There are Barcodes and then there are Barcodes!

By | August 12, 2009

When is a bar code not a barcode? When it doesn’t scan, is the answer!

Do you remember the “olden days” when we went from impact printers to laser printers, thinking we’d found some kind of digital paradise, only to face a seemingly unending stream of font issues? Many times I remember hearing, “The font doesn’t look good,” “the spacing is wrong.” Or “the reflectivity of the bar code is different from one press manufacturer to another, so they don’t always read correctly.”

Font issues don’t seem destined to ever go away completely, and now the issue of reflectivity seems to be back. As new inkjet technologies and an expanded set of machine readable codes take hold of the transactional, direct mail and other markets, the specter of the “ugly barcode” is reappearing in printshops throughout the land. Maybe even in yours! Regardless of what technology you may be using or considering, I want to provide some helpful tips and what to ask for from your chosen vendor. There are five key areas to understand:
• The reflectivity of the new vs. old technology
• Sensor or camera types
• Meeting post office expectations
• Black vs. process back
• Paper issues
• Font sizes

First, don’t underestimate the differences between one technology’s black and another. While a barcode itself may look the same to the casual observer, the reflectivity of Inkjet and electrophotography is totally different—and can effectively baffle the sensors and cameras used to ensure data integrity. Look at any toner sample and you’ll notice a shine or a raised look to the output, possibly both, because toner sits on top of the paper. By comparison, because inkjet ink is absorbed into the paper it tends to be flat and when a light is shone on characters or a code to be scanned, the light is reflected differently than it is on toner. When shifting a job from a toner-based machine to an inkjet device, be sure to do basic and advanced tests so that any necessary adjustments can be made.

Sensors and Cameras
When discussions take place about reading codes (no matter what type) it’s very important to verify the entire line of sensors and cameras you have installed, including the (often forgotten) return route for the document to ensure the same or lower reject rates you have now. Don’t underestimate the amount of work that may be needed to verify and ensure compliance all the way through the paper flow. Cameras, sensors or software may need to be adjusted, updated or changed to deliver the results you require, especially if you are running a new types of codes.

And remember: it doesn’t stop with the print engine. Be sure to involve your inserting equipment vendor in the implementation to ensure a smoother transition and maintain data-to-mail integrity. Be aware that verification technologies from the same equipment vendor can give different results because not all systems are updated on the same schedule. This is especially true if you are an early adopter who is the first to discover some issues. Make a concerted effort to increase your quality control during the testing, evaluation and installation process.

Call in the USPS
Never hesitate to ask the post office for assistance. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge and information on their website of which you can take advantage and it’s all free.

But go further and get some practical insights. For instance, consider joining a trade association such as the Imaging Network Group ( where numerous subject matter experts provide a tremendous amount of expertise and are willing to share their insights. INg, for example, has two annual meetings, topical conference call discussions, and members routinely call on each other for help and support with all types of technical issues. In times like these, being able to call on peers for assistance and advice can save valuable time and offers an excellent return on investment.

Basic Black?
Believe it or not there is a significant difference between ordinary black toner or ink and process black that’s made up of all four CMYK process colors. Using four colors creates a “rich black” that is darker than ordinary black ink or toner. This might seem to be a good thing for a barcode reader, camera or other sensor, but not all automated readers are designed to “see” in color and can have trouble interpreting barcodes and other characters comprised of process colors. Whether you use toner, inkjet or a mix of both, make sure your sensors can see in color if you are using a rich black and want to avoid making a simple (but frustrating) mistake in that area!

We all know paper has a big influence on readability. Regardless of what claims are made, make sure the paper you use for inkjet and the paper used for toner-based printing contains properties that are as close to each other as possible. Pay particular attention to its behavior on press as well as opacity and brightness—all have direct effects on the rejects that you may see. Be prepared to try other variants— it’s not always the printer or the font or the sensor—sometimes the paper itself may affect your operations and result in read errors.

Which brings us back to fonts
Last but not least is the font size. There are some who say, “I will use this print provider and they will do all the conversions,” but be cautious— not all fonts are equal in this area either. And based on some of the experiences we’ve all had in the past, we know the trouble fonts can cause. Test relentlessly before running a big job because at the speeds the latest toner and inkjet systems run, errors can be very costly in time, labor, postage and much more.

All in all, it’s a matter of being better prepared and positioned to understand the varying components of your operation and how they can affect your results. By proactively working from a foundation of knowing what to look you can anticipate any difficulties that may be lurking in your pressroom.

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10 thoughts on “There are Barcodes and then there are Barcodes!

  1. Michael J


    I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how 2D QR codes fit. It seems to me that because they are “photographed” instead of scanned as are the traditional 2D codes that many of these issues go away.

    This could mean that 2D codes can move from facilitating information exchange in retail and logistics to a mass market. With QR every smart phone becomes a scanner. Every printed piece can be scanned and thus taken to the web or to “personal TV” on the flat screen on the smartphone, the classroom or the living room.

