Preventing Barcode Failures

barcode failures

We’ve all experienced barcode failures while shopping.

No matter how hard you try at the self-check out, the scanner just won’t read the barcode on an item. You run it over the scanner again and again with no luck. You straighten the package. Run it again, slower this time. No luck. So frustrating!

Imagine what it might mean to a manufacturing company when an entire shipment of products can’t be scanned because of unreadable barcodes. This results in the loss of time and thousands of dollars in fines or chargebacks.

Here are two common examples of barcode failures that cost businesses time and money.

Common Barcode Failures

Barcode Failures: Chargebacksbarcode failures

Chargebacks are one of the biggest consequences of barcode failures for retailers and their suppliers.

Example:  You are an electronics manufacturer and you send a big shipment of televisions to a leading retail chain. When your products arrive, the receiving department can’t scan the barcodes. Maybe they are damaged. They might have incorrect information. Maybe they are too faint to scan. Regardless, the shipment can’t be received.

So what happens?

You could be fined hundreds to even thousands of dollars because of returned or refused shipments. Yikes!

This is a huge inconvenience for the retailer and a huge hit to the manufactures’ bottom line. Unfortunately, issued chargebacks are increasing, so suppliers are constantly looking for ways to prevent this issue.

Barcode Failures: Noncompliance Feesbarcode failures

Another major issue caused by bad barcodes is noncompliance fees. This is quite common in the automotive industry where safety standards are paramount.

Safety and regulations are at the forefront of auto manufacturing and barcodes are essential for ensuring the safety and traceability of products. This is apparent when there is a recall situation. If millions of defective airbags are shipped to hundreds of retailers and then need to be recalled, each and every item needs to be traced and returned. If the barcodes are not correct this is impossible and large fines are applied.

Compliance labeling requirements, including noncompliance fees, are also increasing with the growth of globalized supply chains. Naturally, manufacturers would like to avoid these types of barcode failures as well.

Why Do Barcodes Fail?

In order to prevent the above scenarios from happening, we first need to understand the common ways barcodes fail. Generally, there are four main reasons. These issues aren’t limited by industry and can occur anywhere barcodes are printed. The good news is that these issues are easily preventable if you know what to look for.

#1: Printer Setup

The most common types of printers used for printing barcodes are direct thermal and thermal transfer printers. They are both fast and versatile in the types of labels they can print.

RelatedWhat is the Difference Between Direct Thermal and Thermal Transfer Labels?

Barcodes vs. RFID

Indicating Label Type

Problems can occur if you don’t set up the thermal printer correctly for the specific application or media type you are using.

A note about barcode scanners: Barcode scanners read barcodes based on the differences between light and dark areas. The light and dark areas need to be as clearly delineated as possible and provide the greatest contrast. For example, with a standard UPC code, the scanner’s beam will scan through the characters comprised of multiple bars and spaces. If one of the bars is too wide or too thin it might not be ready properly.

Under and Over Heating

Another printer setup issue can occur with under or over-heating. This can cause your barcodes to be blurry (overheating) or the dark and light elements may bleed into each other (under heating.).

Things to look for:

  • Intensity: The printhead intensity setting is too high or too low (intensity refers to how long a printhead element is turned on)
  • Print speed: The print speed may be too slow or too fast for the intensity selected
  • Ribbons:  There might be an incorrect ribbon and label combination or and incorrect intensity/print speed for the ribbon and label combination

Print Pressure Level & Balance

In addition to adjusting settings for the type of label media, speed and temperature, you must also consider printing pressure. The pressure blocks could be misaligned or skewed to one side or the other. This results in a void or faint printing.

If you are experiencing uneven printing or ribbon wrinkle it could be because the tag width is less than the maximum supported by the printer. To avoid barcode failures you have to have the right alignment and the right amount of pressure.

#2: Printer Maintenancebarcode failures

Routine printer maintenance is often overlooked in a busy work environment. However, regular cleaning can help you avoid many barcode failures and other printing issues.

Common issues include:

  • Cleaning Agents. Using the wrong type of alcohol to clean the printhead.
  • Paper Dust Buildup. This causes printvoids.
  • Damages to Printhead Elements. In addition to dust, printheads can collect airborne particles like dirt, metal shavings, saw dust, and more that will damage them.

Note: Printheads don’t last forever and will need to be replaced eventually. Monitor the life of your printheads and replace them before you see visible white streaks (or worse) on your labels. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions and partner with a label supplier who offers printhead programs.

#3: Supplies QualityZebra Wax Thermal Transfer Ribbons

Your barcode failures may not be caused by your printers at all. The quality or type of labels and ribbons you use has a direct effect on the quality of your barcodes.

  • Labels. Floodcoated labels (completely coated with a color) can cause a low contrast between the light and dark elements of barcodes. Also check for defects in the labels (wrinkles, blemishes, etc) and too much adhesive can goop up the printheads.
  • Ribbons. Be sure you are using the right ribbon for the type of label you are using. Typically ribbons are coated with either wax or resin. The quality of the coating is also very important. Cheap ribbons = barcode failures.

#4: Application Designbarcode failures

Label design and software issues can also cause barcode failures. The four most common label design issues that affect the quality of printed barcodes are:

  • Quiet Zones Not Honored. Every barcode is required to have a light area (quiet zone) around the symbol which must not contain any graphic element. Even if the barcode itself is fine, if the quiet zone is marked up it won’t read properly.
  • Text/Graphics Over Barcodes. Scanners will not be able to read barcodes if they have printing or graphics over them.
  • Printing Barcodes on RFID IC Bumps. Anything under the barcode can cause it to not read properly.
  • Software Issues. The most common problem occurs when the software sends the barcode to the printer as a graphical image instead of a “printer-rendered” barcode.

Solving Barcode Failures: Best Practices

Now that we know what causes most barcode failures let’s review how we can avoid them and avoid those pesky chargebacks, fines, and customer relation issues.

  1. Optimize printer settings for the correct label/ribbon combinations
  2. Conduct regular and proper printer maintenance
  3. Check printheads regularly and replace when necessary
  4. Keep printers safe from particle-generating equipment and dusty environments
  5. Use quality labels and ribbons
  6. Use proper label design and software
  7. Partner with a label solutions company who can help you determine all of the above

What’s Next?

Printing quality barcodes and preventing failures is paramount to the success of your company. We want to provide peace of mind for you. PaladinID can partner with you to determine a solution that best fits your needs. We can incorporate what you are already doing (if possible) and upgrade where it makes sense so barcode failures don’t happen.

Send us an email or give us a call at with any questions.

888.972.5234 or

We look forward to working with you.

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About PaladinID, LLC
PaladinID develops and supports high-performance barcode labeling applications. We work with our clients to “Make Your Mark” by providing the expertise and tools necessary to create an entire product label printing solution. Located in central New Hampshire, PaladinID has been serving Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New England, and beyond for over 30 years, and in 2017, became an RFID-certified company. We look forward to working with you.

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