21 Interesting Facts About Barcode Scanners That Will Help Your Business

Barcodes and barcode scanners are an integral part of our daily life and any high-performing business. Scanning systems play a key role across a myriad of industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, travel, retail, grocery, and government. Barcodes have made business more efficient for companies, providing an essential method to track and store information about millions of items. But information is power in every aspect of your life, so to really benefit from these products, it’s important to choose the right one for your business needs.

1. What are barcode scanners?
2. What is the difference between a 1D and 2D barcode?
3. What information is represented by 1D and 2D barcodes?
4. What is the difference between 1D laser and 2D imager barcode scanners?
5. What are the common applications for 1D and 2D barcodes?
6. Can barcode scanners read through tape?
7. Can barcode scanners read QR codes?
8. Can barcode scanners read all barcodes?
9. Can barcode scanners read phone screens?
10. Can a scanner read barcodes from any angle?
11. Where are barcode scanners used?
12. Where are barcode scanners purchased?
13. Why won't my barcode scanner work?
14. Can barcode scanners read any color?
15. I have small barcodes – is that a problem?
16. Are all barcode scanners laser scanners?
17. I want a durable barcode scanner – what do you recommend?
18. What are the different types of wireless barcode scanners?
19. Can mobile computers be used to scan barcodes?
20. What is the number one thing that impacts barcode readability?
21. Are barcode scanners able to collect information beyond barcodes?

1. What are barcode scanners?

When you think about barcode scanners, you imagine a small device that can help you read those lines you see on a label, but the mechanism is more complex. These are tools that are specifically designed not only to capture the image of a barcode, but also to decode the information and to transmit that data to a computer. This transmission is sent through wired or wireless connections depending on the model of the scanner.

Another way to put it, a barcode scanner enters data just like you would with a keyboard, but much faster. Rather than typing the number, which can leave room for human error, the scanner simply adds information to a database or your business application.

2. What is the difference between a 1D and 2D barcode?

When most individuals think of barcodes, they picture a horizontal linear code made up of variable-width lines and spaces spread from left to right as ubiquitously seen on consumer goods. This is a 1D (one-dimensional) barcode. This group of lines and spaces, bounded by unprinted areas on either end (the “quiet zone”), represents the information the scanner will read.

The most recognizable 1D barcode is the 12-digit UPC number. The first six numbers are the manufacturer identification number, the next five digits represent the item’s number, and the final number is referred to as the check digit which is used to help the scanner determine if the code was read correctly.

A single 1D barcode line typically contains between 8–25 characters of text information. When you see multiple layers of bars and spaces, this is referred to as stacking, which allows the user to extend beyond the 25 characters. Many businesses have settled on using 8–15 characters, which keeps the barcode at a respectable and printable size.

Unlike the 1D barcode that is read horizontally, the 2D (two-dimensional) barcode, looking like a square or rectangle, stores information both horizontally and vertically, thus it is read in two dimensions (INTSERT IMAGE). The 2D code uses patterns of squares, hexagons, dots, and other shapes to encode data. This dramatically increases the amount of information that can be represented by the barcode: This little shape can hold over 4,000 characters and 7,000 digits while still appearing physically smaller. An example of a 2D barcode would be a QR or Data Matrix code. 2D barcodes remain legible when printed at a small size or etched onto a product. 2D barcodes have nearly a 100% read rate from any angle, even if slightly damaged, due to redundant data and error correction technology.

A 2D barcode encodes alphanumeric information as well as images, website addresses, voice, and other types of binary data. You can use the information whether you are connected to a database or not.

3. What information is represented by 1D and 2D barcodes?

Barcodes are a low-cost method of helping businesses track large amounts of information. When a 1D barcode is decoded, it translates into alphanumeric digits (i.e., numbers and letters), which represent a kind of “license plate” for a specific item. When this information is sent to the computer database, the information can then be associated with data specific to the item such as price, number of items in stock, item description, and item image.

A 2D barcode encodes alphanumeric information as well as images, pricing, website addresses, voice, and other types of binary data.

