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Barcoding Guide

What is a barcode?

Barcodes are a way of displaying information as a printed symbol, in a way that can easily be read by electronic devices. They are used to hold information about a product or item such as a product code, asset number or patient ID. One of the most common applications for barcodes is in shops and supermarkets, where a barcode on each product is read at the checkout to retrieve the price from a central database and update customer and stock information. Barcodes are extremely common and can be found in all types of industries, government organisations and public services.

Why use barcodes?

Barcodes are used primarily for capturing data electronically, using either an electronic reader or scanned from an image using specially designed software. The process of capturing data electronically is referred to as Auto ID Data Capture (AIDC). Systems for barcode AIDC consist of three phases: 1. Printing the barcode either directly on the item, packaging or on a label.2. Capturing the barcode data using a scanner or reader and imputing the information into a computer, handheld terminal or PDA.3. Retrieving information from or updating a local or central database.The main benefits of using barcodes for electronic data capture are:

  • A reduction in man-made errors
  • Much quicker and more efficient entry of information.
  • Inexpensive and easy to implement - bar code scanners are relatively low cost and extremely accurate.
  • Businesses can produce detailed and up-to-date information/reports on stock levels and the movement or tracking of items and products.

What is the difference between 1D and 2D barcodes? 

Barcodes come in two main types or symbologies; one dimensional barcodes (1D or linear) and two dimensional barcodes (2D).

1D / Linear Barcodes

These barcodes consist of lines (commonly called bars) and spaces 

Code 128 and EAN 13 are two of the most common 1D barcodes. As can be seen from these examples, 1D barcodes typically contain a part number, product code or patient number etc. When a barcode is read and input into a computer, it is typically cross referenced to either a local or central database, where large amounts of information can be automatically retrieved for the item scanned. The database could contain information on pricing in a retail application, location and stock in manufacturing and location and keeper in an asset tracking application. 

Code 128  is a general purpose barcode, widely used across all industries including the public sector and government bodies and can contain letters and numbers. EAN 13 is most widely recognised and is the type of barcode used to identify goods in shops and supermarkets by scanning it at the till or point of sale system or checkout. This barcode can only contain numbers. In order to use EAN 13 companies need to register with GS1 UK. This ensures that they are given a unique range of numbers to use on their barcodes, which will not clash with other manufacturers. This is important in avoiding confusion in pricing and stocking different products.

2D Barcodes

2D barcodes will typically contain more detailed information about the item such as the full address of the recipient in the case of parcel delivery. 


Datamatrix, as shown here, is one of the most common 2D barcodes, and is typically used in parcel delivery and healthcare. Whereas the Code 128 and EAN 13 barcodes above contain 12 and 13 characters respectively, the Datamatrix barcode contains 108 characters.

How do I barcode my products? 

Barcodes can either be printed directly onto the product, onto packaging or onto a label, ticket, tag, wristband or other material which can then be applied to the item.

There are two ways of printing your own barcodes, either using a conventional office printer and A4 laser or inkjet labels, or a dedicated thermal label printer. Using a dedicated thermal printer is easier and more efficient than using a conventional office printer, and has a number of benefits including:

  • Much wider choice of label materials and adhesives so that a solution can be tailored more closely to your specific requirements.
  • No more paper jams. The thermal printing process does not involve heating the labels as it does with laser printers. This heating process in laser printers can cause the adhesive to leach out causing paper jams.
  • Labels are normally printed in a continuous form, either on rolls or fan folded, for ease of application.
  • Thermal label printers can be fitted with automatic cutters so that labels or tags can be cut to the desired length.
  • Greater range of shapes and sizes available off the shelf.

What software can I use to create my barcodes?

There are a number of software solutions for designing and printing labels and documents with barcodes, including:

  • Standard Windows programs such as Word or Excel using a barcode font.
  • Dedicated label design programs such as Bartender.
  • Most thermal printers have built-in barcode software in the form of barcode fonts. This allows barcodes to be printed with suitable software on your PC or other devices such as PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). If you would like more information on this method of printing barcodes, please call the AM Labels Technical Support Team for advice on 01536 414222)

AM Labels can provide solutions for all the above options. Most thermal label printers come with a free, basic label design program which will allow you to print 1D and 2D barcodes. More advanced versions will also allow you to connect to external databases.

For more information on selecting a label printer, please see our thermal printer selection guide, or call our friendly and knowledgeable sales team on 01536 414222.

What type of scanners can I use to scan my barcodes?

Barcode scanners or readers come in a wide variety of forms to suit every application. There are two important considerations when choosing the correct scanner for your needs, which are:

  • The scanner technology e.g. CCD, laser or imager.
  • Scanner type: e.g. corded scanners (connected via a cable), cordless scanners (wireless), PDA and handheld terminal scanners and barcode verifiers.


What type of technologies do scanners use to read barcodes? 

  • CCD (Charge Coupled Device) scanners illuminate the barcode with light from LEDs and are available in two types. Contact scanners have read ranges from contact to 2-3cm and medium range types have read ranges from 20-30cm.
  • Laser scanners illuminate the barcode with light from a laser and are therefore capable of reading barcodes at a greater distance. Standard laser scanners typically read barcodes up to 30cm, with long range versions able to read barcodes up to 10M.
  • Imager technology uses a small camera to capture 1D and 2D barcodes. The barcode is then decoded using digital image processing.
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