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How Does a Barcode System Work - Explained By Professionals

So, what is a barcode system about?

Barcoding technology is prevalent in all spheres of modern-day life. Surprisingly, many people are still intimidated by it and view it as a “black box” technology. Let us explain a Barcode System to you in an easy and understandable manner.

Barcoding (one dimensional) can be defined as the storing and printing of numbers and alpha characters in a way that can be read into a computerized system. The information is printed as lines (bars) and spaces according to a set standard (symbology and format) that can be read by a laser line (barcode scanner) translated and stored on a computer as the original human-readable number. It can be scanned in any direction (up or down, left to right, or vice versa) making it a lot simpler on how the product is presented to the scanner. [].

The newer QR (two dimensional systems) are also referred to as “barcodes” even though it uses symbols rather than bars. It can only be scanned in two directions. The image itself can store more information than a one-dimensional barcode. Clients often asks which one is the best? The short answer is that it depends on the application. Both comes with pros and cons. For the sake of this discussion, we will focus on one-dimensional barcodes.

How do you make the technology useful?

Whilst the hardware components (barcode printer, scanner and others) are critical in producing and collecting accurate data, the real intelligence is in the software that enables the solution. The software application is normally specific to the process. “WMS” that Doug is referring to is a Warehouse Management System.

Although the underlying technology (barcode scanning) remains essentially the same, one can imagine that the user requirement at a retail till-point and a warehouse, factory or even on farm will be vastly different. That is where the Software application leverages the technology and provide, amongst others, a bespoke solution, typically, with the following benefits:

  • Provide a method to manage and store the data. (e.g., to save and record date and time and transactions).
  • Validating & Linking of data (e.g., to associate the barcode number to a valid Product Description).
  • Allow the user to interact with the data (e.g., to create, edit and delete data).
  • Do complex pre-programmed calculations and processing in the background.
  • Produce reporting/screen outputs/dash boards and so on at the click of a button.

"I am losing profits and I’m not sure why. I can’t trust my data and system, so I don’t know what to fix!"

Problems with manual systems?

Manual systems have been around forever, so why is it not good enough anymore? To be fair, barcoding and scanning is not the silver bullet that will magically resolve all problems. The simple answer as to why new technology and systems are needed is because the playing field (business environment) has changed. We need to do more with less. We need to get it right the first time. We need to be more flexible. Maybe you will recognize some of these challenges we often hear:

  • “Capturing errors are destroying my operation! It is wrong, not done or I can’t read it.”
  • “Staff can’t keep up with writing down information. The information I get is garbage.”
  • Getting it wrong is causing huge losses in time and money. Not to mention unhappy customers!
  • “The information I get is three days old. It is after the event. It does not help me to make timely interventions.”
  • “I am losing stock! I do not know if it is an error, stolen or damaged. If I do not know, I can’t fix it.”
  • “I can’t hold my staff accountable. Nobody takes any responsibility!”

These are only some of the most common challenges that are often shared with us. If you can identify with these points, or even some that is unique to your business not mentioned, take heart, it can be resolved.

“…..barcoding finds traction throughout the retail, manufacturing, agricultural, mining and service sectors.”

Can so many companies get it wrong?

Ever wondered why the large retailers invested so aggressively in barcoding and scanning when it was still expensive and in its infancy? I am sure the answer is complex, but I suspect “time and money” is part of it. Below are some positive feedback we have received over time.

  • “If the barcode is entered correctly into the system the first time, then it will always be right.”
  • Speed of operation. “Finally, my data capturing is keeping up with the process; the information is correct.”
  • Customer experience. “Since introducing the system, we have closed down our query department. Whilst the software is the enabler, it all starts with barcoding and scanning.”
  • Real time data. “The moment a transaction is scanned, I can see it on the system. Not only can I resolve problems immediately., but I can also manage pro-actively because I trust my data.”
  • Track & Trace. “We’re scanning at key points. I can follow a product from point of manufacture to dispatch.”
  • “Our users are logging into the scanner with a unique password. Every transaction is saved with a date and timestamp against a username. Need I say more?”

As with so many other technological advancements, the price has come down, in relative terms, and the functionality has improved over time. Barcoding and scanning now forms an integral part of many small businesses, specifically because of the value it adds.

