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How does a UPC barcode work?

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Quick Answer

A UPC barcode is a series of 12 numbers under a series of bars. The numbers contain the product's manufacturer ID number and the number of the item. The series of lines or bars are a visual representation of the numbers below. The barcode allows for easy and quick identification of a product using laser equipment or photo scanning software.

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Full Answer

The numbers on a barcode are specific to that product and the product's manufacturer. The manufacturer's number is the first six digits in the sequence, and those six numbers are the first part of every product's barcode that the manufacturer makes. The next six numbers are the product number, and multiple products have those six numbers assigned to them. However, each of those products has an exclusive manufacturer's number to set each product apart.

The lines on the barcode are a series of thin dashes and spaces. Each digit between zero and nine has a corresponding dash and space order. The lines are the digital numbers of the product number in the order they appear. This series of lines and spaces is reflected by a laser beam with an infrared sensor to identify the product in an inventory system. Alternately, a photo or a video scan of the barcode achieves the same result much faster than the laser system.

Some barcode ideas were patented in the 1940s but were not fully realized until the 1970s. The purpose of a barcode was initially to help cashiers move customers through the checkout more quickly. The numbers were soon regulated by the Uniform Code Council as a sophisticated product assignment system for goods sold in the United States.

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