Mobile Asset Tracking Technologies: Barcodes, QR Codes, NFC, RFID, GPS Tags

How do mobile asset tracking technologies (barcodes, QR codes, NFC, RFID, GPS) work and which one to use for your business.

When people say asset tracking they mean different things. One person may refer to their vehicle fleet, shipping containers or valuable equipment as assets. They would like to map assets location and paths in real time. Somebody from a different industry may be referring to work tools or other equipment that are given to the company employees. His major objective is to make sure equipment is not lost and is properly maintained, so he will want to know which employee has this or that asset, which assets are currently available for check out, track equipment repair and usage history, estimate remaining useful life of the equipment. Yet another business may need to track assets that are rented out or are on a long term lease. For this business real time web dashboard showing assets in each client location and in-house, ability to track entire life cycle of each individual asset, manage assets repair and preventive maintenance, and ability to bill clients based on the lease duration might be on the top priorities list. Yet another business may simply need a computerized catalog of the company's fixed assets and periodic asset audits to verify that everything is in place, identify missing or misplaced assets.

There are various asset tracking technologies that help businesses streamline asset tracking and management. It is not always clear which technology would work best for you. In this articles we tried to highlight most important information on each technology and show business scenarios where it works best. Using this data you will be able to design best asset management strategy and select asset management software for your specific situation.

QR Codes & Barcodes For Asset Tracking
RFID For Asset Tracking
NFC For Asset Tracking
Using GPS Devices For Asset Tracking
Selecting Mobile Asset Tracking Technology For Your Business: Takeaways

 

barcode   qr code
 

Using QR Code And Barcode Scanning For Asset Tracking

Traditional UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode is 1D (one-dimensional) barcode that had been in use for a while. QR code (Quick Response Code) is a 2D (two-dimensional) barcode that recently became popular due to its ability to encode large amount of data. When talking about asset tracking, both UPC and QR codes serve the same purpose -- to uniquely identify an item when it is scanned. They are very similar in terms of labels and tags printing, scanning equipment to use, cost involved and business scenarios where you will want to use them. Therefore, for the purpose of this article barcodes and QR codes can be reviewed together.

Basic Information: What Are Barcodes & QR Codes

Both UPC barcodes (often referred to simply as a barcode) and QR codes belong to the family of barcodes -- a pattern of black and white stripes (1D) or squares (2D) that encode certain information which can be read by a scanner. UPC barcodes can encode only numbers and letters and up to 16 characters. QR codes can fit significantly more information (up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters) and diverse data. This is an advantage compared to UPC barcodes and gives you more options. For example, consider the following scenario: an asset is lost and a person who found it scans QR code label with a generic QR code scanner application. You can design QR code in such a way that this person will see information on your company and where to return that asset. At the same time, when an employee scans the same QR code label, he will be able to perform work-related functions: check an asset in or out, fill out a form or review asset information. Similarly, a customer scanning QR code will see information that will be very different from what your technician will see. You cannot do this with a regular UPC barcode.

qr code labels and tags

Barcode / QR Code Labels & Tags

Some of the assets may already be shipped to you with a barcode. If that barcode has asset serial number encoded in it, you can use it for asset tracking purposes. If assets are not labeled, you can easily label them yourself. Your options are:

  • Purchase pre-printed QR code / barcode labels
    Pre-printed QR code or barcode labels are available in a variety of sizes and materials. As a rule, these labels will contain sequential numbers that you will be able to associate with the assets using asset management software. You can also order pre-printed labels with custom printing if you need to encode serial number of the asset, or, for QR codes, web address containing asset information.
  • Print your own QR code / barcode labels
    You can print your own labels using either special label printer that prints on the rolls (brands such as Dymo®, Zebra®, etc.), or using sheet labels and regular office printer. Many people find it more convenient to use sheet labels to print multiple labels at once. A special label printer might be more convenient to use if you need to print just one or several labels at a time. As a rule, asset management software that uses QR code / barcode scanning should provide an option to generate and print QR code / barcode labels for the assets. If it does not, there are several online bulk QR code generators that you can use free of charge or for a nominal fee.

