With the availability of fast, accurate barcode reading and
writing toolkits, it’s quite easy to include barcodes within your applications to
reliably transfer information. With some basic information about barcode technologies,
you can determine how their use could streamline your document-processing
workflows, which symbology best suits your specific needs, and how to maximize
their reliability. You can try out real barcodes using our web-based demo or
downloadable SDKs, and see how easily barcodes can be applied to improve various
document processing operations.
Why Barcodes Exist
When it comes right down to it, there’s one main reason for
barcodes: Machines have difficulty reading text. Although optical character recognition
(OCR) has come a long way, the wide variety of possible fonts, damage caused by
scanning and faxing, variations in viewing angles, and many other factors, will
always make a string of characters more difficult to reliably decode than
barcodes. The barcode standards impose strict guidelines on line widths, size,
shape, encoding, error detection and correction, and other characteristics, all
with the specific intent of reducing reading errors.
Happy Machines make Happy Workflows
So, if the primary reason for using a barcode is to improve
results of a machine reading it, how does that translate into more reliable
workflows? Many characteristics of barcodes make them ideal for passing
information via an image via faxing, scanning, and other operations. When data
can be reliably obtained by automated processing, there is far less manual
intervention required, greatly reducing the cost of importing that data. The
following features set barcodes above plain text for automated data acquisition:
- Barcodes are resilient – You can do a lot of
damage to a barcode, caused by things such as faxing several times, or
writing over it, yet still be able to read it accurately.
- Reading is very fast –
A top-quality product like Barcode Xpress can find all of the barcodes on
a page in just a few milliseconds. Performing OCR on that same page can
take hundreds of times as long…certainly up to several seconds or more. This
difference adds up quickly when you’re processing a large number of
- Barcodes can heal – Most 2D barcodes can survive
much more than just general damage. Using built-in redundancy and error
correction, many can be read even when some elements are completely missing.
The Data Matrix code to the right, for example, decodes with 100%
confidence even with a hole punched through it.
- Space-saving – A
typical 2D barcode can pack more information into the same space than the
text it contains, while remaining highly readable.
- Easily found – Barcode
reading software can locate and decode multiple barcodes anywhere on a
page, and in any orientation.
Common Barcode Uses
The general use case for barcodes is passage of data from images
to databases. When applied to documents, barcodes can serve many applications
based on this concept. Here are just a few of the many common ways that barcodes
are used to improve workflows:
The lowly patch code can only hold one of six different values
- Batch scanning – The simplest of all barcodes is the “patch
code” that has long been used as a document separator in batch scanning
applications. More complex barcodes can encode ID numbers, client names,
dates, document names, and other information. An operator or automated
system can use this added information to identify or classify a scanned
document. Often, a barcode is printed before scanning, and attached to the
first page of each new document. The decoded data can be used after
scanning for accurate indexing.
- Printed forms – If you
are designing a new form, and you want to instantly recognize it amongst
any collection of documents when filled-out forms are returned to you, simply
include a barcode identifying the form. Many government forms, business
reply cards, time sheets, and market surveys use pre-printed barcodes for
- Web based data collection –
Whenever an end user enters field data onto a Web form or PDF form
that will ultimately be printed out, there is an opportunity to create a
barcode on-the-fly that includes key components of the user data. After
that form is printed, faxed, copied, or mailed, the image enables reliable
capture of the data that the user entered.
- Data verification – Barcodes
can be used to increase the reliability of almost any process by adding a
second check. For example, many hospitals now scan and cross-check patient
wristbands, charts, and each medication dose as it is administered,
Selecting the Optimal Barcode Type
Obviously, if you don’t have the luxury of creating the
barcodes in your workflow, you’ll have to accept the choice of the original
system designer. If you are reading product codes, for example, you’ll need to
recognize standard UPC (in the United States) or EAN (in much of the rest of
the world) codes. Many existing 2D solutions use PDF417 to meet their requirements.
If you can choose whatever barcode will best meet your needs, however, the following
guidelines can help you narrow down your choices.
