others are optimised for readability under poor printing conditions or when the barcode is damaged.

Types of Barcode Symbologies

Barcode symbologies are categorised based on their design and the amount of data they can hold. These types include.

  • 1D Barcodes or One-Dimensional Barcodes
  • 2D Barcodes or Two-Dimensional Barcodes
  • Composite Barcode
  • Postal Barcode
  • General-Purpose Barcode Symbologies

1D Barcode (Linear Barcode)

Definition and three types of 1D barcodes

1D barcodes, also known as linear barcodes, are the simplest form of barcode technology. These barcodes consist of parallel lines of varying widths and spacings that encode data. All data within the barcode is arranged horizontally in bar and space widths and is read from left to right by a scanner.

These barcodes come in several versions; some encode only numerical and alphanumeric data, while others can encode special characters like $, /, ., and space. The size of a 1D barcode—both its height and width—varies depending on the data capacity and the available space on the product. 

1D barcodes excel at encoding small amounts of data, such as product prices, identification details, and inventory codes. Common examples include.

  • UPCs and EANs: Used in retail to label products.
  • Code 128: Utilised in logistics for a wide range of alphanumeric information.
  • ITF-14: Employed for marking cartons and pallets in global trade.
  • Codabar: Often used in libraries, blood banks, and parcel services.
  • MSI/Plessey Barcode: Commonly found in grocery stores and used for inventory control.

1D barcodes can be categorised into two types, Discrete Barcodes and Continuous Barcodes

  • Discrete Barcodes: Each character within the barcode is represented separately, not relying on other characters for interpretation. Examples include Code 11 and Code 39
  • Continuous Barcodes: These encode a continuous string of characters without intercharacter spaces, allowing each character to seamlessly follow the next without gaps in between. Examples include Interleaved 2 of 5, GS1 DataBar and Telepen

2D Barcode

Definition and four types of 2D barcodes

2D barcodes, or two-dimensional barcodes, are more complex than their 1D counterparts and capable of storing significantly more data. These barcodes encode information both horizontally and vertically, allowing them to compact a vast amount of information into a relatively small space. 

The 2D symbology is distinguished by its high readability and resilience to poor printing. These barcodes include redundant data and error correction features, ensuring readability even if some barcode cells are damaged or partially obscured.

2D barcodes can encode a diverse range of data, including numbers, alphabets, binary data, and kanji characters. They are particularly suited for applications requiring high data density, such as product labelling, asset management, inventory management, and mobile marketing.

Common examples include:

  • QR Codes: Widely used in advertising and mobile marketing for quick access to websites and promotional content.
  • Data Matrix Codes: Common in the automotive industry and electronics manufacturing for circuit boards and healthcare industries for tracking equipment and managing patient information.
  • Aztec Code: Utilised primarily for transportation tickets and identification documents. 
  • PDF 417: Used in government identity documents, postal services, and airline boarding passes. 
  • MaxiCode: Designed to track and manage shipments and packages, particularly in the express parcel delivery industry.

2D barcodes can be categorised into two types, Matrix Barcodes and Stacked Barcodes

  • Matrix Barcodes: These barcodes are composed of small elements known as cells or modules representing data. These modules can vary in size and shape, including squares, rectangles, hexagons, dots, or bars. Notable examples are QR Codes, MaxiCode, and DataMatrix.
  • Stacked Barcodes: These barcodes consist of multiple linear or 2D barcodes stacked vertically. Examples include MicroPDF417, GS1 DataBar Expanded Stacked, and Codablock

Composite Barcode

Definition and two types of composite barcodes

Composite barcodes merge the features of both 1D and 2D barcodes into a single, unified barcode symbology. In these barcodes, the linear component encodes the item’s primary identification, such as a product number or SKU, while the 2D component stores additional data like batch numbers or expiration dates. 

Composite barcode symbology is particularly valuable in environments where space is at a premium, but extensive data needs to be included. They are commonly used in the healthcare industry and pharmaceuticals to encode detailed drug information on small packages and in logistics to add complex tracking data to traditional barcodes.

Among composite barcodes, the most commonly used are GS1 Composite Codes, which include GS1 DataBar Limited with CC-B and GS1 DataBar Expanded Stacked with CC-A.

Postal Barcode

Meaning of postal barcodes

Postal barcodes are specialised barcode symbologies developed for postal services to improve mail sorting and delivery by automating the identification processes. These barcodes, which can be either 1D or 2D, typically use the height of bars to encode the required numerical data. 

