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Bar Codes

What is a bar code?

A bar code is a pattern of dark bars and white spaces of varying widths that represent numbers, letters or punctuation symbols.

The encodation scheme defining the data represented by the bars and spaces is called a symbology, there are many symbologies available.

Bar code labels are read with a scanner, which measures reflected light and translates the code into numbers and letters that are then passed on to a computer.

What are the benefits of bar coding?

  • Fast data collection. A bar code scanner typically can record data five to seven times as fast as a skilled typist. (Just think of the speed improvement over the hunt and peck method.)
  • 10,000 times better accuracy. Keyboard data entry creates an average of one error in 300 keystrokes. Bar code data entry has an error rate of about 1 in 3 million.
  • Reduced labor cost. Skilled workers don't have to spend time manually entering long item numbers.
  • Reduced Revenue Losses from Data Entry Errors. This benefit often surpasses the savings in labor costs. Bar codes help prevent incorrect part numbers from being entered on to invoices and sale receipts.
  • More Accurate Inventory Levels. Using bar codes is one of the best ways to reduce inventory levels and save on capital costs. Keeping a tight handle on inventory can save significant amounts of money.
  • Better Decision Making. A bar code system can easily gather information that would be difficult or impossible to gather in other ways. This allows managers to make fully informed decisions.
  • Faster Access to Information. This benefit goes hand in hand with better decision making. With better information, you can gain opportunities and get the jump on competition

How do I make a bar code?

There are two ways to create a bar code.

The first, and preferred, method is using label design software. There are many different software packages available to suit different needs. Software allows control over the barcode and human readable. In most cases label design software also allows easy integration of incrementing numbers, linked fields, graphics and databases. See our software page for more information on available programs.

The second option is to use a barcode font. This works like any other True Type font on your pc and can be used with any program that allows TT Fonts. The disadvantage is that the font allows no control over bar code height and the human readable information which usually appears below.

What are Symbologies?

A symbology is equivalent to a language. Each symbology has its strengths and weaknesses. Some symbologies have restrictions on the type and/or amount of data they can encode into a bar code.

The following is a list of some of the most common symbologies:

  • UPC-A
    UPC (Universal Product Code) is the standard code for items for sale to the public. This is the code that is seen on items in the supermarket. UPC-A encodes 12 numeric digits, the twelfth being a check digit.

  • UPC-E
    Also known as the "zero suppression version UPC", the UPC-E is used in the retail industry for smaller packages where the UPC-A would not fit. The data must contain 7 numeric digits with the software calculating the 8th, which is a check digit.

  • EAN 8
    Used in the international retail industry. The data must contain 7 numeric digits. The software will determine the 8th digit.

  • EAN 13
    Also used in the international retail industry. The data must contain 12 numeric digits. The program will calculate the 13th digit, which is a check digit.

  • Code 39
    This code is also the most popular symbology in the non-retail world and is used extensively in manufacturing, distribution, military, and health applications. It can be read by almost any bar code reader. Alpha-numeric.

  • Code 128
    Used by many industries for inventory control. Data is of variable length and can be alpha-numeric. Code 128 is more condensed than Code 39, and therefore preferred when longer information needs to be coded.

  • UCC/EAN 128 / Multi
    This is a specialized application of the Code 128 symbology which requires data to be numeric only. The exact specifications of what each piece of the data means varies between industries. The Multi option requires more exacting input; but as a result allows data entry functions to be automated.

  • Interleaved 2 Of 5
    Used in many types of industry, the data can be of any length but must contain an even number of characters, otherwise the printer will add a leading zero. It accepts only numeric values.

  • Codabar
    Used primarily in the library and medical industries, this symbology allows data of variable length and can contain both numbers and characters.

What are 2-D Bar Code?

2-Dimensional Bar Codes

2-D means 'two dimensional'. 2-D barcodes contain more information than conventional one dimensional barcodes. Conventional barcodes get wider as more data is encoded. 2D barcodes make use of the vertical dimension to pack in more data.

There are two types of 2D bar codes currently in use: stacked codes and matrix codes. Stacked codes are arranged in horizontal layers to create what looks like a multi-row bar code. Matrix codes are made up of a pattern of cells that can be square, hexagonal or circular in shape.

The advantages of this 2D symbology is that it can encode a great deal of information into a relatively small space.

The disadvantage is that most conventional CCD and Laser scanners cannot read 2D barcodes but instead you require a linear imager (also know as 2-D scanner). Also often a higher resolution printer is required to produce these barcodes.

Which Symbology is right for my application?

Choosing a Symbology can be confusing when first getting into bar coding.

First, try to determine if your particular industry has established standards for bar coding. If you are getting bar codes printed because one of your customers or distributors requires it, they can most likely supply you with description of what you need to produce. A bit of research in the front end could eliminate a lot of confusion and extra costs later on.

