Everyone is familiar with barcodes – the black-and-white codes featuring a series of parallel lines that a cashier scans in the checkout line – but QR codes are also becoming widely known and recognized. Both QR codes and barcodes store information about an item or product in a machine-readable format that can be easily scanned with a barcode scanner or, more recently, many smartphones (when equipped with a barcode-scanning app or QR code reader).
When it comes to labeling inventory, parts, equipment, and consumer products, does one offer more advantages over the other? The choice between a barcode and QR code is typically dependent on a few variables, such as the amount of data that needs to be stored in the code, the type of item or product being labeled, and other considerations. We’ve put together this guide to help you differentiate between barcodes and QR codes and identify the applications for which each is best-suited.
What is a Barcode?
A barcode is a small, two-dimensional code featuring a series of lines (or bars) and spaces (typically white spaces of varying sizes with black lines of varying thickness). The specific sequence of bars and spaces are readable by a machine (a barcode scanner) and represent numbers and other symbols. There are generally five components of a barcode:
- Quiet zone
- Start character
- Data characters (with an optional check character)
- Stop character
- Additional quiet zone
Types of 1D Barcodes
The most basic type of barcode is known as a 1D (or one-dimensional) barcode, and it’s been around since 1974 in retail applications, while some sources state that the 1D barcode originated in the 1960s in industrial work environments. These barcodes can store text-based information, such as the type, size, and color of a product. Barcodes are widely recognized by the end consumer as the code that is scanned at the point-of-sale during a product purchase, comprising the upper portion of the UPC label (Universal Product Code) found on consumer packaging; the 12-digit number found below the barcode on a UPC label is the UPC number. In a UPC code, the barcode encodes several important numbers:
- The manufacturer’s identification number (first six digits)
- The item number (next five digits)
- The check digit (the final number, used to verify that the barcode was correctly scanned)
In addition to the widely recognized UPC label, one-dimensional barcodes can take a variety of other forms for various applications, including:
- EAN Codes: EAN codes are used for similar applications as the UPC code, primarily for consumer products, and like UPC codes, they’re designed for point-of-sale scanning. There are several variations of EAN codes (EAN-13, EAN-8, JAN-13, ISBN, and ISSN).
- ISBN Codes: ISBN codes are a variant of the EAN code and are used for books, representing the book’s ISBN number. They’re found on nearly all book covers.
- POSTNET: POSTNET (Postal Numeric Encoding Technique) codes are used by the U.S. Postal Service on mail and represent zip codes.
- Industrial 2 of 5: Industrial 2 of 5 codes are low-density and thus aren’t as widely used as other types of barcodes, although they are still used by some warehouses today.
- Interleaved 2 of 5: Interleaved 2 of 5 barcodes are used in the shipping industry as well as in warehousing. Industrial 2 of 5 codes (mentioned above) have spaces of fixed width, while Interleaved 2 of 5 codes do not have fixed-width spaces – allowing both the bar and space widths to be used in encoding information.
- Standard 2 of 5: Yet another variation of the Industrial 2 of 5 code, the Standard 2 of 5 code also has spaces of fixed width. It’s used infrequently today, but was once used for airline tickets, photofinishing, and for sorting in the warehouse industry.
- Codabar: Codabar barcodes are used in blood banks, in libraries, in photo labs, and by Federal Express. They’re also known as USD-4 and ABC Codabar.
- Code 11: These are high-density barcodes most frequently used to label equipment in the telecommunications industry. Code 11 is also known as USD-8. These barcodes can encode digits between 0 and 9, but they’re considered low-security barcodes as slight printing variations can skew the bars, causing them to scan as an incorrect but valid character.
The 1D barcode variations listed above represent numeric digits only. There are also several alpha-numeric variations (symbologies):
- Plessey Code: Used to mark grocery store shelves, the Plessey code has several variations including the MSI, Anker, and Telxon barcodes. The MSI barcode is still used today in the U.S. It can encode digits from 0 to 9 and the letters A through F.
