The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

Choosing the right barcode labels for your business or facility requires a basic knowledge of scanning technology, label materials, and popular barcode formats. Since barcodes make it easier to automate inventory management and asset tracking, they have become a popular choice in companies spanning many industries. There are numerous barcode symbologies that allow for standardizing asset tracking and the scanning technologies used across industries, allowing companies to select barcode labels compatible with industry standards and requirements.

Despite the widespread adoption of new barcode labels and scanning technologies, some companies haven’t yet implemented consistent asset tracking and inventory management solutions. This is especially true for the small business community, with surveys finding that up to 55% of small businesses are using manual inventory tracking processes, or worse, aren’t tracking their assets at all. With the recent disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are looking to control costs as much as possible. Having a robust inventory and asset tracking system gives companies better inventory visibility and enables them to collect valuable data that can drive decisions such as warehouse space optimization, pricing strategies, supplier sourcing, and more.

When creating an asset or inventory management plan, you may find that you need different types of barcode labels for different applications or use cases. For example, retro-reflective barcode labels can be scanned from a much longer distance than traditional barcode labels. Because they can be scanned from greater distances, retro-reflective barcode labels can be placed at greater heights and expand the amount of usable rack space in many warehouses. Below, we’ll cover the key considerations to weigh when selecting barcode labels for your applications.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

An Introduction to Barcodes

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

Barcodes were first introduced more than 40 years ago and continue to play an important role in product, inventory, and asset management. A barcode is a printed graphic that is used to represent numbers or various characters. The classic 2-dimensional format for a barcode uses lines (vertical bars) and spaces, while newer designs such as QR codes use a series of blocks to represent the data. These codes can be used with barcode scanners or mobile apps to quickly share information between a tagged item and an electronic system. By scanning a barcode, operators can instantly access detailed product information, transfer assets, or perform a number of data collection and documentation tasks.

How Barcode Labels Work

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

A barcode label should be paired with a hardware scanner and electronic system that support the barcode symbology. Some businesses may have a number of different scanners or platforms that are all compatible with the barcode symbologies your company uses. For instance, handheld barcode scanners can be used throughout a facility to quickly scan assets to document inventory or other information, and field teams may use mobile devices with barcode scanning applications to document maintenance activities or efficiently document the transfer of inventory or assets between locations or work sites.

Some barcode scanners utilize a laser to detect the pattern on a barcode label and convert it into a series of characters within the software. These barcode scanners are only compatible with 1-dimensional barcodes. Omni-directional barcode scanners also use lasers, but in a complex mixed-grid pattern rather than a straight line, allowing them to read both 1D and 2D barcodes. Others use image capture and sophisticated digital image processing functionality to read and interpret 1D and 2D barcodes.

Most people are familiar with the UPC barcodes used to track products in retail businesses, but barcode labels are also widely used in warehouse, factory, and laboratory settings. A barcode label is used to quickly identify, or confirm the identity of, an item, whether it’s a container storing a specific part or type of inventory, a piece of equipment, or a device or another moveable asset used in business processes. Typically, the data from the barcode corresponds to the item, part, or inventory number of the item for easy tracking.

The Components of a Barcode

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

A barcode label will usually contain the barcode graphic and a text description. In some cases, they may also be designed with a company logo or other graphic elements. The barcode image itself consists of 5 major parts that help scanners identify and read the proper area. These parts are:

  • A quiet zone or area with no graphics
  • A starting character
  • Data characters that make up the majority of the barcode data
  • A stop character
  • An additional quiet zone or empty space

When a barcode is properly formatted in this way, a compatible scanner can quickly read and record the information with a minimal amount of effort or rescans. Barcode label formats have been standardized for some use cases, but you will also find many variations that have been created for specific use cases. There are about 30 commonly used barcode symbologies, although there are potentially hundreds of possible barcode configurations. Standardization is essential for companies that operate multiple locations and need to transfer assets between sites, and some industries have implemented standards to ensure consistent marking and asset tracking across the industry. Here’s a look at a few of the main types of barcode symbologies:

  • Linear (numeric) barcodes, also called 1D barcodes, use a series of lines and spaces to encode data. The width of the lines and spaces are varied in order to define different characters. Some of these barcodes utilize only numbers, which makes for a very simple and streamlined inventory system. Numeric barcodes are very popular in retail settings and the publishing industry. Some common linear numeric codes include UPC, EAN, and POSTNET formats.
  • Linear (alpha-numeric) barcodes can also store alpha-numeric characters, which greatly expands the number of potential item variations. These are very often used in retail and industrial environments. Some common linear alpha-numeric codes include Plessey, Code 39, and LOGMARS formats.
  • 2-Dimensional (2D) barcodes utilize squares instead of lines to encode data, allowing them to store up to 7, 089 characters. This has made them a very popular choice for modern technology, including today’s smartphones. There are two main 2D barcode styles which are the most popular, QR codes and Data Matrix codes.
  • QR Codes use black squares arranged in a pattern on a white background and include 3 orientation markets for the scanner. Since these codes can store a great amount of alpha-numeric data they are often used in the entertainment and marketing industries to give consumers fast access to web pages with a simple scan.
  • Data Matrix Codes have a similar 2D design but do not contain the 3 orientation blocks. Instead, two sides of the barcode are each marked with a line. These codes have the advantage of requiring only a small label area and are used in the aerospace and defense industries to mark very small items that require tracking.