Harmony is the composite result where individual musical voices act together to form a perfect cohesive whole”.

About the Methodology, Systems and Components.

Generally, there is a good understanding when the terms Hardware and Software are mentioned. Apart from the over-arching software system that manages the data and user interface, there is generally proprietary software that enables the hardware to function and interface with other systems. Then there are barcode printers, various types of labels, different scanners and finally how (methodology) to connect all the components to function as harmonized whole. In the following discussion of a generic system, components and ancillary devices are discussed in broad terms.

Assigning a barcode number

The one single most important aspect is to ensure that the barcode (number and/or alpha combination) is unique. This principle is demonstrated in all spheres of data management such as personal identification numbers, banking account numbers, product code numbers and so on. Bear in mind that at the point of scanning only the number (or composite number) is returned. To make sense of this number, it must be linked to a data table where “meaning” is given to the number (e.g., a name or a product description). Hence, the number should be unique. [Do not be confused with the unique number principle – you can scan the same number 10 times (or more) to represent a quantity of 10 for that specific item].

We recommend that you invest time up-front in this process and decide what is best for your application. Below are some pointers for consideration:

  • Be practical and use common sense.
  • The physical space you have available to place the barcode on the item.
  • Do you have an existing number (e.g., the current product code) that is unique that you can use?
  • If you plan to sell your products through the formal retail channel, you will probably need a registered UPC (Unique Product Code). If not, you can make up your numbers.

Barcode Printers

Barcode printers are specialised equipment! Whilst it is possible to print a barcode from most normal printers it is not recommended. Barcode printers are available from small desktop size units to massive units. Generally, the size and capacity of the printer will determine the daily volume (number of labels) and label size that can be produced.

Reputable barcode printers will normally be supplied with basic label design software which can be difficult to master in the beginning. At Multi-Weigh we will normally provide the client with a working basic label design to your specification. It is also a standard feature in our software systems (e.g., Warehouse Management System) where barcodes can be printed directly from within our software as and when needed.

The subject of labels (if used) is too large to be discussed in depth. Labels are available in various sizes, shapes, colours and materials. Generally, normal labels are very affordable. Suffice it to say, it is critically important for the rest of the process to select the correct label for the application. Some aspects to consider are:

  • Do not be tempted to buy the smallest printer available. It is, or will become, a critical part of your operation.
  • When determining the printer size, bear in mind that you may wish to print barcodes for other areas in your operation (e.g., for documentation and so on).
  • Incorporate the barcode as part of your packaging design or use stick on labels?
  • The size and design of the label. What data do you wish to print on the label in human readable text?
  • The type and size of label you wish to use.
  • The support available from the supplier (software, ribbons and so on).

Barcode Scanners

Barcode scanners are highly specialised equipment! Apart from differences in physical size (pocket size to anything larger) there are marked differences in the capabilities of the scanner itself. An entry level scanner (also called a “dumb” scanner) can only scan a barcode and display it on a connected device (say a PC). More advanced scanners are basically a hand-held computer with its own operating system and processor on board. A further distinction is whether the scanner is mobile (typically communicating via Wi-Fi) or static (connected with cable to a device).

If this sounds daunting it is because it is! Some expert advice would be in order! It is what we do! As with the printers, the scanners will become a critical part of your operation. In a real sense you are spoiled for choice – there is sure to be a scanner that is perfect for your need. The trick is to find the right one! Some aspects to consider are:

  • Price is always a factor, but it is more important to select the right tool for the application. It may even be less expensive.
  • Sometimes a small tweak in your operation may improve control and save money. Think of scanning at choke points rather than going mobile. If a mobile scanner is the right solution, then accept it.
  • The support available from the supplier (software, repairs and so on).

Software Application Systems

“Software is a collection of instructions and data that tell the computer how to work.” []
. On a practical level, it is also about enabling the user to interact with the data (user interface). In the final analysis it will produce an output of information in a way that is useful to the user (screen outputs, printed reports and more). Generally, hardware and software cannot function usefully as separate entities, but in combination it becomes a powerful technological tool that is only limited by our collective imagination.

