Barcode labels seem to be everywhere, and how they got there doesn't seem too mysterious at first glance. But before they can be printed, someone has to design them, get the right product data and human-readable information on them, and make sure the printer gets the right instructions.
For that, you need barcode label software. It comes in two main varieties, according to Bert Moore, director of communications and media relations for AIM, an association of automatic identification and mobility vendors.
Barcode generating software produces a barcode that can be placed inside a graphic label or sent to a printer, and is suitable only for static information, Moore said. It is available online, in some PC-based programs, and in the printers themselves.
"Most barcode printers have resident barcode fonts and some even have industry-standard formats resident," said Moore. The AIM web site notes that such printers can only output labels that don't change or have numbers that increment in a series.
"Label formats can also be programmed via Basic, C or an XML type of language, which may be company-specific," Moore said. "For simple labeling, this is often sufficient, and data can be fed from a database or even a spreadsheet." Warehouse management system (WMS) software also comes with barcode software, but Moore says it's too inflexible for most situations.
Full label design/production packages, in contrast, have WYSIWYG interfaces, so non-programmers can use them. They let you add multiple fields and formatted text to the label -- an increasingly common requirement as companies cram more information and barcodes onto labels. They can funnel variable information from other programs or databases to the barcodes and label, or let the operator enter the data from the keyboard.
Label design software also comes with a slew of templates for standard 1D and 2D barcode symbologies such as UPC, Code 128, PDF 417, and GS 1 DataBar. Vendors of barcode label design software also sell networked print server software and web-accessible versions of their tools.
"There is another trend in printers towards adding intelligence and capabilities, so that printers can have more formats and code resident to simplify label printing," Moore said, adding that some printers hold their fonts in upgradeable firmware. "Host systems only have to download a code to invoke a specific format and then send data." Radio frequency identification (RFID) coding is also being incorporated into some printers.
Moore offered this advice when choosing barcode labeling software:
Know the labeling standards you need to meet and evaluate the package's ability to meet them efficiently. If you need to produce GS1 labels, how easy is it to insert an application identifier or data identifier into the symbol?
Make sure the software produces a bitmap image that matches the printer resolution. The best software can maintain quality bitmaps on different printers and warn you of mismatches, or make the needed adjustments automatically. "Good barcode printing software will print a bitmap at a specific resolution," Moore said.
Find out how easily the software can be updated to accommodate new standards.
- Look for a broad range of printer support. If a printer goes down, its replacement might not work if your barcode label software doesn't have the right label formatting language.
About the author: Freelancer David Essex has covered information technology for BYTE, Computerworld, PC World, and numerous other publications and web sites.