4. What is the difference between 1D laser and 2D imager barcode scanners?

Laser barcode scanners were the original 1D barcode scanner. The scanner directs a red beam of light toward a horizontal variable-width row of black and white lines and spaces. This beam of light is directed back and forth by a rotating mirror or prism. The light reflects off the barcode into a light-detecting electronic component called a photoelectric cell. The white areas of the barcode reflect the most light and black the least light. The scanner detects the width and sequence of black and white stripes and converts them into decimal numbers. Historically laser barcode scanners are eventually prone to failure due to the moving parts. Laser scanners can only read linear barcode symbologies such as Code 39, Code 128, UPC, and others. Standard laser scanners can read from a few inches to a few feet depending on the barcode. Extended range laser barcode scanners can read over 30 feet when using reflective labels.

The 2D imager barcode scanner functions like a digital camera. These scanners can read both 1D and 2D barcodes. Rather than using a laser, the imager barcode scanner takes a picture and uses a decoding algorithm to locate the barcode within that image and then decode the data from that barcode within that image. Unlike a laser scanner, the imager does not require the barcode to be oriented in a specific way to be read. Most barcode scanners today are camera-based. 2D imagers can read barcodes off any surface including smartphones.

5. What are the common applications for 1D and 2D barcodes?

1D barcodes are commonly used for consumer goods and usually represent 8–15 alphanumeric digits. They are best used for identifying items where associated information may change frequently. For example, an item associated with a UPC code may not change, but the price does. The code represents a static item in a database that can have a pricing change. This is a better option than encoding the price into the barcode. These codes can be read by laser and imager scanners.

2D barcodes allow companies to encode more product information, making it easier to track more data on items as they move through the supply chain. These devices are used in a wide variety of industries from manufacturing and warehousing to logistics and healthcare. Because of their high data density, 2D codes can be used on very small items where 1D codes would be impractical. For example, 2D barcodes are used by hospitals to ensure patients get the right medications on the right schedule, and by sales and marketing teams to embed links to websites, videos, brochures, and more.

6. Can barcode scanners read through tape?

Yes, barcode scanners can read through tape. Tape can create a glare that can cause the barcode to be hard to read, just like the glare of the sun can make it hard for you to see an object. By simply changing or tipping the scanner a few degrees, your scanner will be able to read the barcode.

7. Can barcode scanners read QR codes?

QR codes belong to the family of 2D barcodes. Rather than being a series of bars that track from right to left, 2D barcodes consist of black squares and dots that represent different pieces of information. You will need a 2D image barcode scanner to take a picture of the entire image at one time, which is then analyzed through a decoding algorithm to define the information contained in the QR code. With a 2D barcode scanner, you can read other common 2D symbologies such as Data Matrix and Aztec code.

8. Can barcode scanners read all barcodes?

There are two classes of barcodes: 1D and 2D. 1D codes, such as the UPC code, are usually variable-width black and white spaces. 2D codes, such as QR codes and Data Matrix, use squares, hexagons, and other shapes to store data.

Not all barcode scanners can read all barcodes. Laser barcode scanners and linear imagers read only 1D barcode scanners. Imager (camera-based) 2D barcode scanners read all common 1D and 2D barcodes.

9. Can barcode scanners read phone screens?

With the advent of shopper loyalty programs, being able to read barcodes on phones has become very important in retail settings. In order to read a barcode on a phone screen, you will need a 2D barcode imaging scanner. Reading barcodes on a phone can be challenging for scanners to read because of screen polarization, levels of brightness, surface gloss, and reflectiveness. Honeywell has put extensive effort into designing technology that allows our 2D barcode scanners to read phone screens.

10. Can a scanner read barcodes from any angle?

1D barcode scanners can only read 1D barcodes in a very limited angle that is perpendicular to the horizontal variation of white and black bars. 2D image scanners have the benefit of being able to read 1D and 2D codes from any angle.

