Using Two-Dimensional Barcodes

by Chris Challis on 02.02.2011 05:43
We’re all familiar with the barcodes on items we buy from the supermarket. We also see similar barcodes on electronic equipment, paperwork and other places. These typically contain a simple number that identifies the type of product, a serial number, or some other relatively short piece of information. Their use has dramatically improved the relevant business processes.

With smartphones, it’s now possible to use a downloaded app together with the camera to scan the barcode and do something useful with it. For example, in a retail context, it is possible to link to a price comparison website to see where the best deals are.

But these types of barcodes are limited to 10-20 characters before they become too long. So how can longer character sets be printed and scanned?

Two dimensional barcodes can provide up to 1500 or even 2500 characters. Traditional one-dimensional barcodes only store a short code that requires a look-up to a database to find the relevant details. 2D barcodes allow:
  • All the details to be stored in the barcode and read by a scanner system
  • Links to be made directly to website pages
There are a large number of different styles of 2D barcodes. These can be in a square, rectangular or circular format, and in black and white or colour. Two that have become international standards are: 


QR “Quick Response” codes: Popular in Japan where they were invented for tracking within manufacturing:


Datamatrix codes (Semacode): Popular in USA



Smartphones can also photograph 2D barcodes. By displaying them on the screen, they can be scanned. With smartphones now used by a significant and rising proportion of the population, especially amongst specific groups, there are many potential uses. These include various ways businesses can interact with their customers profitably:
  • Event ticketing – Online sales can be made much closer to the event without having to involve a box office. The screen image of the barcode is scanned at the event entrance.
  • In printed adverts – Allows customer to link to a website for further details. It also provides marketeers with statistics to compete with online advertising
  • On retail and other displays – Similarly links to a website for further details
  • For discount coupons – Customer scans the printed code, or is sent it by SMS or email. The business scans the image from the smartphone screen.
Smartphone-based applications like these are in their infancy. But 2D barcodes have been around many years and there are a number of proven uses within businesses: By using the appropriate style of barcode, examples include:
  1. Medical records – Containing the patients’ name, health care number, doctor’s name, date of admission, allergies, etc
  2. Parcel tracking – For routing information , including high-speed scanning in distribution centres
  3. Packing List – Details of products, quantities together with PO number and shipping date
  4. Manufacturing – Identification of components and finished products, including model number, serial number, batch number, use by dates etc
With so many possibilities for the profitable use of 2D barcodes, expect to see and use them increasingly in the coming months.