- Code 39 (Code 3 of 9): Code 39 symbology is used for item identification, for inventory management purposes, and for tracking shipments.
- Code 128: A more compact version of Code 39, Code 128 is preferred due to its compact size for the same applications. It can encode digits 0 through 9 and letters A through Z, as well as all standard ASCII symbols.
- LOGMARS: Another variation of Code 39, LOGMARS (Logistics Applications of Automated Marking and Reading Symbols) is specific to the U.S. Department of Defense.
- Code 93: Yet another version of Code 39, Code 93 is also known as USS-93 and can encode the same characters as Code 39, although it supports the full ASCII.
Applications for 1D Barcodes
In addition to point-of-sale applications, 1D barcodes are also used for labeling raw materials and inventory management, providing a way to monitor inventory levels with less need for hands-on human intervention (and less room for human error). They’re also used by the postal service and throughout the shipping industry as a whole, providing a more accurate way to track packages and ensure delivery.
Additionally, barcodes are used to label and manage library books (and for ISBN codes on all books), for filing systems, and in a variety of other applications with the need to track and manage a large volume of inventory or supplies.
Advantages of 1D Barcodes
Barcodes are widely utilized due to a few distinct advantages:
- They are relatively inexpensive.
- They allow for more accurate inventory management compared to manual inventory methods.
- They enable speedy, efficient operations.
- They can increase a company’s profitability by reducing manual labor costs, improving inventory control, and speeding up the supply chain.
What is a QR Code?
The QR code (Quick Response Code) was first created for the automotive industry in Japan in 1994, making it an infant relative to the decades-old barcode. QR codes are two-dimensional (2D) barcodes, also known as matrix codes. The term “QR code” is actually a trademark for a specific type of two-dimensional matrix code, but its use is so widespread that “QR code” has become the de-facto face of the two-dimensional barcode (although there are other types of 2D barcodes as well).
QR codes and barcodes are both machine-readable, optical labels that store information about an item or product. Unlike the standard 1D barcode, QR codes can store information in two directions – horizontally and vertically – while 1D barcodes can only store information in one direction – horizontally. This allows them to hold much more information: a 1D barcode can typically store about 20 to 25 characters, although some variations can store more – the standard Code 39 barcode, for instance, can store up to 43 characters. A QR code, on the other hand, can store up to 2,509 numeric characters or 1,520 alpha-numeric characters, storing information such as:
- Email addresses
- Product details
- Website URLs
- Dates (such as calendar appointments)
- SMS messages
- Geolocation data
- Plain text
Applications for QR Codes
Thanks to their ability to store various types of information, QR codes are used for a variety of applications. You’ll find them on cereal boxes, posters, advertisements, on museum exhibits (connecting visitors to additional information about an exhibit), and even on business cards, allowing a contact to simply scan the QR code to input all the individual’s information, from their name and physical address to company name, phone number, website, and more.
While QR codes gained recognition due to their increasingly widespread use in marketing and consumer-facing applications, they can also be useful in industrial applications, such as:
- Operational instructions: QR codes can be used to convey operating instructions, procedures, and other information necessary for operating heavy equipment.
- Facilities management: They can be used to document schematics and other instructions for plumbing, wiring systems, and alarm systems, providing an easy way to communicate these details to contractors or maintenance workers.
- Maintenance and repairs: QR codes may be used to submit requests for maintenance service or as a way to easily document that routine maintenance has been performed, creating a complete audit trail of service and repair records.
- Regulatory compliance: In industrial applications, equipment and machinery often requires periodic inspection, regular maintenance, and permits or licenses to comply with regulatory requirements. QR codes can be utilized to store this information and make it readily accessible.
There are several innovative uses of QR codes in municipal and construction settings, such as placing QR codes on construction signage to direct people to information that addresses community concerns or QR codes that auto-dial emergency services when scanned. Some municipalities are using QR codes to connect to building permits and to provide citizens with easy access to information about building projects, such as the property owner, the scope of work for a construction site, and related projects. Some localities are even using QR codes to create a virtual walking tour of the city.