11. Where are barcode scanners used?

Barcode scanners are used in almost every conceivable industry and application around the world. For example, these devices are used in:

  • Retail for point-of-sale transactions, marketing/customer loyalty programs, inventory, warehouse operations, transportation, and more.
  • Healthcare for patient admissions, bedside medication verification, lab specimen track and trace, shipping and receiving, documents and records tracking, and staff communication.
  • Manufacturing for inventory management, work in progress, asset tracking, shipping and receiving, and compliance labeling.
  • Warehouse distribution to automate and optimize workflow functions such as picking, put-away, stock replenishment, shipping, and receiving.
  • Transportation and logistics to help track every item throughout the supply chain such as cross-docking, fleet management, and pick-up and delivery operations.
  • Grocery for point-of-sale transactions and inventory to warehouse operations and transportation.
  • Food processing from the manufacturing floor to packaging and distribution. The industry has constantly growing track and trace requirements for food safety. Companies in the food industry must be able to identify when, where, and by whom produce was received, processed, stored, transported, consumed, and disposed of and provide documented proof.
  • Field service applications to take readings for utility companies, conduct building, machinery, and vending machine inspections, capture and transmit electronic signatures, manage inventory, and more.
  • Education for tracking assets, attendance, registration, documents, and records tracking and staff communication.
  • Postal and parcel delivery services scan all barcoded mail pieces (flats, letters, and packages) that enter the mail stream and track those items with additional scans up to the point of delivery. Scanning accuracy is critically important to the success of real-time visibility.
  • Ecommerce for order fulfillment, marketing efforts, packing/shipping, transportation, inventory, warehouse operations, and more.
  • Military for tracking equipment and supplies, ID management, supply chain and logistics, commissary management, maintenance and repair, and more.

12. Where are barcode scanners purchased?

You can purchase barcode scanners from Honeywell, distributors, partners, and retail outlets around the world.

13. Why won't my barcode scanner work?

There could be a number of reasons why a barcode will not scan. The most common causes of unreadable barcodes are as follows:

  • Low contrast. In order for a scanner to extract information from a 1D or 2D barcode, the scanner needs to be able to tell the differences between the light and dark elements of the symbol. Low contrast can be a cause because the barcode is printed on a highly reflective surface that blinds the scanner, or the printing ink is not evenly applied/distributed across the code.
  • Quiet zone violations. Quiet zones are the areas surrounding the 1D barcode or 2D symbol. This space allows the scanner to clearly see the entire code and separates it from surrounding marks. For 1D barcodes, the quiet zone is the left and right ends of the code. It is usually 10 times the width of narrowest bar. The quite zone for the 2D symbol is the space surrounding the entire symbol, which is usually 10% of the symbol’s height or width. If text or markings enter these quiet zones, the decoding algorithm may try to interpret these elements as part of the barcode or symbol or may have difficulty locating the symbol.
  • Improper reading position. Sometimes no-read results from the physical position of the scanner. Barcode scanners have minimum/maximum distances that allow the scanner to adequately focus the code/symbol clearly. If you are too close or too far away for your scanner’s optical range, you will have a no-read. The angle of the scanner can cause non-reads. Sometimes the light on the barcode/symbol essentially blinds the reader. By simply tilting the scanner, you can get a clear image. The scanner could also be trying to read a code/symbol in a rotation that is not accommodated by the scanner. For example, laser scanners must be oriented to be able to scan the 1D barcode from a horizontal position.
  • Print or mark inconsistency. This can be caused by poor distribution of ink for the printed codes, uneven pressure in the device applying the code/symbol, or the surface absorbing the ink, which can cause low contrast and quiet zone violations.
  • Damage or distortion. Barcode/symbol quality may degrade as surfaces are exposed to different environmental factors that can create minor scratches, stain/blotch, tear, and/or remove codes. For example, humidity on waterborne print can cause water to form on a code, which can cause the ink to blotch. A 2D symbol may receive fixed pattern damage to its “finder pattern” that does not allow the reader to interpret the symbol’s orientation and number of rows and columns for decoding. This can be caused by a scratch, tear, stain, or even debris.
  • Scanner settings. Many scanners provide the user the ability to adjust the settings for use. For example, if a 2D scanner is not reading a QR code, it could be as simple as the scanner does not have QR turned on allowing it to read the code. Or you have a scanner that is set to read a medium-density code and you are trying to read a high-density code.
  • The barcode print quality is too poor. The following issues related to the barcode quality are some of the more common:
    • Use of a certain background color (bad contrast between bars and spaces).
    • Use of a certain color or faint black color for the bars (bad contrast between bars and spaces).
    • The barcode does not allow adequate space to the left or right of the code on the label (inadequate quiet zone).
    • Missing a portion of the barcode/not enough elements (the visible bars and spaces do not create the correct code).
    • The bar-width and/or space-width is incorrect or inconsistent throughout the symbol (dimensional errors).