Choosing a Linear Solution
If you have a reasonably small amount of data to encode, less
than 20 or 30 characters, you may wish to pick a linear, or 1D, barcode. These
have the slight advantage of being recognizable by everyone as a barcode. Other
than that, in most situations a 2D solution would yield higher reliability
while consuming a smaller area. The best overall 1D choice for most new applications
is Code 128. It allows you to encode uppercase and lowercase alphabets, numeric
characters, and most ASCII control characters. Compared to most other 1D barcodes,
it is relatively compact, yet fairly reliable. Code 128 includes one check character,
reducing the likelihood of a false reading. The varying bar widths and relative
complexity of the start/stop sequences, compared with some 1D codes, also
reduce the chances that other data or images on the page might be falsely
interpreted as a barcode.
As a guideline, the desired height for a typical 1D barcode
should be at least 15% of its overall width, or 0.25 inches (0.64 cm),
whichever is greater. If you are controlling how the created barcode will be
processed (scanned or faxed, for example), you will want to make certain that
there will be, at the very least, three pixels representing the smallest
line-width in the code. Based on the vertical lines that it takes to represent
each character, this will require a minimum of about 33 pixels per character,
plus the start, stop, and checksum groups, which account for about another 105
pixels. Using these guidelines, a 10-character Code 128 should be at least 435
pixels wide and 65 pixels high. Naturally, this is the resolution you’ll need after
all processing, and you’ll always want to round up to be safe. Refer to my
earlier paper, Using Barcodes in Documents – Best Practices for more information on optimal barcode generation.
While Code 128 barcodes include a check character, there is
still a reasonable probability of reading it incorrectly. A single error in
decoding would always be detected, but if there are two errors the probability
is roughly one percent that it will not be discovered at all. This “false positive”
result could cause erroneous data to be entered into your database without any
warning. Also, none of the common 1D barcode types includes any error correction
at all. Unless your data can be cross-checked against a highly reliable data
source, you should consider a 2D barcode that nearly eliminates false positives
and adds the ability to actually correct errors.
The key strengths of 2D barcode formats are more capacity and error
correction. Whereas it’s uncommon to find applications of 1D barcodes
containing over 30 characters, it can be practical to encode even 500 or more
characters in some 2D barcodes, while it is possible to store more
than twice that many.
The Data Matrix code to the right, for example, contains 560
alphanumeric characters, and can be accurately read after scanning this page at
200 dpi. This is a reasonable scanner resolution setting for reproducing text
with good visual quality, but would be marginal for optimal OCR. Most people
would be unwilling to use a barcode much larger than this on their pages,
unless the primary purpose of the page is to pass electronic data. A sample Data
Matrix barcode containing 2,046 characters at approximately the same density would
take up about 3 inches by 3 inches, completely dominating any page layout.
A Data Matrix containing 560 characters, readable when scnaned at 200 dpi.
Data Matrix, and other 2D formats, go far beyond the basic
error detection of any linear barcode. Using Reed-Solomon encoding, redundancy
is built into the code when it’s created. These extra characters can be used
during the decoding process to reconstruct all of the data even when portions
of the original image are completely lost or destroyed. Thus, unlike a linear
barcode, where each character exists in only one section of the image, each character
is distributed across the image, and can often be recovered using the remaining
portions, if an area is lost. As a general rule, it is possible to retrieve all
of the data when up to 20% of the original image is affected. That ratio can be
increased further by forcing more rows and columns than the minimum necessary,
thus creating more redundancy, during the creation of the barcode.
Matrix codes are usually seen in a square format, the standard also allows for
several rectangular options. The barcode shown here, for example, contains 65
alphanumeric characters, arranged into a 16 row-high by 48 column-wide rectangle.
This format still contains valuable error detection and correction capabilities,
but may be easier to insert into your form design. It could just as easily be
placed vertically on the page.
Comparing the space required for the same data to be encoded
in a Code 128, PDF417, or Data Matrix barcode of approximately the same
readability, it can be seen that the Data Matrix barcode can be more easily integrated
when designing a new form.
Code 128, PDF417, and Data Matrix representations of "12345Abcde"
Because the smallest squares in the Data Matrix code are
still wider than the narrowest bars in the Code 128 barcode, it will be more
reliable in most cases. In general, the greater the smallest dimension of the
smallest element is, the more abuse it can stand. Both the PDF417 and Data
Matrix codes include redundant information that may be applied to attempt to
correct an erroneous character.
