Photo of a barcode and a scannerGrocery checkout counters are one of the most common innovations long before the era of tablets and cellphones replaced them.

Who would not be fascinated with that gun that emits light and makes a sound every time the cashier uses it to scan a product. Not to mention the sound of the cash register with the cashier’s fast fingers that make the job look a lot easier than it is.

Those guns are barcode readers. Most people know what a barcode is. It is that zebra lines-like image on every product that has numbers below. But, how do they work and why is a special barcodes printer needed to print them?

How do barcodes work? 

Barcodes are unique numerical combination assigned to each product known as Universal Product Code (UPC). This code aims to help grocery stores speed up the checkout process and have a more organised inventory of their goods.

Each code represents information. This includes the country of origin, item, manufacturer, and price. All these information find storage in a single database you can easily change without changing the barcode itself (i.e. price increase).

The zebra lines, on the other hand, represent the numbers. Each code is divided into seven units and colour-coded to represent numbers from 0-9. You can do this in such a way that even though you scanned the item upside down, the computer would still be able to identify them.

How do you print them? 

There are now two kinds of barcodes. Aside from the traditional (linear) zebra one, 2D barcodes (i.e. QR codes) are also making its way to the market.

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You print barcodes via direct thermal printing or thermal transfer printing. Direct thermal uses a heat-sensitive layer that does not use a ribbon or ink to print. This is not a recommended choice as it usually fades and can last for only about a year.

Thermal printing, on the other hand, uses ribbons to print on the labels, and they last longer as it is fade-proof.

Thanks to barcodes, buying things from your local grocery became very convenient.