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How Does a Barcode Reader Work?

Conal Yarwood-Frost
2 Feb 2022

Of all the technological advances made in the last century, barcodes are perhaps one of the most overlooked and undervalued of them all. Few other inventions have had such a quiet and yet transformative effect on our day-to-day lives. 

For such an everyday technology, barcodes have had an incredible impact. The retail industry in particular has enjoyed the benefits that came with barcode readers. Customer service is faster, transactions are smoother, and stock loss is mostly mitigated. 

In this blog, we’ll explore what barcodes are, how they’re used, and how barcode readers work. 

What is a barcode?

In simple terms, a barcode is a collection of specific lines that represent a string of numbers. Each item for sale in a shop will have its own unique product code. By scanning this code with a barcode scanner, the item can be identified in the shop’s electronic point of sale (EPOS) inventory system.  

Barcodes were first patented in 1951 and were invented by American inventors Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver. Barcodes were based on morse code and was originally presented in a “bullseye” shape. While they were initially met with little commercial interest, barcodes took off in the 70s when supermarket chains began to use them in their checkout systems [1].

While there are a variety of different types of barcodes, most items use a universal product code (UPC). A UPC is the most commonly encountered barcode and consists of lines that represent numerals with the product code printed underneath. Most barcodes will also feature the product code just in case an employee needs to physically type in the number. 

While the UPC is the most basic barcode, there are a number of different types. These include barcodes that incorporate lines that can represent symbols and numerals as well as numbers.

 An increasingly popular alternative to the UPC is the 2D barcode. The 2D barcode can hold a lot more information than the traditional UPC and is most commonly found on self-printed postage stamps. Another good example of a 2D barcode are QR codes which since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic can be usually found on restaurant menus and check-in posters. 

As useful as barcodes are, if we didn’t have a way to read them they would be practically useless. Thankfully, the technology we need to decode them is readily available in the form of barcode readers. 

What is a barcode reader? 

In short, a barcode reader (also known as a barcode scanner) is an electronic device that scans, decodes, and captures the information represented by the barcode. In general, a barcode reader consists of: 

  • A lightsource - this lights up the barcode so that it can be read.
  • A lens - this is the part that reads the code.
  • Photo conductor - once the code is read, a photoconductor turns the optical information into electrical signals. 
  • Decoder - the decoder interprets the electrical signals and sends the information out from the reader’s output port into the business's EPOS system. 

Everyone who’s ever bought something in a shop will have interacted with a barcode scanner at some point. Depending on the industry and the needs of the business, there are several different types of barcode readers. While they operate the same way, they are quite physically different. These include: 

  • Handheld - these are the most commonly used readers. They can be both corded or wireless depending on the needs of the business.
  • Mobile computers - these cordless readers include a small in-built computer that can process codes in one device. 
  • Presentation - a hands-free scanner that is usually used to quickly scan multiple items.
  • In-counter - much the same as a presentation scanner but set into a kiosk or counter.
  • Fixed-mount - these readers use sensors to scan codes as the items pass in front of them. Most often found in factories and processing centres. 
  • Wearable - readers that are worn on the body. These are usually mounted on a finger or arm.
  • Mobile - a relativity modern invention. These are mobile phones that use their camera and a barcode reader app to scan codes. 

How do barcode readers work?

For most people, a barcode reader is a very simple piece of technology to operate. Despite this, the way readers work is actually quite sophisticated. In our explanation of how they work, we will try to keep things as simple as possible.

The process behind a barcode reader scanning a barcode can be broken down into five steps: 

  1. The reader shines a light source, usually an LED or laser light, onto the barcode.
  2. The light is reflected back into the machine and is captured by a specialised component. This is the reason barcodes are black and white as these two colours and the least and most reflective respectively. 
  3. As the reader is moved along the barcode, the reflected light generates an on-off pulse.
  4. This pulse is interpreted by the reader and is converted into numbers.
  5. The numbers are then fed into the computer attached to the scanner and matched to the corresponding item.

This simple-seeming process has made both the business and customer experience incredibly easy. Thanks to barcodes, it’s easier than ever to make transactions and keep track of inventory management.

EPOS as simple as scanning a barcode 

Behind every good barcode scanner is a great EPOS system. The Epos Now Complete Solution offers everything you need to keep your business thriving. 

With Epos Now, you’ll be able to: 

  • Review profitability reports based on individual product performance, trending items, best and worst sellers, and employee sales
  • View sales analyses on profit margin, cash flow, and other expenses
  • Access multi-award-winning inventory management systems that sync online sales and in-person sales for the most up-to-date stock levels
  • Automate stock purchasing so you never miss a sales opportunity
  • Create and send invoices using simple templates and a built-in VAT calculator
  • Customer management systems that save customer contact details and shopping preferences for more targeted marketing
  • Schedule emails and SMS messages to be sent at the most impactful time of day
  • Integrate with the business automation apps that are right for your business
  • Simplify employee management for more efficient scheduling and payroll

If you’d like to learn more about Epos Now, get in contact with our team today.

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