Whether you are purchasing pre-printed labels or printing your own, first make sure you know what should be encoded in QR codes or barcodes. Do not assume that any asset management software will work with any label. Pick the software first, then find out what should be encoded in QR code / barcode labels that will work with this software, then print or order labels. Do it in this order and you will spare yourself major headache.

qr code scanning equipment

Barcode / QR Code Scanning Equipment

There are the following choices for codes / barcodes scanning equipment:

  • Barcode Scanners
    Barcode scanners are the most frequently used equipment, although use of the smartphones for barcode scanning is rapidly catching up. Barcode scanners need to be either physically or via a wireless connection (blue tooth) connected to a computer. In both cases, they can work only in the vicinity of the office computer, and are good for tracking assets in the office or warehouse, but not mobile assets at the remote sites. If you need to track mobile assets in the field, you will need to use either mobile computers or a smartphone / tablet.
  • Mobile Computers
    Mobile computers are more sophisticated and expensive equipment. Unlike barcode scanners, mobile computers can use Wi-Fi or cellular data connection to connect to the back-end software. Therefore, they can be used in the field and remote locations. Mobile computers also have a screen that allows for data collection and review. The drawback of mobile computers is their price - you will need to invest significantly more in the system that supports mobile computers in terms of both hardware and software.
  • Smartphones and Tablets
    You can use regular smartphones or tablets for scanning both barcodes and QR codes. Smartphones have all the advantages of the mobile computers. You can use smartphones to track assets anywhere: in the office, remote locations, in the field, on the service van, etc. Using smartphones, you can access and collect information. Moreover, built-in camera allows you to attach an image to the asset transaction; touchscreen allows you to obtain client's signature, and built-in GPS sensors can automatcally record location of the transaction. As an additional advantage, your employees can use their own smartphones, so you do not need to invest anything in purchasing hardware.
    Warning: You can use smartphones for assets scanning and tracking only if your asset management system comes with a smartphone application that will process scanned information and send it to the back-end software. Do not assume that you can use any generic barcode scanning application for asset tracking purpose.
The following arcticle discusses barcode and QR code scanning equipment in more details. It also deals with benefits and deficiencies of using each type of equipment.

Using QR Codes / Barcodes For Asset Tracking

When you do asset tracking and scan QR code / barcode instead of entering data manually, you uniquely identify an item, avoid errors associated with the manual entries and allow for the fast processing of asset transactions. This is the most common and least expensive asset tracking technology, and it workd well in most cases. Using scanning for asset tracking allows you to:

  • Scan in multiple assets when you receive them in the office or warehouse
  • Record asset transactions when assets are checked in or checked out by employees, shipped to a client, returned, sent to repair or undego rotine maintenance or service
  • Track and report damages to the assets (reports can be accompanied by photographs)
  • Access list of assets in all locations, including office / storage locations, clients sites, or employees
  • Track entire life cycle of each asset, from receiving to disposal
  • Perform periodic asset audits using barcode scanning, identify missing or misplaced assets

You might want to look into other asset tracking technologies if you have a high volume asset transactions to process on the regular basis, if you need to track assets that may be out of plain view (e.g. assets on incoming truck, assets that may be inside containers), and if your assets are constantly on the move and you need to map their changing position in real time (e.g. corporate vehicles).

  rfid for asset tracking

Tracking Assets Using RFID Technology

RFID Overview

In a broad sense, RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is a technology that uses radio waves to detect and identify an object. In application to asset and inventory management, RFID system consists of a reader (scanner) and a tag with embedded chip, antenna, and possibly a battery. Tags can be active and passive.
RFID system provides significant increase in processing speed compared to QR code / barcode scanning. Unlike barcode scanning systems, you do not need to scan each item individually. RFID reader will detect all assets within its working range at once. It also can detect items which are not in the plain view. For example, RFID reader installed at the gates can scan all incoming and outgoing assets without any human participation. RFID system that includes active tags can be used to map real time location of the moving assets within the limited distance range.

 

rfid tag

RFID Tags

RFID tags can be active and passive.

