Data Intelligence: Barcodes: The Next Generation

March 1, 2009
The next generation of barcode symbols is already making an appearance.

If you haven’t already heard, barcodes aren’t dead yet. In fact, the next generation of barcode symbols is already making an appearance. The most shocking news is that these are linear barcodes, not 2D matrix symbols. That means they will be readable by laser-based point-of-sale (POS) terminals and handheld scanners.

The new family of barcodes is called GS1 DataBar (formerly known as RSS1). These symbols are slated to replace current UPC and EAN symbols on products and coupons over the next few years. However, the real intent is to expand the utility of GS1 barcode labeling for POS and general use.

There are seven variations of GS1 DataBar: omnidirectional, truncated, stacked, stacked omnidirectional, limited, expanded and expanded stacked. Their designations are fairly descriptive of their structure and intended use. Stacked, limited and truncated symbols will be used where space is at a premium. Omnidirectional symbols are designed for POS. Expanded offers the option of encoding additional data.

All these variations are designed to encode explicitly or implicitly a 14-digit Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) with a “01” application identifier (AI) in a space no larger than current GS1 symbols. In fact, some versions will require significantly less real estate, making it possible to label items such as loose produce or individual cosmetics.

More importantly, expanded versions of GS1 DataBar can encode up to 74 numeric or 41 alphanumeric characters, allowing for greater data content such as lot, batch, expiry or “best-by” date in a space similar to that required by current GS1 symbols. To help fit these symbols in small spaces, the requirement for a large “quiet zone” has been eliminated (although symbols have a leading or leading-and-trailing encoded space).

The enhanced capabilities of GS1 DataBar will permit greater traceability in the food and pharmaceutical supply chains, additional options for coupons, marking of small or loose items and improved variable weight/content marking. There is also a provision to flag the presence of an additional 2D component so no data is overlooked.

However, all these benefits come with some complexity. Unlike conventional linear barcodes, GS1 DataBar does not have a straightforward encodation pattern that can be followed in a linear manner. GS1 DataBar symbols are composed of individual segments. Data is encoded in these segments, which are combined to create the symbol. Internal indicators identify the order of each segment so they can be stacked or strung together in many ways. This also enables segments to be scanned in any order until all are read and decoded to yield the data.

The good news is the current generation of printers, imagers and scanners are already GS1 DataBar capable. The less-than-good news is those printing or reading GS1 DataBar symbols may have to modify their databases and printing routines to accommodate the data structures.

All GS1 DataBar symbols encode, at a minimum, a 14-digit GTIN with a “01” AI. In some cases, however, the AI is implied or data must be expanded to 14 digits. In other cases, additional data with appropriate AIs will also be encoded.

The challenge for those printing symbols will be to ensure the database is sending the right data to the right type of symbol. For those reading the symbols, the database must be able to accept the full GTIN and any additional data strings.

GS1 DataBar is coming soon. To prepare, visit

Bert Moore, a 20-year veteran of the AIDC industry, is director of IDAT Consulting and Education. Contact him at [email protected].

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