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How Does a Barcode Work?

Have you ever wondered how those series of seemingly random vertical lines called barcodes work? Find out in this article.


A barcode is simply a way to present alpha-numeric (letters and numbers) information in a form that a computer can read.

There are several different types of barcodes. The UPC code that is used on most consumer goods is the most common type of barcode. Look at the barcode on a can of pop or a box of crackers and you'll notice a subtle difference in the width of the black and white lines. The arrangement of these lines represents a series of numbers to the barcode reader. A standard UPC code (UPC-A) will have 12 numbers right underneath the barcode. When the barcode is scanned, this number is sent to the computer.

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This is all the barcode scanner does; translate the barcode into numbers and/or letters and send the data to the computer. In the computer, you'll need a point-of-sale (POS) program that can make sense of the data sent by the barcode scanner. The POS program contains all the information you've entered about your inventory. Most inventory control programs identify items by SKU (stock keeping unit) number and description. For example, let's say you're buying a bottle of "Footman’s Floor Wax". The barcode scanner reads a code that translates into "123" (the SKU), the database then associates that number with "Footman’s Floor Wax" (item description).

The POS System is also known as a decoder, which discriminates between the various symbologies. Symbologies simply mean barcode languages, and different industries use different barcode symbologies. A few samples are included in this table, along with the uses for these barcode symbologies.

For assistance in incorporating bardcodes to your ID cards, call our experienced ID professionals at 1-800-667-1772 today.

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