Passive RFID tag does not have a power of its own. It "wakes up" only when it appears in the RFID reader working range (around 60 feet maximum) and sends a signal containing encoded information. The reader receives and decodes information, and sends it to the back-end software for processing.
Information encoded in RFID tag is stored in a chip. Regular tag can usually store up to 24 characters, which is enough to encode an asset serial number. There are also tags with extended memory storage which can store more information.
Chip and antenna embedded in a passive RFID tag are very small in size, and visually RFID tag may look very similar to a barcode label. Just like barcode labels, some RFID tags can be peeled of a roll and stuck to an asset's surface. There are also more durable RFID tags made out of plastic, metal or ceramics, as well as special tags that can be used on a metal surface.
Pricing: passive RFID tags are more expensive than barcode or QR code labels. Tags with regular memory storage may cost between $0.07 and $0.15. However you cannot use regular printer to produce your own RFID tags out of blank tags, since you need to encode and imprint tags at the same time. You will need to purchase a special RFID printer which is capable of doing both operations simultaneously, or order pre-printed and pre-encoded RFID tags.
RFID system with passive RFID tags are good for detecting assets and processing of the large volume asset transactions within the single storage unit. You can check in or out large volume of assets (1000+) in a matter of seconds, while it would take a very long time to scan all of these assets one by one using barcode or QR code scanning. RFID reader installed at the location through which assets are passed on the way in and out can perform asset scanning automatically without any human participation.

Active RFID tag has its own battery, and can continuously broadcast its own signal. It also has a much broader (up to a mile) working range.
Since active RFID tag has its own battery it is much bigger in size. Active tag is usually enclosed in a hard casing, and often has external sensors to monitor environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) The cost may range from $25.00 to over $100.00, depending on tag's parameters and ability to withstand harsh conditions.
You only need to use active RFID tags if you want to map real time location of an asset within a limited distance range. These can be your most valuable assets, or assets that are being moved around and you need to locate them quickly at any given time. While an asset is within the working range of a reader, reader will receive an asset position data and pass it on to the back-end system for processing.

rfid readers   rfid readers

RFID Readers

There is a variety of RFID readers on the market that fit different purposes and vary in reading range, style (portable vs fixed), mobility (USB-connected vs wireless data connection, such as Wi-Fi or bluetooth), existence of a screen for data review and input and price.
Unlike barcode / QR code scanning system, where any barcode scanner can read any barcode, and any 2D imager barcode scanner can read any QR code, with RFID system you need to make sure that RFID reader and RFID tags that you plan to use are compatible. This meanst that they operate within the same radio frequency and use the same protocol to communicate.
At this time, smartphones cannot serve as RFID readers by themselves, however you can purchase RFID reader that connects to a smartphone or tablet.

  • Reading Range
    Reading range (the distance from which RFID tag can be read) depends on the radio frequency of the tag-reader system (a higher reading range requires a higher frequency), antenna size, and whether a tag is active or passive. Reading range for a passive tag may vary between several inches (low frequency system - LF) to up to 60 feet (ultra high frequency system - UHF) . Reading range for a system with the active ultra high frequency tags can reach up to a mile (1,600 meters).
  • RFID Reader Style
    RFID readers can be handheld (the one you can carry around and that looks very similar to a regular barcode scanner), fixed (the one that is installed in one place and reads RFID tags on the assets that are moving past it), and portable (dual purpose - you can install it or you carry around when needed). In most cases handheld RFID readers works well, but if you need to automatically track assets that are entering or leaving your facility (carried by employees or delivered on the trucks) you will need a fixed RFID reader.
  • RFID Reader Connection Type
    Just as barcode scanners, RFID readers can either connect to a back-end computer via a USB cable or wirelessly, using bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection. A wireless RFID reader offers an advantage of moving around and away from the computer when scanning assets. Bluetooth RFID reader will allow you to move only a short distance away from the computer (around 30 ft). If you need to scan assets at a longer range, you will need to purchase either Wi-Fi RFID reader, or RFID reader that connects to a smartphone. In a latter case you will also need a smartphone application that will read data from RFID scanner and send them to the back-end system for processing.
  • RFID Scanners and RFID Mobile Computers
    RFID readers can work as a scanner (read data and transfer to a back-end system, no screen and no option to review or input data), or as a mobile computer. RFID mobile computers work in the same manner as barcode scanning mobile computers. They have built-in screen and keyboard, and allow an employee to review information on the scanned asset, as well as collect data.
    A less expensive and more robust alternative to an RFID mobile computer can be RFID reader connected to a smartphone.

Using RFID vs. Barcodes / QR Codes For Asset Tracking

RFID technology provides tremendous increase in the processing speed when compared to traditional barcode scanning. Instead of scanning one asset at a time using barcode scanner, you can scan all assets in the working radius at the same time using RFID scanner. RFID tags do not even need to be on the asset's surface. As long as the tag is present, even inside the asset packaging or casing, it can be read.

