EAN stands for European Article Number and is also known as the International Article Number. The most commonly used EAN standard outside the United States is the thirteen-digit EAN-13. It functions as a linear barcode type most commonly used typically in European countries.
EAN barcodes are used widely throughout the globe for wholesale ordering, scanning at retail points of sale, accounting, and other uses. These are obvious benefits. However, to understand the advantages as well as the limitations of EAN-13, knowing the history and the design of EAN-13 barcodes will be informative.
EAN-13 is made of 13 consecutive and fixed digits in all. This standard was set because the previously existing UPC-A standard was not well designed with the purpose of international use in mind.
If you see a linear barcode of this type, you will notice that the first digit is always placed outside the symbol. Another observation is that all 13 digits of the EAN-13 barcode are divided into two equal parts of 12 digits by a guard bar in the center.
The first three digits of the EAN-13 serve as the GS1 Prefix. GS1 means Global Standards 1 and these standards are subsumed in the Global Trade Item Number standard from the GS1 organization. The GS1 prefix usually identifies the GS1 Member Organization which the manufacturer has joined and there could be likened to a country code next. For instance, Russia will have code number 46 while number code 70 represents Norway.
The typical EAN-13 bar code is divided into four areas. The number system serves as the GS1 prefix. The other parts are the manufacturer code, the product code, and the check digit. The manufacturer code is actually a unique code assigned to each manufacturer by the numbering authority and all products made by a certain company will have to use the same manufacturer code. The product code is a unique code assigned solely by the manufacturer.
Lastly, the check digit is the last number used to confirm if a bar code was scanned correctly. This additional number is mathematically determined through an algebraic equation to create a checksum.
The introduction of EAN-13 was timely in the 1970s as the world was on the brink of globalization and the retail industry was growing. The new bar codes allowed for greater safety, reliability, speed, and efficiency of supply chains. Other advantages of EAN-13 were:
• It is a very high-density barcode and can encode a large amount of information in a smaller area.
• The barcode is very easy to read and even a scanner, at an angle as acute as 45 degrees to the surface of the barcode, can easily decode the information
• The wide use of the scanner in Europe makes it very portable and no advanced scanning devices are required to decode the information
• Much suited to fast-moving items on automatic machines.
• Checksum digit provided a self-checking mechanism.
Traceability was a key in the design of the EAN-13 barcodes and it led to much of its success. However, the barcode system is not without its own drawbacks. One of the key ones is that the EAN-13 barcode might have more potential uses because of its character limit, therefore, it cannot be applied to identifying complex items.
Other limitations include the following:
• It can encode only numeric data, not alphabets and special characters.
• Like other linear barcodes, it has a very small tolerance for damage and distortion and cannot be scanned in that case.
The specific components in the EAN-13 design ensured that the purpose of EAN-13 was fulfilled. The EAN-13 has developed to be a bar code that can be easily and quickly encoded as well as decoding. It has become an international standard globally and has added several countries to its rooster since it was established.