14. Can barcode scanners read any color?

Barcode scanners cannot read all colors or color combinations. The main reason why barcodes can be hard to scan is, as we said before, the lack of contrast between the background and bar colors. Black, dark blue, dark green, and dark brown work well for barcode print, but not label backgrounds. The best combination barcode labels include:

  • Black and white, red or yellow
  • Blue and white, red or yellow
  • Green and white, red or yellow

Color combinations to avoid include:

  • Red and white
  • Light brown and white
  • Yellow and white
  • Red and green
  • Red and brown
  • Red and blue
  • Black and green
  • Black and brown
  • Black and blue

15. I have small barcodes – is that a problem?

Each scanner will have a minimum resolution for cell-sized specification. If your barcode minimum X dimension for cell size is smaller than can be read by your scanner, then that could be problem. Additionally, if you are creating labels as part of the compliance program that must be read elsewhere in the supply chain, then ensuring that your barcodes meet the specifications required by your downstream recipients would also be an important element to validate.

In a linear 1D barcode (such as a Code 128 or UPC), the X-dimension refers to the width of the narrowest bar in the symbol. In a 2D symbol (such as a Data Matrix or QR Code), the X-dimension refers to the height and width measurement of one cell (square element).

16. Are all barcode scanners laser scanners?

No. Laser barcode scanners were the original 1D barcode scanner. They were fast and efficient but were limited to reading 1D barcodes (e.g., Code 39, Code 128, UPC) and were historically prone to failure due to the moving parts.

Many of the barcode scanners today are 2D imager barcode scanners. It is a camera-based scanner and functions like a digital camera. These scanners can read both 1D and 2D barcodes. Rather than using a laser, the imager barcode scanner takes a picture and uses a decoding algorithm to locate the barcode within that image and then decode the data from that barcode within that image. Unlike a laser scanner, the imager does not require the barcode to be oriented in a specific way to be read. Most barcode scanners today are camera-based. 2D imagers can read barcodes off any surface including smartphones. The Honeywell Granit™ family of barcode scanners is a good example of 2D imager scanners.

17. I want a durable barcode scanner – what do you recommend?

Consider the Honeywell Granit or wearable barcode scanner families. With any serious decision about investing in handheld devices for your various workflows, you need to define your business requirements. For example, warehouses may incorporate several types of barcode scanners than can include ruggedized for dock and outdoor use, scanners for freezer conditions, and scanners for high-volume picking/inventory. You may need to address issues related to low lighting or applications requiring wireless models. The following are some of the key questions that you need to ask to help narrow your focus:

  • In what conditions will you be scanning (e.g., indoors or outdoors)? Consider the workflow and the environmental stresses the barcode scanner will encounter such as dust, cold/heat, water, or environmental hazards. You will be looking at durability ratings for drop/impact, focal point distance of barcodes, wireless/corded capture method, and more. Consider the issue of impact and the common breakage of the scan glass. At Honeywell, we designed the Granit series barcode scanners with scan glass that is twice as far back and smaller than competitive models, which has made it almost resistant to damage.
  • What are the variety of 1D/2D symbologies you will be scanning? Many industries differ in the barcode symbologies they have adopted. The adoption is based on its implementation, the data that will be encoded, and how the barcode will be printed. Each barcode symbology has a standard that defines how the barcode scanner reads and decodes the symbol. For example, if you are reading UPC or “license-plate” style barcodes, then a laser scanner or linear imager scanner may be the answer. If you are already scanning 2D codes or may need to scan them in the future, then you need a 2D imaging barcode scanner that can read either 1D or 2D.
  • What is the frequency of use? Will you be scanning one item at a time in a picking workflow or thousands of times per minute on a conveyor system?
  • What are the common distances you will be scanning? Are you doing arm's-length scanning where you’re scanning from a few inches to several feet away, or are you doing full-range scanning from six inches to 50 feet away?
  • What are the power requirements? If you are a company with field operations, you may have workers that are in the field for 8+ hours. If you are in a warehouse, the scanner may only need a battery life of a few hours. Or you may be in a retail environment that has different requirements. For example, the Honeywell Xenon™ and Voyager™ family of scanners include battery-free technology. When fully charged, they can scan over 450 UPC/EAN codes without the need for recharging – enough to check out at least 25 customers during peak periods. A 20-second charge will deliver 100 scans or a full charge in under 2 minutes, and effectively eliminates the cost of battery replacement.
  • How mobile are your workers and do they need to scan items that are dispersed? This question helps to define whether you should use a corded or wireless barcode scanner.