Code 39 is perhaps the most commonly used general purpose bar code. It can handle alpha-numeric data of any length. It can also be read by the majority of bar code scanners without any special programming. If you are bar coding your stock for inventory purposes this is the right one for you. For longer data, Code 128 can be used to produce a more compact bar code.

In the retail environment, the UPC-A code is standard. Most retail stores require your product have a UPC number for them to accept your goods for sale.

Codabar is often used for libraries, blood banks and air parcel express applications.

If you will be coding only numeric data or need a condensed numeric code, try Interleaved 2 of 5 or Code 128C. With either of these symbologies, you will need an even number of digits, but either one of these symbologies will give you good compression of your data.

If you require a lot of information on a relatively small label. A 2-D bar code maybe your best choice. Often used for tagging insects and other small samples.

Where do I get an ISBN number?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a system of numerical identification for books, pamphlets, educational kits, microforms, CD-ROM and braille publications. By assigning a unique ten-digit number to each published title, the system provides that title with its own, unduplicated, internationally recognized "identity".

Publishers, booksellers, libraries and other participants in the book industry use ISBN to identify publications in order to expedite their handling and retrieval. ISBN ensures that ordering, inventory control and accounting are executed more efficiently.

For further information, contact:

Canadian ISBN Agency
National Library of Canada

Once you have an ISBN number assigned to you Barcode Technologies can print labels (peel and stick) for you or produce an electronic file of the bar code that can be incorporated into your cover artwork.

What is a SCC-14 Code?

Shipping Container Codes (SCC14s) or Case Codes

If your distributor/customer requests that you place bar codes on cases of product , you must first ask the following question: Is the product being sold by the case at point of sale?

If YES, than a unique 12-digt UPC (UCC-12) is required (see UPC information)

If NO, then you are to assign an EAN/UCC-14 (SCC-14) to your cases.

Assigning a SCC-14 Number

A 14-digit number called the EAN/UCC-14 (SCC-14) identifies standard shipping containers. There are two conventions surrounding the assignment of 14 digit Shipping Container Codes/GTINs.

The following is by far the most common in Canada:

The 14 digit number is derived from the first 11 digits of the UCC-12 (UPC) number on the consumer unit, preceded by 2 digits, one a packaging indicator (PI) and the second a filler 0. The UCC-12 (UPC) check digit is re-calculated and added as the last or 14th digit.

Packaging indicators are used to identify different-sized containers containing the same item. You set the packaging indicators for your own products using the numbers 0 to 8.

  • Zero (0) is used when the shipping container is also the packaging for the consumer item, e.g. on a single item such as a television
  • Alternatively Zero (0) can also be used for cases (example 12 can box, sold as a case). In this example a new Item Reference number is assigned (different than the Item Reference number of the product inside the case.
  • 1 - 8 To allow flexibility in the way they are used in different industries, the numbers 1 to 8 have not been strictly defined. However, they are usually used in the following way:
    • 1 for the first level of packaging or when there is only one shipping container size
    • 2 - 8 for inner packs or additional shipping container sizes
    • 9 Nine is used when additional information about weight or quantity is encoded.

Custom labels (PARS, RMD and PAPS)

Most cross border shipments will need a bar coded label or face possible delays in clearing their shipments.

Canada Customs requires one of two types of labels: PARS or RMD. A 4-digit carrier code is assigned by Canada Customs to companies transporting goods into Canada. This number becomes part of the label, along with a sequential series of numbers.

PARS labels are generally single copy of each number and have the word PARS as part of the bar code. RMD labels are placed on a five page form, thus require 5 copies of each number. Your customs broker can help you determine which label you need.

Details can be obtained from the Canada Border Services Agency

PARS Label

US Customs requires PAPS labels for shipments going into the USA. A four letter SCAC code is assigned to your company and is followed by incrementing numbers plus a check digit.

Details can be obtained from the National Motor Freight Traffic Association, Inc.

PAPS Label

The most common size we print is a 3"x1" label. Barcode Technologies can also print many other sizes, to meet your requirements. Your company name may appear on the label if you wish.

We offer quick 5 working day service and competitive pricing.

Please call if you require further information (204) 697-2880 or 1-800-565-3995 or email:

*Note* Keep in mind that because RMD and PAPS labels require multiple copies of each number 1000 labels may mean only 200 unique numbers if you require 5 copies of each number.

Universal Product Code (UPC) Bar Code

What is a UPC number?

UPC stands for Universal Product Code. As with any bar code, the UPC is an arrangement of parallel lines (bars) and spaces that vary in width to represent data.

A unique Company Prefix number is assigned to a distributor or manufacture. Since the number is unique they can sell their product to any retails store with without any chance of the bar code number being the same as another manufacture's bar code. This allows retail stores to use manufacture's codes instead of having to re-label incoming items.

The 12 digit UPC number represented by the bar code symbol consists of three parts: Company Prefix, Item Reference Number and Check Digit.

