Barcodes have proven to be a cost effective way to price your products for retail, track inventory data, ship packages, and even promote your company – but how do you get started? Printing barcode labels for the first time can be a daunting task due to the amount of variables involved, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated, stressful process. Below, you will find some of the most commonly asked questions related to printing barcode labels. The answers will have you ready to print your own barcode labels in no time!
What type of barcode do I need?
Simply choosing the best barcode for your application can be a difficult decision. There are currently hundreds of different barcode symbologies being used across different industries. The term symbology refers to the different types or formats of barcodes available to you. Luckily, the majority of barcode symbologies are very specific to certain industries and can effectively be removed from consideration for common usage. The first major decision when selecting a barcode format for your application is choosing between a 1D barcode and a 2D barcode.
1D barcodes are the more traditional barcode type, and are likely what comes to mind when hearing the term “barcode”. This is due to the fact 1D barcodes consist of a collection of bars and spaces, of varying lengths, formatted in a linear manner. 1D barcodes are ideal for laser barcode scanners – they are commonly used in point-of-sale systems in retail stores, as well as in applications using handheld laser scanners. The different 1D formats vary in the type of characters that can be used and in the number of characters they can carry. The most popular 1D barcode formats are listed below:
UPC-A and UPC-E
These barcodes are found on products being sold at retail outlets throughout the United States. UPC-A is the default retail barcode, while UPC-E is a condensed format mainly used on packaging where limited space is available. A UPC barcode is necessary if you want to bring your products to market. To receive a UPC barcode for your products in the United States you must apply for membership with GS1-US. To receive more information regarding applying at GS1-US, along with information regarding the applicable fees, please visit their website at the link below:
EAN-13 and EAN-8
These barcodes are essentially the equivalent of UPC-A and UPC-E if you are selling your products outside of the United States. EAN-13 is the default, while EAN-8 would be the condensed format for packaging with limited space available. Similar to the UPC barcodes mentioned above, you must register with GS1 to receive barcodes for your products. You can apply with GS1, and learn more about the fees, by visiting the following link:
Code128 is a newer barcode format. The number 128 refers to the fact that this barcode symbology can hold any character within the ASCII 128 character set. This means that a Code128 barcode not only includes numeric digits, but all characters and punctuation marks as well. This broadened selection of characters will allow you to store a large amount of diversified information within a compact barcode.
Code39 barcodes also allow for use of numeric digits and uppercase letters. This format is not as compact as Code128 barcodes but is still commonly used in certain industries. Because of the lower data density compared to Code128 more space is required to encode data, making Code39 barcodes less than ideal for compact applications where there is little space available for a barcode label.
When deciding which 1D barcode may be best for your application, keep the following information in mind:
- If the barcode will be scanned in retail stores you will need to apply for and use a UPC or EAN barcode
- If you need alphabetic characters in addition to numeric characters you will need a Code128 or Code39 barcode
- If you have limited space available for a barcode label you will need to select a high density barcode such as UPC-E, EAN-8, or Code128
While 1D barcodes are ideal for a variety of different applications, 2D barcodes offer some special characteristics that make them useful for entirely different purposes. Rather than using a linear set of bars, 2D barcodes use a series of tiny dots of squares that can contain any type of alphanumeric data. 2D barcodes are capable of holding significantly more data when compared with 1D barcodes. 2D barcodes cannot be read with traditional laser barcode scanners, instead requiring the use of an imaging device such as a camera.
The most popular type of 2D barcode is the QR Code. QR Codes are very commonly used for promotional or marketing purposes within magazines, advertisements and on business cards. This type of barcode is geared towards consumers, and the fact that most modern cellphones incorporate a camera means that anyone carrying a smartphone can scan a QR code. QR codes can contain contact information, URL addresses, and even plain text. QR Codes are free and simple to generate. You can access a free QR Code generator at the following link:
At this point you probably have an idea of which barcode format will be most suitable for your application. We can now look forward to some other topics that are important to consider when printing your barcode labels.
What type of printer will I need to print barcode labels?