    For example, in the Honeywell Granit family of barcode scanners, you have corded versions that connect to the host device such as a PC or forklift vehicle-mounted computer. Cordless versions communicate wirelessly with the communication base or when docked with the base. The worker is free to operate without a cord dangling across the work surface. Some versions give the worker the ability to roam and scan, and when the scanner is in range of the base it will download scanned data.

    And then there are the Honeywell wearable devices, the 8670 and 8680i. The 8670 can be either a two-piece scanner that has a small scan head that sits on top of the index finger of the user and has a cable that connects to the wrist-worn Bluetooth® unit; or it can be paired with another device such as a mobile computer, fixed workstation, or vehicle-mounted computer. It effectively operates as direct data entry to the secondary device.

    The 8680i is designed to be a simpler form factor than the 8670. It’s a one-piece that has two ergonomic versions: one is a two finger–triggered ring and the other goes on a strap glove. The 8680i is available in a Standard version, which basically provides standard Bluetooth scan and data entry. And then there is an Advanced version that has customizable workflow instructions on the user-facing display and Wi-Fi access, so you can communicate directly with the network application rather than needing a paired mobile device or workstation computer.

18. What are the different types of wireless barcode scanners?

There are essentially two types of wireless barcode scanners: handheld and wearable. For example, in the Honeywell Granit family of barcode scanners, the 1911i cordless version communicates wirelessly through the communication base or when docked with the base. The worker is free to operate without a cord dangling across the work surface. Workers can roam and scan; when the scanner is in range of the base it will download its scanned data. These area-imaging scanners are for businesses where arm's length 1D and 2D barcode scanning in harsh, unpredictable environments is the norm.

And then there are the Honeywell wearable devices, the 8670 and 8680i. The 8670 can be either a two-piece scanner that has a small scan head that sits on top of the index finger of the user and has a cable that connects to the wrist-worn unit or is a Bluetooth wearable ring scanner, so you pair it with another device such as a mobile computer, fixed workstation, or vehicle-mounted computer. It effectively operates as direct data entry to the secondary device.

The 8680i is a different, simpler form factor than the 8670. It’s a one piece that has two ergonomic versions: one is a two finger–triggered ring and the other goes on a strap glove. The 8680i is available in the Standard version that basically provides standard Bluetooth scan and data entry. And then there is an Advanced version that has customizable workflow instructions on the user-facing display and Wi-Fi access so you can communicate directly with the network application rather than needing a paired mobile device or workstation computer.

19. Can mobile computers be used to scan barcodes?

Yes. Mobile computers like Honeywell’s CT40 and CT60 are equipped with a high-performance barcode scanner. They can do much more than scan. They have the ability to run multiple business applications such as inventory and asset tracking. Mobile computers have rugged designs that make them extremely durable and weather-resistant. This type of device is suited for almost any work environment. For workers in the field or rough industrial areas, the scanner can be used to view, edit, and adjust orders and data in the system. In retail settings, workers can quickly look up stock locations, make adjustments, place orders, and perform other tasks straight from their scanning device.

20. What is the number one thing that impacts barcode readability?

Label quality – a barcode is only as reliable as the application that it is printed on. If a label falls off or the ink smudges, your barcode is essentially useless. Choosing the right label and label printer can make all the difference. Label printers are best for printing barcodes and shipping labels. They come in three types, which include industrial, desktop, and mobile. Honeywell has a complete line of label printers to support every application and environment.

21. Are barcode scanners able to collect information beyond barcodes?

Honeywell is beginning to include Operational Intelligence in many of its barcode scanners. Operational Intelligence collects information such as scanned barcode volume, which can be a proxy for site productivity. In the warehouse it can define the throughput of packages. In retail it can denote how your sales are doing. It can also denote if specific barcodes are becoming hard to read and much more.

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