The Company Prefix Number - GS1 of Canada is responsible for the accurate assignment and annual license of a 6 or 8 digit Company Prefix. This Prefix is for the exclusive use of the company to whom it is assigned.

The Item Reference Number - the next group of numbers is assigned and managed by the Company Prefix holder to uniquely identify each product or service

The Check Digit - a single digit needed by the scanner to ensure that the complete number has been correctly composed.

Where do I get a UPC (retail bar code) number?

In Canada, to receive your unique Universal Product Code Identification Number you need to contact GS1 of Canada.

GS1 maintains the UPC system and distributes manufacturer identification numbers to Canadian companies. Your Company Prefix is globally unique, so your products and shipments will be linked back to you wherever they travel, around the world.

A six or eight digit number, unique to your company, will be assigned to you by GS1. This manufacturer ID number enables you to place bar codes on up to 100,000 unique products by assigning a reference number.

Contact Barcode Technologies for information on us printing UPC labels for you or the possibility of purchasing a thermal printer to create your one bar codes..

How do I assigning a reference numbers?

While the company prefix is assigned to you the rest of the UPC number is up to you.

A 6-digit Company Prefix allows you to create up to 100,000 unique UPC (UCC-12) numbers. Item Reference numbers 00000 to 99999

An 8-digit Company Prefix allows you to create up to 1,000 unique UPC (UCC-12) numbers. Item Reference numbers 000 to 999


Allocating reference numbers to items can be a bit intimidating. Here are a few suggestions when assigning your Item Reference numbers:

  • Keep it simple. For example, start with 00001 or 001 and simply increment the number by one for the next product.
  • Allow for the possibility of acquiring other products. Incrementing by hundreds or thousands will spread your numbers out nicely but it will make it more challenging to add future numbers.
  • Every variation of an item should be assigned a new number whenever it is significant to the consumer. Example color changes, different quantities per package, different flavours, etc.
  • New Item Reference numbers are not needed for price changes to an otherwise unchanged item, nor for minor modifications when an item is simple a newer version replacing the same item

How is the UPC check digit calculated?

Below are the details of the formula used for finding the MOD 10 check digit used by the UPC-A bar code. Label design software will perform the calculation for you.

UPC number is as shown below
The :"?" represents the unknown check digit

(A) Starting from the left hand side of the bar code, add together every other digit, ignoring the check digit position. So add the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth digits.

1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 + 2 = 27

(B) Multiply the result from step (A) by 3.

27 X 3 = 81

(C) Add together the remaining digits (second, fourth, sixth and eighth digits)

2 + 4 + 6 + 8 + 1 = 21

(D) Add the results of steps (B) and (C)

81 + 21 = 102

(E) Find the number which, when added to the result from step (D), will generate a number that is evenly divisible by 10.

102 + ? = 110

? = 8

Does the UPC number identify the country of origin of a product?

No. The UPC number does not identify the country of origin of a product. The Company Prefix portion of a UPC only identifies which GS1 member country has assigned the number for use.

Is there a minimum and maximum size for a UPC?

The nominal size of a UPC is 100% Magnification Factor or 1.469 inches wide (from the far left hand side number to the far right hand side number) by 1.02 inches tall (from the top of the bar code to the bottom of the human readable numbers).

This sizing ensures that retail scanners will be able to scan the bar code without any difficulties.

The size can be reduced for smaller items to the minimum size of 80% of the nominal size and increased for larger items to the maximum size of a UPC of 200% of the nominal size.

            80%                               100%                                              200%
    Minimum Size              Nominal Size                              Maximum Size

What if I don't have enough room on my package for the minimum UPC size?

The recommended step is to change your layout to accommodate the minimum size bar code. If you have no other choice, you can "truncate" or cut down the height of the bar code. However, truncation is not recommend truncation and major retailers may apply non-compliance fines for truncated bar codes.

History of the UPC

Bar codes, or Universal Product Codes (UPCs), made their first appearance on product packaging in 1974. The first item ever scanned was a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

An industry study conducted in 1975 forecast that the UPC would save the food industry $1.43 billion. In fact, it now saves the industry $17 billion per year - the equivalent of 5.65% of sales. The actual savings are nearly 50 times greater than what was forecast by the original business case.

General merchandise retailers have made even better use of the UPC for inventory management and marketing. Where one item can come in a myriad of colours and sizes, UPCs can do the job of uniquely identifying each and every variation. Retailers have reported a decrease of 65% in stock shortages over the last 10 years because of the UPC (source: Wal-Mart).

New developments in automatic data capture hold the promise of even greater savings. New Reduced Space bar code symbologies now allow for the bar coding of small items such as produce and syringes and vials. RFID technology may challenge the bar code as the technology of choice for product identification. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto ID Centre, in cooperation with industry is developing an electronic product code called the ePC.

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