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Barcodes, 2D Codes or RFIDs?

We are often asked whether it is better to use one of the more recent alternatives - 2D codes or RFIDs (i.e., radio-frequency “chips") - instead of barcodes. This article provides a brief overview of the practical aspects of each solution. This article is meant to provide basic information about the issue - when making the final decision regarding your solution, you should definitely consult it with an expert.

Barcodes

This term means traditional, i.e., linear, barcodes (sometimes also referred to as 1D codes), similar to those found on most consumer products in the retail network. The word “similar" is used intentionally, because the EAN barcode (which is the one used in retail) is not suitable for the purposes of asset records. In practice, other types of barcodes (symbology) are used; we can recommend, for example, Code 128, which has good properties in terms of error resistance and high density. This type of code may look like this:

 

The code shown in the image contains the text DA123456. Depending on the type of barcode, the code may contain digits, uppercase or lowercase characters without diacritics, as well as some other characters (such as a point or a slash). This may be useful in cases where the identifier (inventory number) has a more complex format. However, some types of barcodes can only encode digits. The maximum recommended code length is approximately 12 characters. Larger codes are usually permitted, but they may not fit on commonly used labels.

Any barcode scanner, including 2D scanners, can be used to read linear barcodes. A thermal transfer printer can be recommended for printing labels suitable for asset labelling.

Advantages: established standard, easy to use, can be read by any scanner

Disadvantages: limited capacity (lower areal density of information), i.e., greater size of resulting code

2D Codes

These codes are sometimes referred to as 2D barcodes even though they mostly consist of squares rather than lines. Perhaps the best-known representative is the QR code, which is commonly used for encoding web addresses, payment data on invoices, etc. Another representative is, for example, the Data Matrix code, shown below:

 

The above code also contains the text DA123456. This also shows the main advantage of 2D codes - the same information occupies a significantly smaller area when a 2D code is used. They are suitable, for example, for labelling small objects where the label size can be reduced to approximately 1 cm by 1 cm. Small labels, however, are harder to find, so in most cases we recommend slightly larger labels. It is also possible to encode significantly more data into 2D codes (large codes can contain up to thousands of characters), but it is typically necessary to only encode the inventory number for inventory records, because all other asset data is typically recorded in the information system.

To read 2D codes, you need a special 2D scanner; standard barcode scanners cannot be used. More recently, however, 2D code technology has been widely accepted; devices equipped with 2D scanners have been generally available, and their price is only slightly higher than that of linear code scanners. In terms of label printing, all modern thermal transfer printers are able to handle both linear and 2D codes.

Advantages: smaller size, i.e., more information in the same area

Disadvantages: 2D scanner needed

RFID Technology

The issue of RFID (Radio-Frequency IDentification) technology is rather broad because it is a fairly new technology for which standards are still being developed. The principle of RFID is similar to that of barcodes or 2D codes, except that information encoded in a RFID chip is read “remotely" via a radio signal, i.e., without the need for visual reading. RFID chips can take different forms, but they are often embedded in the label (“smart labels" or “RFID tags") which also contains a printed barcode.

 

Although there are applications using RFIDs for asset records, they are still relatively rare. Perhaps the greatest barriers are the significantly higher price (both of “labels" and readers/writers), the existence of a number of standards, and some technological difficulties that often accompany the implementation of such systems (e.g., radio signal interference, larger sizes of smart labels, etc.).

For inventory purposes, the main advantage of this technology - remote data transmission - is somewhat questionable. In a physical inventory count, it is necessary to physically verify the existence of an asset, not just the relevant RFID chip. Therefore, if you only relied on remote reading of smart labels without physical verification of the existence of the asset, you could, for example, mark a notebook whose smart label was pulled down and placed in a drawer as found. In an actual physical inventory count, the difference between reading a barcode label and reading an RFID label is relatively small, and the resulting time savings most probably do not compensate for a significantly higher purchasing cost of the equipment.

Advantages: remote reading and writing

Disadvantages: high cost of RFID chips and equipment, technologically demanding implementation

Summary

  • If we had to summarize the above in a few short pieces of advice, they would be the following:
  • Linear barcodes are usually sufficient for standard asset records.
  • If you need to label very small items or if you have very long inventory numbers, consider using 2D codes.
  • In special cases, you can also consider RFID, but expect significantly higher implementation costs.
  • Always seek professional advice.
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