You can use just about any popular printer type to print barcode labels, but we are going to focus on inkjet and laser printers, which are commonly found in most home and office environments, as well as thermal transfer and direct thermal printers that are more specialized for barcode and shipping label applications.
The biggest advantage to printing barcode labels with an inkjet or laser printer is that these types of printers tend to be readily available, allowing you to print barcode labels without having to buy dedicated printing equipment. Using an inkjet or laser printer means that you will be printing your barcode labels on standard letter size sheets. This is ideal for applications in which you need to print multiple copies of the same barcode label at one time. Printing different barcode labels on your sheets can be accomplished as well by using a barcode mail merge within your printing software. Because it is important for barcodes to be printed at a high resolution, it is important to use inkjet or laser printers that are capable of resolutions of 300 dpi or greater.
If you are planning on printing barcode labels at a high volume on a regular basis, a dedicated barcode label printer may be the best option. This is where thermal printers really shine. There are two different types of thermal printers available: direct thermal and thermal transfer. Thermal printers are capable of on-demand printing, allowing you to print the exact number of barcode labels that you need at any given time.
Thermal transfer printers use a heated printing ribbon to produce durable barcode images. They are capable of printing on a wide variety of different material types. If your application requires an extended shelf life, thermal transfer printing will likely be the most ideal solution as these printers are capable of producing barcodes that will stand up to handling and storage over long periods of time.
Direct thermal printers use a thermal printhead to apply heat to chemically coated paper, allowing you to print barcodes without the need to constantly replace printing ribbons. The benefit of removing the need for printing ribbons is offset by the fact that labels printed with a direct thermal printer are less durable when compared to labels printed with a thermal transfer printer. Environmental conditions such as heat or excessive exposure to light can cause the print quality to deteriorate over time. Because of this, direct thermal printers are ideal for applications that require a short shelf life, such as shipping and postage labels.
What type of label material will I need?
The type of label material you will need for your barcode labels will ultimately depend on your application. For most purposes, basic paper label material will be the most cost effective choice. If an extended shelf life or contact with moisture or chemicals is a concern you will likely want to consider a durable, weather resistant synthetic material, such as polyester or polypropylene, for use in either a laser printer or a thermal transfer printer.
The most important factor to consider when selecting a material for barcode labels is the color and finish of the material. Printing barcodes on to a white surface is ideal. Printing on to a colored surface will reduce the contrast between the bars and the spaces between them, which may cause certain barcode readers to have trouble scanning the barcode. You will also want to avoid any label material that could potentially be reflective, specifically foil label material and ultra glossy label material. A reflective surface will almost always cause barcode scanning to fail. In addition to colored and reflective surfaces, clear label material should be avoided as well. Printing barcodes on to a clear surface is risky – if the clear label is not applied to a white surface, the contrast may not be high enough to allow for a successful scan.
Are there size limitations when printing barcode labels?
Unless you are printing UPC/EAN barcodes, you will have a lot of flexibility regarding the label size for your barcodes.
If you are printing UPC barcodes it is important to adhere to the size regulations specified by GS1. The standard size for a UPC barcode is 1.469” x 1.02”. It is recommended that UPC codes be printed within a range of 80% to 200% of the specified standard size. Printing a UPC code at less than 80% (1.175” x 0.816”) could potentially cause an unreadable barcode – depending on the retailer this may result in a fine or even disqualification as a vendor.
If you are not printing barcodes for retail you can potentially go much smaller with your labels. A high density symbology such as Code128 or Code39 and a printer capable of high resolution prints (preferably 600 dpi) will allow you to print a barcode with a height as small as 0.375”.
If you are printing your own QR barcodes you could potentially print them on a label as small as 0.5” x 0.5”. Again, this would require a printer capable of high resolution prints to ensure that the barcode is readable. A QR code smaller than 0.5” x 0.5” may have difficulty being read by most consumer devices.
Printing your own barcode labels doesn’t have to be a headache inducing process. While it may seem daunting at first, the information provided above should get you heading in the right direction. You’ll be printing barcodes for your business in no time!
Written by Dave Carmany
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