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We offer variable-data-printing applications that can produce PDF417 symbols that represent information in a data file. Click here to learn about them.
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MYTHS and facts about
variable-data printing
& publishing

In addition to the
PDF417 format, there
are other 2-D bar-code
formats. Four of them are
MaxiCode, DataGlyph, Datamatrix, and QR.

The area of information
technology that deals with
such symbols is known
as "2-D symbology."


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QUESTION: What is a PDF417 symbol?

ANSWER: PDF417 is a 2D (2-D) stacked bar-code symbology that's used in a variety of applications, primarily transport, identification cards, and inventory management. Developed by Symbol Technologies, the PDF417 technology allows for creation of a symbol that consists of 3 to 90 rows, each of which is like a small linear bar code.

PDF417 symbols can store much more data than other 2D symbols.
PDF417 symbol

A PDF417 symbol

2D and 2-D stand for "two-dimensional." As mentioned above, PDF417 symbols are two-dimensional symbology (horizontal being one dimension and vertical being the second dimension).

Contrast this with other kinds of bar codes that we see in our daily lives — most of them are "one-dimensional" bar codes. That is: the marks that make up the bar code are arranged in one row (one dimension), usually the horizontal dimension.

A UPC bar code

UPC bar codes are one-dimensional bar codes.
They are found on product packaging in supermarkets
and other retail environments.
A Code 128 bar code.

Code 128 bar codes are one-dimensional bar codes.
They are widely used in many industries, particularly those
related to shipping and packaging.

What kind of information can be represented by a PDF417 symbol?

A PDF417 symbol can represent much more data than other kinds of 2D symbols. A single PDF417 symbol can carry up to 1.1 kilobytes of machine-readable data; and it can contain biometric data such as photographs, fingerprints, and signatures, as well as text, numerics and graphics.

PDF417 symbology is well suited to applications where it is impractical to reference a database at the time that a card or document is scanned with a wand or camera. That is — many details about the thing that the PDF417 symbol represents can actually be stored right in the PDF417 symbol.

To put it another way: sometimes bar codes contain a minimal amount of information, and when the bar codes are read, the bar codes themselves don't contain much data — instead, each bar code contains a code that is used to look up information in a database. This is what happens at the supermarket: the checkout clerk uses a wand to scan the UPC bar code on each item that you buy, and information about that item is retrieved from a database.

How do you get the information out of a PDF417 symbol?

PDF417   To understand the information a PDF417 symbol represents, you need a scanning wand or camera that is programmed to understand and interpret PDF417 symbols.

Error correction

A PDF417 barcode uses a type of error-correction known as "Reed Solomon error correction." The Reed Solomon error correction allows the symbol to withstand some damage without causing loss of data.

What are PDF417 symbols used for?

Virtually any kind of data can be represented in a PDF417 symbol. Currently, PDF417 symbols are being used on drivers' licenses, social-services ID cards, national ID cards, and many other kinds of documents.

How can you put PDF417 symbols on your documents?

The process of putting PDF417 symbols on your documents isn't as straightforward as putting one-dimensional bar codes on your documents.

Let's compare the two processes.

In most situations, to put a one-dimensional bar code on a document, you just need to type the information to be represented (or somehow generate that information automatically), and you need to format that information with the proper bar-code font.

The procedure for putting a PDF417 symbol on a document is different and more complicated than what we've just described, for two reasons:
  • Since a PDF417 symbol is two-dimensional, you can't represent the information in it with just one line of characters in your document.

  • The relationship between the marks that make up the PDF417 symbol and the information that those marks represent is more complex than the relationship between the marks that make up a one-dimensional bar code and the information that the bar code represents.
We offer variable-data-printing applications that can produce PDF417 symbols that represent information in a data file. Click here to learn about them.

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