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Example of a barcode: ISBN, EAN13

Barcodes are everywhere: on water bottles, on packs of biscuits , on toothpaste. Practically every industrialized product has a barcode. But have you ever wondered or do you know what they are for? We try to answer that in this post.

1D and 2D barcodes

In the first place we have the one-dimensional (1D) barcodes. Parallel lines of different width and spacing represent the data. Next the two-dimensional (2D) barcodes. They use rectangles, points, hexagons and other geometric patterns. They are also called matrix codes. In particular, QR codes are a specific type of 2D barcode which has become very popular.

Look at this image of a real barcode representing a real product. If you look closely, you will find that the thin and thick bars are similar to the dots and dash of the Morse code.
And indeed, barcode inventors based their creation right on
Morse code.

example of a barcode

What are barcodes used for?

First of all, you need to know they are unique and univocal: a code, a product. A barcode is never associated with two different products. An international standardization body – GS1 (Global Standards 1 – https://www.gs1.eu/) – manages barcode standards.

To simplify, GS1 provides the companies that request it with the barcodes to associate with their products.

Now let’s do a test: go to this URL https://gepir.gs1.org/index.php/search-by-gtin and look for this barcode in the GS1 database: 8018438000204. You need to enter this number in the Global Trade Item Number field, confirm you are not a robot and click on the Search button.

Answer of the barcode search

As you can see, in the search results we get information on the company that makes that product. Nevertheless we still don’t know what the real product is! In fact, GS1 provides the information on the country code and on the company code – Italy has the code 8, and the Vitivinicola Alberto Loi Srl has 018438. The following numbers, in this case 00020, are internally coded by the company. Finally, the software that creates the barcode generates the last number: 4. It is used to verify that the barcode is valid.

To explain better the concept we show you a simple image that is worth more than many words:

Explanation of a barcode

But where is the product information? The lot or batch number? The production date?

Not in barcodes normally displayed on products. As explained below, high density codes such as EAN128 use coded tags to add information. These codes are usually found on the packaging. Distributors, transport companies and retailers are the main users of these codes.

Which barcode to use?

If you want a barcode for your company, you will have to purchase as many codes as there are products. You can buy them from the GS1 organization in your country of origin.

GS1 offers different bar codes, for different uses. In Europe, they are all based on the EAN barcode type.

EAN 13: consists of 13 digits..
EAN 8:consists of 8 digits. It is used when space on the label is limited.

example of a barcode

Mostly fixed weight products labels use the EAN13 and EAN8 codes. These codes make up the GTIN – Global Trade Item Number, It is used in retail and distribution systems.

In our software, NurTrack, the user has the possibility not only to enter the barcodes of his own products but also to enter the barcodes of the materials purchased for the production.

EAN 128 (or code 128)
As you can see, EAN 128 codes are compact, high density codes. They are used in the logistics and transport sectors, for goods orders and their distribution. They help track products from the place of production to the point of sale:
GS1 SSCC – Serial Shipping Container Code.

a GS1 barcode

This code follows a specific format. It uses the GS1 application identifiers (GS1 Application Identifiers). This is to allow the coding of much more information than what is possible with the smaller codes. In the EAN128 barcode image, the GS1 application identifiers are the numbers in parentheses. A complete list of identifiers is available in the guidelines. In the table you see the explanation for those used in this barcode.

Application identifierfollowed by
(3103)weight in grams

GS1 offers also the GS1 GLN – Global Location Number, which allows to add information on the company headquarters or on different offices of the latter. For this barcode, both EAN13 or EAN128 can be used. It will depend on the information it must code.

Other types of barcodes

consists of 12 digits
UPC-E: consists of 6 digits
They are mainly used in the United States. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and some other countries also use them. These codes are not very common in Europe. They are also part of the GS1 standards.

UPCA barcode

Code 39
The industry uses these codes. They can contain both digits and characters. They mark the individual parts that contribute to the production. GS1 does not distribute these codes.

a code 39 barcode

These barcodes are used exclusively for editorial products such as books, newspapers and magazines. GS1 does not distribute these codes.

ISBN barcode

You can try it too

You too can try to build different types of bar codes. Here is a useful link for using a demo of the Barcode Writer.

Who invented them and why?

Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, the inventors of the barcode, wanted to find a way to automatically read the information of a product upon leaving the production site. They patented their invention in the United States in 1952 (US Patent 2,612,994).

The invention was not an immediate success. In fact it took 20 years to have a commercial success. This happened in the 1970s when supermarkets began using barcodes to automate their payment systems.

Think about where we most see the use of the barcodes. It is when the cashier scans the barcodes of the products we are buying. The program connected to the barcode reader automatically interacts with the store’s inventory management program.

Barcodes are therefore very useful in the management of stocks and sales in stores. For example, they provide updated and detailed information. Like the speed items sell. This allows quick reorders and prevents the accumulation of inventory. Furthermore, by analyzing the data, it is possible to take into consideration the effects on sales of seasonal variations or merchandising campaigns.

Useful links

The URL of the European GS1 web site is https://www.gs1.eu. You can search your country on the EU map and then click on it to go directly to the GS1 website with all the information and guides in your language.

The GS1 Global site (https://www.gs1.org) contains information in English: Here are some links from that site.

  1. Barcodes
  2. Implementation guide
  3. User Manual
  4. Application identifiers

and some more

  1. Standard for GS1 bar codes
  2. General specifications of GS1
  3. Specific transport and logistics of GS1