Note, however, that regulatory guidelines in some industries require the use of specific symbology, colors, and text, and storing such information in a QR code in lieu of having the full required signage in visible format (without the need to scan a QR code) may not meet regulatory requirements. Industrial safety signs are one example. When it comes to safety, expediency is key, necessitating clear, concise, and readily digestible safety warnings and important information – such as fire exits. It’s not realistic to expect individuals to scan QR codes (or 1D barcodes, for that matter) to find the nearest fire exit, making QR codes impractical for such applications. However, QR codes may be used to supplement required signage in some industrial applications, provided that the appropriate signage is also present.
Advantages of QR Codes
2D barcodes, as a whole, are considered more secure, as the information they store is easily encrypted and allows for less room for error. QR codes, specifically, have three levels of error-detection built-in. The minimum size for QR codes is 21-by-21 cells. They can increase in size in increments of 4-by-4 cells, with a maximum size of 105-by-105 cells.
The QR code’s claim to fame is that they bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds. While first introduced in 1994, they didn’t gain much ground for the next several years. But by 2006, nearly 100% of mobile users had smartphones capable of scanning QR codes, providing unprecedented opportunities for brands to connect and share information with consumers or users.
Still, while they’re increasingly being used in a variety of applications, QR codes have yet to fully realize their potential in this context. Most smartphones today can scan both QR codes and 1D barcodes (such as UPC codes) with an app, but the newest models are coming with some baked-in QR scanning capabilities. As they become easier for end consumers to use they are likely to become even more prominent in consumer-facing applications. For instance, Google Chrome announced in February 2017 that the mobile version of its browser will now come with built-in scanning functionality – but notably, this functionality applies not only to QR codes, but to 1D barcodes, as well. In other words, those who use the Chrome browser on their mobile devices will no longer need to download a separate application to scan barcodes and QR codes.
Readability: Analyzing Potential Readability Issues
QR codes may be considered easier to scan compared to 1D barcodes, as they can be scanned in any direction, whereas 1D barcodes have to be scanned from the proper angle. A linear barcode scanner cannot read a 2D barcode, although an imager scanner can read both 1D and 2D barcodes.
That said, readability issues (the ability of a barcode scanner to scan and decode data in a barcode) are a concern with both 1D and 2D barcodes, and they often suffer from similar technical and environmental variables, such as:
- Low contrast: Barcode scanners (both linear scanners and imagers) require high contrast in order to scan a barcode or QR code accurately. Barcodes or QR codes printed on dark backgrounds, for instance, often suffer from readability issues. Variations in the consistency of markings or printing methods, as well as a lack of uniformity in the background or substrate material, can create contrast issues. Additionally, contrast can be impacted by environmental factors such as lighting conditions. For example, lighting conditions that cause shadows or reflections on the substrate can impact readability. While both 1D barcodes and QR codes can suffer from poor contrast, 1D barcodes typically require a higher contrast compared to QR codes and other 2D barcodes.
- Inadequate quiet zones: All barcodes require quiet zones, or white space surrounding the barcode or symbol. All types of barcodes have minimum quiet zone requirements. If other content (text, images, or other elements) breach the quiet zone, a barcode reader may interpret those marks as being part of the barcode, resulting in inaccurate decoding. In other cases, scanners may be unable to decode the symbol at all. In 1D barcodes, the quiet zone is generally a minimum of 10 times the width of the narrowest bar and extends to both the left and right of the symbol. In 2D barcodes, such as QR codes, the quiet zone is present on all four sides of the symbol. The general rule of thumb for 2D barcodes is that the quiet zone should be at least the width of one cell on all sides, although best practice is a width of 10% of the height or width of the symbol.
- Printing/marking inconsistencies: Many readability issues result from printing or marking inconsistencies. In addition to creating poor contrast or resulting in markings that breach the quiet zone, inconsistencies in marking may result in skewed symbols or shape or uniformity issues, all of which can render a symbol unreadable.