    As “smart” QR such as CodeZ QR come to market, this should also mean that information exchanges could be tied to detailed client/customer information to create rich searchable clickstreams from interaction with print.

  2. Christopher French


    While there are many technical improvements with 2D bar codes that make scanning more rebust (data redundancy, error correction), there a an equal number of issues that make scanning potentially more difficult. Here are a list of the common types of problems we have seen:
    1. Modules grow and partially fill-in empty space modules (occurs with both laser or inkjet)
    2. Too much information is packing into too small a space resulting in a module size that can not be printed with the resolution of the printing device
    3. Using bar code sub-types that are no longer supported. Model 1 QR codes are not supported by many scanners (and are not supported by ISO), yet many front end software programs will allow you to print Model 1 codes for legacy systems. Model 2 is the current version.

    2D bar codes are very good and offer a great new set of applications that linear can not address but at the same time there is a whole host of new issues that must be addressed to ensure scannable bar codes.

  3. Michael J

    Thank you for the information. Since I have no hands on experience, just what I read in the papers, I would like to impose on the viewers here to ask three more questions.

    1. Given that 2D and QR in particular can be resolved by a PC camera or a smart phone without the need for special scanning devices, do you think it’s reasonable to expect that the mass market opportunity is much greater.

    My impression is that bar codes have grown in the process control industry. When everyone is walking around with a scanner in their pockets I think I’m seeing a way to connect Print to the internet in very new and profitable ways. My personal interest is in managing the process of education. But I have to believe that there should be many opportunities in health and public administration.

    2. Regarding the issue of filling in. Assuming that print process is under control, is it accurate to say that if a proof works, the run of the job will be acceptable.

    3. I think, but don’t know for sure, that any of the digital printing devices have enough resolution to print stable QR codes.

  4. Lindsay Gray

    I’m with you. I think QR codes will have a profound impact on the printing industry (for those of us who envision useful applications). In essence QR codes make printed pieces without QR codes somewhat obsolete. Hence, more demand for print. My business card has a QR code on it if that is any indication of where I am coming from.

  5. Michael J

    It never occurred to me that print pieces without QR codes could become somewhat obsolete. That makes so much sense.

    From 30,000 feet we know that the value is the network. The iPhone is worth more because of the network created by the AppStore. The kindle is worth the money because it’s connected to the network of available books. Both are clear examples of how an easily reproduced commodity is worth much more in the marketplace because it gives access to the network. It also turns out that the network is the defensible value.

    Closer to the ground, if you had a choice between a newspaper with connections to videos and one that didn’t why wouldn’t you choose the one that does. Or if one printer offered “clickable postcards” and another did not. Or if one FSI company did and another didn’t. Or POD books. Or…….

    I’ll stop for now, but once the issue is seen through the lens of Smart Print and Dumb Print, the possible apps become much more clear.

  6. Guy Broadhurst

    Thanks for the great questions and points raised. First of all I’m sorry that I didn’t mention QR codes directly in my article, a definite oversight!
    Anyway QR codes are easily printed on the high-speed JetStream product family that Oce produces/sells and in fact we are today and will be demonstrating at PRINT09 QR codes being printed and getting you to real websites that will provide more information if needed.
    Its an interesting point that QR codes are less prone to poor printing and a lot more readable, however, it is important to remember that scanners (etc) need to be able to read and record the information from the QR codes at speeds over 500 feet a minute and more likely at 1000 feet a minute, so for us quality and accuracy are of prime concern and as customers decide that they can be implemented once their systems are ready we are already positioned to print them and give them the best results possible.

  7. Michael J

    Thank you for the info.

    Are there any metrics or work being done on the speed and reliability of QR? I would think that the pieces might be out there to get to production scales and speeds.

  8. Lindsay Gray

    Thanks Michael,
    You and I are looking through the same glass. As I mentioned on a post in – “That light we see in the tunnel is definitely a train and not daylight”. It is just a matter of time before this hits the US with the same impact Japan and others have felt for years!

  9. Michael J

    This should be the year.

    If Oce is demonstrating QR at Print 09, I have to believe that InfoPrint will do the same. They have RicohInnovations in an outfit called iCandy that is all about the QR code.

    Meanwhile Goss has GossRSVP and T Mobile is competing against ATT with G phone and I Phone. Any advantage that either can get should find a buyer. It should be an interesting Print 09 and coming year.

  10. Michael J

    Perhaps someone can shed some light on the following:

    Yesterday I received two mailing with what look like QR codes between the FIM and the printed indicias. One was from Wachovia/WellsFargo. The other was from JP Morgan Chase.
    The one from JP Morgan was not printed correctly, by the way.

    As far as I can tell this must be a QR for internal use. There is no message to the consumer.

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