Barcode Scanners: How Do They Work?

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As consumers, we see barcodes used all the time: purchasing from any retail store, renting a car, attending major events, flying, and even going to the doctor.  Barcodes aren’t just lines appearing on tickets or inventory items, barcode scanning systems help businesses track an amazing amount of information which, in turn, increases productivity and efficiency. You will improve your business’ process (saving time and money) by understanding how barcodes work and by knowing how to use them effectively in partnership with a quality barcode scanner.

The Barcode

2D Barcode Scanner (USB) for Inventory – WDI4600

In June of 1974, the first barcode appeared on a pack of Wrigley Company chewing gum.  Since then, barcodes can be found on almost every item for purchase within a store. A barcode is used to encode information in a visual pattern readable by a machine. Barcodes are used for a variety of reasons including tracking products, prices, and stock levels for centralized recording in a computer software system.

There are two types of barcodes – linear and 2D. The most visually recognizable, the UPC (Universal Product Code), is a linear barcode made up of two parts: the barcode and the 12-digit UPC number. The first six numbers of the barcode is the manufacturer’s identification number. The next five digits represent the item’s number. The last number is called a check digit which enables the scanner to determine if the barcode was scanned correctly or not.

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A linear barcode typically holds any type of text information.  In contrast, a 2D barcode is more complex and can include more information in the code: price, quantity, web address or image. A linear barcode scanner can’t read a 2D barcode; requiring the use of an image scanner for reading the information embedded in a 2D barcode.

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Check out Wasp’s “What is a Barcode, Anyway?” video to learn the basics of barcodes in under a minute.

The Barcode Scanner

Most barcode scanners consist of three different parts including the illumination system, the sensor, and the decoder. In general, a barcode scanner “scans” the black and white elements of a barcode by illuminating the code with a red light, which is then converted into matching text. More specifically, the sensor in the barcode scanner detects the reflected light from the illumination system (the red light) and generates an analog signal that is sent to the decoder. The decoder interprets that signal, validates the barcode using the check digit, and coverts it into text.

This converted text is delivered by the scanner to a computer software system holding a database of the maker, cost, and quantity of all products sold. This video is a quick lesson in barcode scanners and highlights the basic differences between a Contact Scanner, Laser Scanner, and an Imager.

Because barcode scanners are variable and include diverse capabilities, some are better suited for certain industries due to reading distance and to work volume capacity.


Outlined below are a few of the available barcode scanners with a little insight into how each works.

  • Pen-type Reader: consists of a light source and a photodiode on the tip of the pen.
  • Laser Scanner: works similarly to a Pen-type Reader but uses a laser beam.
  • Camera-based Reader: installed with camera and image processing techniques in the reading of barcodes.
  • CCD Reader: has several light sensors to scan barcodes.
  • Omni-Directional Barcode Scanner: highly advanced and very efficient in decoding badly printed, crumpled, and even torn barcodes on products.

how-barcodes-work-thumb For more information about barcode scanners and how they read barcodes, check out our “How Barcode Scanners Work” infographic.

New Wasp Barcode Scanners

Here at Wasp, we are excited to share the details of our most recent release: three, new barcode scanners. This line of barcode scanners  is aimed to withstand tough industrial environments and is designed to provide customers with high-quality scanners that easily read barcodes at an increased speed; letting you focus on other – more important – responsibilities.


Related Article: Barcode: The Ultimate Guide to Barcodes

Does your company need to improve its efficiency and productivity? Understanding how barcodes and barcode scanners work and where they fit into a barcode-based stock system will help you determine if it’s appropriate to implement in your small business. Wasp is a barcode solutions manufacturer that provides data capture and tracking systems for organizations. Visit the Wasp website for more information about barcodes, barcode scanners, and barcode printers.

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Paul Trujillo

Paul Trujillo

Paul Trujillo is a Product Marketing Manager at Informatics specializing in Inventory Warehouse Management and Supply Chain product lines. His nearly 15 years of experience has put him at the forefront of industry technology and developing trends.