- Distorted symbols: It’s not always a flaw in the printing or marking methodology that creates readability issues. 1D and 2D barcode symbols, including QR codes, can be distorted after the fact due to damage. Scratches, exposure to condensation, debris, stains, and other environmental effects can lead to distorted symbols that are unreadable or decoded inaccurately by a barcode reader.
- Scanning angle: As mentioned, 1D barcodes must be scanned from the proper scanning angle, and they must be scanned horizontally. With linear barcode scanners, that means that the laser line must extend horizontally across the entire width of the symbol.
- Scanning distance: The barcode scanner’s capabilities also play a role; some scanners can decode symbols from greater distances, and some require a minimum distance to decode a symbol. This is known as “depth of field,” referring to the closest scanning distance to the farthest scanning distance.
These potential pitfalls can be managed in several ways:
- Choosing the right barcode symbology for your application. Both 1D barcodes and QR codes have many applications. If you need to store more data than an identification number in a symbol, for instance, QR codes are more suitable. That said, 1D barcodes containing item ID numbers are often connected to a database, allowing users to readily access other data about an item or asset with a single scan, as well.
- Procuring high-quality barcode labels using quality substrate materials and reliable printing and marking processes to ensure appropriate durability for your application. In industrial applications in which barcodes may be exposed to moisture, extreme temperatures or inclement weather, abrasives, harsh cleaning solutions, or other hazards, you should opt for labels with the durability to withstand these elements over the expected lifespan of the asset.
- Utilizing the right barcode scanning technology for your symbology and application requirements. For instance, if your organization needs to scan items at a variety of angles, an imager is a better option than a linear barcode scanner, providing greater flexibility in scanning angles and orientation. If you’re utilizing QR codes, linear scanners are incapable of decoding these symbols.
- Ensuring that attachment methods don’t obscure or interfere with the symbology. As an example, a barcode label that relies on mechanical attachments should have enough space to allow for holes, bolts, or other attachments while still maintaining the minimum quiet zone.
Choosing the Right Barcode Scanning Technology
There are a variety of considerations in choosing a barcode scanner, such as handheld vs. fixed-location barcode scanners, wired and wireless models, and scanning distance. In addition to linear barcode readers and imagers, omni-directional scanners are another option. Like laser barcode readers, they use a laser, but in a mixed-grid pattern rather than a single straight laser line. Some omni-directional barcode scanners are capable of reading 2D barcodes. Additionally, many smartphones are now capable of scanning both 1D and 2D barcodes, either with the aid of a downloadable app or as a native capability.
There are other advantages and disadvantages between lasers and imagers, including:
- Imagers are less tolerant of motion (consider the blurred effect you often get when trying to take a still photo of action). Laser scanners allow for rapid data capture, making them more motion-tolerant and ideal for fast-paced environments.
- Imagers, however, are better at scanning at varying angles compared to laser scanners. Imagers are getting better in this regard; some advanced imagers and smartphones are better able to decode blurry images than early imagers.
- Laser scanners are typically better for long-distance scanning. The scanning distance is also dependent on the symbol – larger barcodes, naturally, are more easily scanned from greater distances, and barcodes with more spacing between the bars are better-suited for long-range scanning.
- Imagers are better for decoding faded, damaged or low-quality (poor contrast, inconsistent markings, etc.) barcodes.
The Bottom Line: Barcodes or QR Codes?
There are many applications in which there is no definitive correct choice between 1D barcodes and QR codes. When you simply need to store an item identification number or connect to information in a database about a product or item, 1D barcodes are a suitable choice.
When you need to store larger amounts of data and make that information accessible to others (inspectors, citizens, etc.) who do not have access to the database where additional information is stored, QR codes are a valuable tool for making such information easily accessible. They’re also a space-saving solution when you need to provide ready access to product specifications, instruction manuals, or procedures but lack the room for larger labels and signage on the item.
A careful analysis of your application requirements, regulatory compliance concerns, the feasibility of including additional labels and signage for compliance, and your barcode scanning technology (or ability to upgrade to the necessary scanning technology) will help you to select the right symbology for your needs.