Just because you and I may not be able to decode a barcode just
by looking at it, don’t ever assume that a barcode can be used to secure or
hide sensitive data. As our samples demonstrate, almost anyone can easily
extract the contents of any standard barcode. If you’re providing some other method
of encryption before encoding a barcode, it is only that encryption that
provides any protection…you could just as well have printed that encoded
message as text or as a string of hexadecimal digits. You should never put any
information into a barcode that you would otherwise be unwilling to print directly
on a form.
If you’re choosing a 1D barcode, there are few benefits to
choosing another over the Code 128 recommended above. There may be more to
consider among the 2D options, as each has slightly different strengths. If
you’re creating barcodes, you should know that Barcode Xpress includes barcode
writing functions for 1D, PDF417, and Data Matrix. Note that the practical data
limit for 2D barcodes is roughly 500-800 characters.
| SUMMARY OF BARCODE FEATURES
|| Max. data
| Code 128
|| All ASCII
|| < 30 typ.
|| Detection only
|| Digits |
| Adjustable, |
| 5% to 95% of data
region can be used for error correction. Used mostly in the transportation
| Data |
| Default is about 30%; can increase by upsizing.
|| Resilient. Compact.
| Adjustable; adds from 2 to 512 |
| Larger than other
2Ds; bar width is small, but barcode locator is large.
| QR Code®
| Four levels from about 7% to 30%
|| Name “QR Code” requires
trademark acknowledgement to Denso Wave, Inc., but free to use.
Trying out Barcode Xpress
To see if your particular image can be decoded using Barcode
Xpress, you can use the Web demo at: demos.accusoft.com/barcodexpressdemo.
While this will give you quick results, it’s possible you can perform various
types of pre-processing on your images to further improve results on difficult
images. To perform more advanced testing, try out barcode writing, and see how
to build barcode processing into your own application, download the free trial
of the Barcode Xpress SDK. There are SDK
versions supporting .NET and ActiveX /COM development for 32 and 64-bit
deployment, plus Java and Java Mobile Edition toolkits.
The .NET and ActiveX SDKs include a copy of the ImagXpress
component, providing a wealth of features for manipulating images. The Barcode
Xpress component can just as easily be integrated with the ImageGear imaging
SDK, and a sample project (separate from the SDKs) is also available for
download, along with a brief video showing how to build a simple ImageGear
barcode reading program.
Although your application may include image acquisition, pre-processing,
viewing, database storage, and many other features, the actual barcode reading
portion is extremely simple. Declarations, image acquisition, and display or
storage of results are not shown, as those are all in the sample code, and would
depend on your specific application.
BarcodeTypes = SetBarcodeType();
barcodeXpress1.reader.BarcodeTypes = BarcodeTypes;
= new System.Drawing.Rectangle(0, 0, 0, 0);
barcodeXpress1.reader.Area = currentArea;
DIB = (IntPtr)imageXView1.Image.ToHdib(false).ToInt32();
results = barcodeXpress1.reader.Analyze(DIB);
Barcodes can be used within almost any workflow that might
benefit by acquiring data from an image. When using barcodes, it’s important to
know the characteristics of each type to optimize reliability. Third-party SDKs
like Barcode Xpress make it very easy to incorporate barcode reading and
writing in new applications. Considering their ease of use and the potential
benefits, it’s surprising that so many forms still appear without
You can find Accusoft Pegasus product downloads and features
at www.accusoft.com. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Curious? Scan this at 200 dpi or more, then send the image to our web demo (Demo Matrix).
About Accusoft Pegasus
Founded in 1991 under the corporate name Pegasus Imaging,
and headquartered in Tampa, Florida, Accusoft Pegasus is the largest source for
imaging software development kits (SDKs) and image viewers. Imaging technology
solutions include barcode, compression, DICOM, editing, forms processing, OCR,
PDF, scanning, video, and viewing. Technology is delivered for Microsoft .NET,
ActiveX, Silverlight, AJAX, ASP.NET, Windows Workflow, and Java environments.
Multiple 32-bit and 64-bit platforms are supported, including Windows, Windows
Mobile, Linux, Sun Solaris, Mac OSX, and IBM AIX. Visit www.accusoft.com for more