The Evolution of Barcode Scanners
From the first barcode scanners that originated in movie sound systems to today's mobile computers, barcode readers have changed dramatically over the years. Early barcodes were developed for the grocery industry to manage inventory, but barcode reading technology took a long time to keep up with demand. While the original barcodes were conceived in the late 1940s, it wasn't until 1974 that the first items marked with a Universal Product Code (UPC) were scanned at grocery stores.
In the early 1960s, railroads experimented with a system that used colored bars on railcars to encode a 10-digit number that was decoded by an arrangement of colored lights and intensity-detecting sensors. The system was not commercially successful but was later developed to decode black and white barcodes using light projected by a newly developed laser. The easily movable laser repeatedly passes the code while decoding it, which is where the term "barcode scanner" comes from.
The dominance of barcode scanners
Typically, a barcode scanner has three basic parts: a light source, a sensor that detects changes in light reflected from the barcode, and a decoder or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that converts those changes into data that can be used by the point-of-sale system.
While it is understood that barcodes can contain more data, the technologies available to scan them have long meant that barcodes were limited to those familiar one-dimensional (1D) linear arrangements of thick and thin black lines. 1D barcodes can be thought of as a type of optical Morse code, replacing dots and dashes with narrow and wide lines. They are usually read by a laser scanner, which uses an electronically controlled mirror or prism to sweep the laser beam horizontally across the black line.
Barcode scanners can be stationary or handheld and are still widely used. Some hand-held laser scanners are called "RF guns" or "RF scanners," which refers not to the way they scan, but to the way they transmit the data they generate via radio frequency signals.
By the 1970s, stationary raster scanners used a combination of lasers and mirrors to create 2D patterns that could read 1D barcodes from any angle. These are still common at the grocery store checkout.
Introducing CCD and QR code
In the 1990s, charge-coupled device (CCD) scanners used a single row of photocells on a chip as a one-dimensional camera. They are cheaper than laser scanners and successfully compete with them in the market. However, by the 2000s, when cheaper and more powerful chips allowed for two-dimensional (2D) arrays and the ability to read QR codes, the technology became more important. Compared with 1D barcodes, 2D barcodes can hold more information in a smaller area. However, 2D fixed raster scanners can only read limited types of QR codes.
The need for image-based barcode readers
Industries such as healthcare, logistics, and retail rely on the information density of QR codes, which drives the barcode reader market and the demand for 2D imagers or image-based barcode readers. A variety of high-resolution CCD and complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) cameras with precision embedded processors, both stationary and handheld, have transformed logistics and supply chain management.
Various image-based barcode readers record images and run image processing algorithms to detect 1D and 2D barcodes. They can also read Direct Part Marking (DPM) QR codes on medical devices, automotive parts, and other durable goods by stippling or laser etching.
Capturing and storing barcode images as they are read means "no reads" or "misreads" can be analyzed after the fact. Viewing these images can help determine the cause, whether it's a clogged printhead, missing labels, or poor lighting. This ability to gather performance feedback to improve processes is a significant advantage of moving to image-based technologies.
Smartphone-based barcode readers change the game
Today, almost everyone carries a high-resolution camera and a sophisticated computer in their pocket: a smartphone. Using a smartphone as a barcode reader has several advantages. Users require minimal training (if any) because they are already familiar with the interface, users typically upgrade their smartphones every two years, and smartphones can be used almost anywhere from the shop floor to the warehouse. Sales, field service, and other departments can also produce and use barcode scan data, increasing its utility and value.
Fragile smartphones can be ruggedized with modular mobile terminals to protect them and increase their scanning range in fast-paced and harsh industrial environments. The cross-platform environment can support both iOS and Android devices.
The evolution of barcode reading technology will continue
A range of new technologies is also changing barcode reading. The introduction of high dynamic range (HDR) technology is improving image quality, high-speed liquid lenses are able to increase the depth of field, and a single reader with multiple image sensors is improving barcode positioning and reading in different locations.
The above briefly describes the evolution of barcode scanners. If you want to customize or buy barcode scanners, please contact us.
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