Software applications, in this context, are normally specific to a need or more generically stated, specific to a process. For some processes that are intrinsically the same, accounting software as an example, it is possible to write an application that will work sufficiently in most cases. For more specific processes, you may need to have software written to suit your application or process. As with all things in life, there are advantages and disadvantages both ways and the solution are dependent on the merits of each case.

At Multi-Weigh we specialize in providing software solutions that are written to your exact specification and need. Given our multi-disciplinary exposure across various sectors, we are well placed to bring the best of all worlds into a single platform. If your ideas are just plain and simple or completely out of the box – either way – we would love to talk to you! We have always had a sizeable footprint in the industrial sectors, but of late we notice a growing interest from the agricultural sector.

Expert Advice

It has always been our motto that “the client knows what is best for his business”. Being a medium sized business ourselves, we have tremendous respect and admiration for what our collective client base have achieved. We don’t pretend that we know more than you do regarding your business, because in truth we don’t!

However, we do know that none of us can keep up with the technological explosion. We know because we’re also experiencing it ourselves. We also know that not all technology is “ready” and/or useful for application right now. In short, we can assist you with expert advice where you may need it! We often talk to prospective clients to “sound board” their ideas. Many of our most successful implementations are founded on a “light bulb” moment from a client.

Initial Set-up & Training and On-going Support

Implementing a new system is an exciting time! Turning concepts into actual working solutions is an extremely satisfying experience. It can also be a risky and frustrating time! Keep in mind in though, for some of your staff it may be an upheaval of their known worlds. Even though our focus is on the technology, it is critical that we don’t lose sight of the human component. One of the most sensible ways to keep your staff on board is to provide them with training. Our general approach is to train key staff members, whereafter these trained members will conduct in-house training. This method is not cast in stone, but we had our best results with it.

Generally, the systems are very stable once the initial “teething” problems are resolved. However, as with all complex systems (think of your car!) there will be times when additional support is needed. Whoever you team up with, make sure you have reliable support available. At Multi-Weigh we keep in close contact with our clients, not only for support, but also to accommodate changes in needs as the business grows.

Re-imagine your Process?

The subject of “barcoding” as discussed here is way too large and complex to cover all the detail and possibilities. We have attempted to give the reader a glimpse into the possibilities. Now it is up to you to figure out if this technology can work for you!

If you have questions or wish to talk to us, contact us for a “No obligation consultation” using the screen supplied for that purpose. Any feedback or suggestions, by using the same screen, are also welcomed!


Sifting through paperwork VS Scanning a barcode

How long does it take to sift through the pile?

So you don’t and rely on guesswork Rather than making informed decisions based on relevant data

It is what we do!!!

The team at Multi-Weigh consists of specialists in Mechatronics (combination of electrical, mechanical, computer and electronic disciplines) Software Development as well as System and Process Analysis, combined with many years of business experience. It is our passion to provide our clients with cost effective technological solutions that adds real value to their operations. In this respect we have implemented many successful solutions to which our clients can testify.

We understand how daunting the implementation of new technology and systems are to our clients. We know how to mitigate the risks by recommending the right equipment and hardware and how to write or integrate software that is easy to use, but most of all reliable.

Without training and transfer of knowledge the value that clients will get is limited. Therefore, we are highly focussed on training key staff to a high level of competency. It does not end there! Our experience shows that there are times when users need additional support from our specialists, in some cases, even years after the initial implementation. It is our system as much as it is yours!

We are also committed to the principle of ease-of-doing business. If you prefer, we can normally supply you with the hardware (barcode scanners & printers and more) and software suitable to your application. A true one-stop service!

Finally, we strive to build lasting business relationships and friendships with our clients for the long term.

And why we do what we do!!!

Pride in doing great work for our customers.

We love hearing that the users find our solutions easy to use.

Grateful customers. Getting a “thank you!” from a customer.

We are passionate in what we do, and we see our jobs as our hobby.

We are at an extremely exciting time in our lives, living in the era of constant technological advancement. We strive to help our customers to use these technologies to improve their lives.

We want to contribute value and value added to our business partners.

We love fulfilling what we set out to do in the beginning and delivering more than the customer expected.

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