Common types include. 

  • POSTNET (Postal Numeric Encoding Technique): These barcodes are used predominantly in the United States. They encode five, nine, or eleven numeric digits representing a ZIP Code, a ZIP+4 code, or a delivery point barcode (DPBC), streamlining the automation of mail sorting. 
  • Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB): These barcodes are an advancement over POSTNET. The IMB is a 65-bar barcode that encodes information about both the sender and recipient, along with additional services and routing data, all within a single barcode.
  • Royal Mail 4-State Customer Code (RM4SCC): These barcodes are employed by the UK’s Royal Mail and facilitate automated sorting and delivery of mail within the United Kingdom.

General-Purpose Barcode Symbologies

Definition of general purpose barcode symbologies barcodes

General-purpose barcode symbologies are developed to encode specific data types for specialised applications. These symbologies often adapt existing barcode technologies to meet precise requirements.

These symbologies are integral for tasks requiring precise data capture, such as in hospitals, pharmaceuticals, international shipping and customs, and non-English language encoding. They are essential in tracking and identifying items where specific information must be accurately and consistently recorded.

Some common general-purpose barcode symbologies include. 

  • Canadian Customs: This barcode is used by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for cargo identification. It encodes a carrier code—a unique identifier assigned to each carrier by CBSA—along with a unique shipment number designated by the carrier.
  • ISBT 128:  This barcode is a proprietary data encoding system maintained by the International Council for Commonality in Blood Bank Automation (ICCBBA). It is used to label and track medical products of human origin, such as blood, cells, tissues, and organs.
  • HIBC (Health Industry Bar Code): These bar codes standard, developed by the Health Industry Business Communications Council (HIBCC), is used for identifying and tracking healthcare-related items.
  • ISS Code 128 (International Symbology Specification) – This barcode features an extended capability for encoding non-English languages using ASCII characters. It serves as the basis of the GS1 Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) and other secondary symbols that use GS1 application identifiers.

Wrapping Up

The exploration of various barcode symbologies underscores their pivotal role in modern data management systems across numerous industries. From the simplicity of 1D barcodes to the complex data capacity of 2D barcodes and the specialised applications of composite and postal barcodes, each symbology caters to specific needs, enhancing efficiency and accuracy in operations.

Barcode technology continues to evolve, adapting to new challenges and opportunities in data tracking and management. As industries strive for greater efficiency and accuracy, choosing the appropriate barcode symbology becomes crucial. 

As we move forward, integrating barcode technology with digital barcode reader systems will deepen, making its understanding and application even more essential in the ever-expanding digital world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Barcode Symbologies Be Customised for Specific Business Needs?

No, once barcode symbologies are defined, they cannot be customised. However, modifications within the symbology’s predefined rules are allowed. These modifications can include varying the size, encoding additional data, or adjusting the barcode to improve readability and scanning efficiency in unique operational environments.

What Is the Most Commonly Used Barcode Symbology?

No single barcode symbology dominates universally; it largely depends on specific use cases. 

For instance, in retail, UPC barcodes and EAN barcodes are prevalent for product identification and inventory management. Similarly, QR code is the best choice for marketing and informational purposes due to their ability to encode a substantial amount of data and their ease of use with mobile devices.

What Is the Best Barcode Symbology?

The “best” barcode symbology depends on the specific needs of the application. For general product identification, UPC symbology is typical; for applications requiring storage of more information at minimal space, DataMatrix code is superior, offering high data capacity and robust error correction capabilities.

How Are 2D Barcodes Different from 1D Barcodes?

2D barcodes differ from 1D barcodes primarily in data capacity and structure. 

1D barcodes encode data along a single horizontal dimension and are limited in the amount of information they can encode. In contrast, 2D barcodes encode data both horizontally and vertically, significantly increasing their information storage capacity.

For a detailed comparison of 1D and 2D barcodes, refer to our comprehensive guide on 1D vs 2D barcodes.

How Many Barcode Symbologies Are There?

There are over 30 major barcode symbologies in use today. These range from widely used symbologies like EAN and Code 128 to more specialised ones like MaxiCode and Aztec, each designed for different applications and industries.

What Symbology Is a QR Code?

A QR code falls under the matrix barcode symbologies. It is a type of 2D barcode that can encode a wide array of data types and is recognised for its fast readability and greater storage capacity compared to most other symbologies.

Latest Articles

Learning Centres