Understanding these different types of barcodes and symbologies can help you select one that makes the most sense for your application. Always confirm the compatibility with any existing scanning hardware and system you may be using.

Common Types of Barcode Labels

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

Barcode labels can be used in just about any process within a factory, warehouse, or business. Labels can often be fully customized to meet the unique needs of any application, but there are a variety of barcode labels designed for certain use cases. Here are a few of the most popular barcode label categories:

  • Asset Barcode Labels. Asset tracking is one of the most popular uses for barcode labels. These labels can be attached to any item and used for identification, tagging, and tracking purposes. Companies can easily monitor their inventory by scanning items as they enter or leave a facility.
  • UID Barcode Labels. Unique Identification (UID) labels are used in applications within the defense industry, which is governed by regulations such as MIL-STD-130. UID labels have been designed to meet the strict requirements in place for the design and use of asset tracking tags. The material and coating for these labels have also been selected to provide the durability and performance needed in demanding military and defense environments.
  • Warehouse Barcode Labels. Tracking items within a warehouse requires a high level of organization and proper planning. Warehouse labels can be used to mark the floor, racks, containers, or other important areas of the building. You will find a wide variety of barcode labels and signage available to accommodate these different locations.
  • Durable Barcode Labels. Some industrial applications can expose equipment and labels to very harsh conditions. Exposure to extreme temperatures, harsh chemicals, and abrasion can all have an adverse effect on a label surface. Durable barcode labels have been designed to withstand even the most intense conditions.
  • Security Barcode Labels. When marking assets that may be prone to theft or tampering, a security label can be used to add an additional level of protection. These labels are impossible to remove without leaving clear evidence of tampering behind. They are often used to mark high-value items such as laptops and other moveable equipment.

Where Barcode Labels Are Used

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

Barcode labels play a central role in managing asset, inventory, and maintenance activities for businesses of all sizes. Facilities managers are constantly looking for new strategies that can help increase operational efficiency, and a barcode label system is often an obvious and cost-effective choice. Barcode labels are a proven technology for reliable tracking and process improvement across many industries.

Barcode labels are particularly helpful for businesses that operate massive networks of assets across a wide geographic range. Keeping track of so many moving parts can be daunting without a standardized system. An asset tracking platform with barcode labels can even be used to facilitate the transfer of goods between suppliers, manufacturers, retail locations, and to end consumers. Among the countless industries that utilize barcode labels, these are a few of the industries that make up some of the largest users:

When considering how to implement barcode labels within your business, always take the time to review any industry regulations which may define the style of label that you should use. Both industry and government institutions may have standards in place that must be followed in order to remain compliant.

Choosing the Right Barcode Label

The Ultimate Barcode Label Buying Guide

When it comes to selecting a label for your application, there are several crucial choices to make. Barcode label styles usually have various substrates, barcode symbologies, sizes, and finishes to choose from. When making your selection, here are a few great tips to keep in mind:

  • Choosing the Substrate. Before you decide on a substrate, think through the environments your labels may be exposed to. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to select a barcode label that is not compatible with the asset’s operating or storage conditions. In the vast majority of office and retail locations, this may not be a concern, but it’s critical for industrial applications and situations where labeled items are transported. You should also think about how long you plan to use these labels, as materials will each have a different expected lifespan for interior or exterior use. Also, consider any unique specifications for placement of your labels, such as contoured surfaces, that may require a flexible material to be used.
  • Choosing the Barcode Symbology. As mentioned, a barcode symbology should be selected that’s compatible with your scanning hardware and any software systems you are using. Some systems may have limitations on compatible symbologies or the formatting for information that can be extracted from a barcode into the software.
  • Choosing a Size. The size of a barcode label can have a dramatic impact on the optimal scanning range. More specifically, the x-dimension, or horizontal distance, of the barcode graphic itself is the most important factor affecting scanning distance. The label size can also impact how much text you can add to the label and if there’s sufficient space for adding other images or logos. Where you plan to place the labels and how they will be oriented can also impact the ideal size of a barcode label.
  • Choosing the Finish. Additional options include selecting any color graphics for your barcode labels and confirming if the printing method is acceptable given your quantity needs. You can also select an attachment method, which is usually offered as a permanent, pressure-sensitive adhesive or mechanical attachment method. Some labels, such as those with a retro-reflective coating, can extend the scanning distance even further. Other coatings, such as Teflon-coated Metalphoto® aluminum, can add even greater durability to a label design.

Buying the right barcode labels doesn’t have to be complex, but it should certainly consider all the important factors including your scanning hardware, software systems, facility, assets, and processes. With careful planning, you can choose the ideal barcode labels suitable for your application that will fit perfectly within your asset management workflow and provide reliable tracking for many years to come.

Further Reading About Barcode Label Buying

For more information about buying barcode labels, visit the following resources:

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