Barcodes in the Lab: How to Maximize Efficiency and Reduce Errors

Barcoding is extremely useful in a lab environment. It lets you quickly and automatically identify and track items like samples, plates, and reagents. But implementing a lab barcode system is not as simple as charging up a scanner and getting to work.

To be effective, the scanning solution should be integrated with your laboratory information management system (LIMS). That means setting up the barcode printing and scanning software and hardware so that it can:

  • Transfer scanned information to the LIMS.
  • Generate and print barcodes based on information from the LIMS.

Types of barcodes

One-dimensional (1D) and two-dimensional (2D) barcodes are commonly used in labs:

Type Example Description
1D Code 128

1D barcodes are linear and hold a few dozen characters that are human-readable. Scanners need to be within 4–24 inches to read these barcodes.

In the laboratory, the most common 1D barcode is Code 128 since it is high-density and encodes all 128 ASCII characters. Other examples include UPC (like those often seen on consumer goods), EAN, and Industrial.

QR Code

2D codes are patterns and hold more information than 1D barcodes while taking up less space. They are not human-readable. 2D scanners can read these codes from more than 3 feet away.

Examples include QR Code, DataMatrix, and Aztec Code.

For a more complete description of the differences between the two types, check out this article.

Common barcode scanning challenges in a molecular diagnostics lab — and workarounds

If your lab has low throughput, you might find that manually entering 1D barcodes isn’t too arduous. However, if you intend to scale throughput or your lab already has high throughput (more than several hundred barcodes a day), a barcode scanning solution will save you a lot of time and effort. Plus, any time you automate a process, you reduce the potential for errors.

Before you move forward with implementing barcode scanning, consider the following challenges and workarounds.

1. Accidental duplicates when scanning 1D barcodes

When you scan a 1D barcode, the scanner uses a laser to “read” a series of 95 evenly-spaced columns. It identifies each column as a “0” or a “1” depending on whether the column is clear or black. It then translates this binary code into a 95-digit number, grouped into 15 sections. Twelve sections are used for the numbers you see at the bottom of the barcode. The remaining three are “guards,” which help determine if the barcode is being scanned right-side up or upside down.

If you’re scanning several or more items in close proximity — such as when you use a handheld scanner to scan the barcodes on consumables laid out on a workbench — there’s potential for some items to be scanned twice or not at all. When this happens, you’ll end up with an inaccurate list that includes duplicates and omissions.

Fortunately, there’s a programmatic way to solve this problem. When we help labs set up a barcode scanning solution, we include a software script that checks for duplicates. If the script identifies a duplicate, it alerts the user so they can immediately correct the problem before moving to the next step in their workflow.

2. 2D barcodes are not human-readable

Because 2D barcodes are not human-readable, your lab will need the right type of scanning hardware to read and use 2D barcodes. Before you purchase scanning hardware, consider which types of barcodes you’ll be scanning and if the equipment has the appropriate capabilities.

3. Too many mouse clicks or tabs in the wrong order

Efficiency and usability are critical in the lab. We’ve all used software that requires multiple clicks to perform a simple function, and been frustrated by the experience. Tabbing through fields or pressing the Enter key (for a carriage return) is much faster and more user-friendly than clicking with a mouse.

Your lab’s scanning solution should minimize the number of required clicks to increase efficiency and reduce errors. The goal is for the user to scan, scan, scan — without needing the keyboard at all. That means setting up the hardware and/or software to automatically add a tab or carriage return control character after each scan.

Which one you use will depend on the software receiving the scanned barcodes:
  • For software that has horizontal data entry, use a tab character to advance to the next tab stop after each scan.
  • For software that has vertical data entry, use a carriage return character to advance to a new line after each scan.

Remember that the tab order in your LIMS must be correct so the user can tab from field to field in a logical order. Note that your lab software might not be pre-configured for the tab order you need, so be sure to check this.

Integrating barcode printing with your LIMS

Any lab using barcodes needs to be able to easily generate and print barcodes by integrating the barcode software with the LIMS. You can do this using direct or indirect integration. In our experience, indirect integration is superior in this case because it offers the most flexibility over time to change your barcode software or printer.

In an indirect integration, the LIMS is set up to generate a CSV file with all the necessary barcode information. The file is uploaded to the network, and then the barcode software pairs the file with a template to print the barcodes.

We recommend labs invest in a third-party barcode printing software that has pre-designed label templates and supports all kinds of printers right out of the box. Good barcode software is faster, easier, and more cost-effective to integrate with your LIMS.

Note that we generally do not recommend integrating your LIMS directly with a barcode printer. This tends to be a more time-consuming approach. Plus, you would need to modify the integration if you ever add a printer or switch to a different type.

In conclusion

The most important thing to remember if you’re scanning barcodes in the lab is to make sure you’re indeed scanning what you think you’re scanning. An automated script that checks for duplicates can help you avoid errors. Even if you rely on your LIMS vendor to take care of the barcode scanning setup, be sure to confirm that they have addressed this common issue.

We also recommend optimizing tab order and checking the settings in your barcode hardware and software to ensure everything is set up correctly.

Contact us if you have any questions or need help setting up a barcode printing and scanning solution for more efficient lab processing.