This speed and convenience comes with a high price. RFID reader can cost anywhere between $500.00 and $2,000+. You also need to purchase special RFID tags that are generally noticeably more expensive than barcode labels and special RFID printer to encode and print tags. Software and service to put the entire RFID system together as a rule is also significantly more expensive than a barcode / QR code scanning asset tracking system.

The high price can be justified if regular QR code / barcode scanning does not work in your situation, for example:

  • you routinely process very high volume of assets
  • you are dealing with the moving assets which need to be tracked automatically at a high speed (e.g. conveyor belt)
  • you need to track assets inside casings or containers, where tags are not in a scanner view
  • you need to automatically track assets passing through the gates or other fixed location
  • assets that you are dealing with cannot be easily labeled (e.g. linens or clothing)
  • you need to map assets location in real time within the limited distance range

 

  nfc for asset tracking

NFC For Asset Tracking

NFC Overview: NFC vs. RFID

NFC (Near Field Communication) uses the same principles as RFID. The difference is that NFC tag should be much closer to the reader (usually within one inch), therefore you cannot read multiple assets at the same time. You do need to scan each asset individually. As with RFID technology, NFC tag can be on any side of an asset or even inside a packaging.
All NFC tags are passive (they send information to the reader only when they are in the reader's scanning range, do not have their own power), and have very short working range. Therefore you can not use NFC to map real time assets location, which is possible with RFID system. Rather you can use NFC system along with or instead of barcode scanning in order to increase scanning speed and still be able to use smartphones for mobile asset tracking.

nfc tag   nfc label

NFC Tags And Labels

NFC tags are very similar to the passive RFID tags. They consist of an antenna (which is used to detect NFC reader and send information) and a chip that stores encoded data. Antenna / chip combination is very small, and can be embedded in almost anything depending on the situation. You can purchase NFC tags in a variety of materials: plastic tags, disks, sticky labels (including durable, wheather-proof labels), plastic sticky tags, etc. Although you can print information on the NFC tag / label, no printed information is required for the purpose of assets scanning. All information that is transmitted to the reader is stored in the chip. You need to encode NFC tags so that they contain information you need.

If you want to imprint NFC tags, you might want to purchase a special NFC printer that can encode and print information at the same time. If you do not require printed information on NFC tags, you can use NFC scanner capable of writing information to NFC tags (NFC reader/writer), or you can use android smartphone to do this. Manual encoding, however, is feasible only for a small number of assets. If you have over a hundred assets to label, you would be better off automating encoding process using NFC encoding software or NFC printer.

NFC Readers

The situation with NFC readers is very similar to the barcode scanning -- you can either purchase a stand-alone NFC reader (or NFC reader/writer if you also want to encode NFC tags), or use a smartphone as an NFC reader. Advantages of using a smartphone as NFC reader are the same as for using a smartphone as a barcode scanner: you can track assets anywhere, use extra functionality, such as collecting data, taking photos, tracking GPS location, and do not need to purchase extra hardware. Unlike barcode scanners, which scan faster than smartphones, you do not have a speed advantage for the stand-alone NFC readers: smartphones and stand-alone NFC readers will read NFC tags at about the same speed. The only drawback of using smartphones is that currently you are limited to Android smartphones and some Android tablets. However, since NFC is growing in popularity, perhaps Apple will build NFC capabilities into iOS devices in the future.

Using NFC For Asset And Inventory Tracking

If you have a high volume of assets to process daily, if you need an option to track assets in the field and accross multiple locations, NFC is a good choice for you. NFC technology provides noticeable gain in scanning speed as compared to barcode / QR code scanning. You do not need to focus a reader (scanner) on a tag as you do when scanning barcodes or QR codes. You only need to touch one asset after another in order to scan them all. And, as with RFID technology, tag can be inside casing or packaging and not in a plain view.
At the same time, unlike RFID where you need to purchase dedicated RFID scanners (or RFID mobile computers if you need to track assets in the field), you can use regular smartphones (currently only android) as NFC readers / writers, so NFC system will be significantly less expensive to implement.

 

  gps asset tracking

GPS Systems For Asset Tracking

How Does GPS Asset Tracking System Work?

GPS (Gloabal Positioning System) consists of a system of satellites that are communicating with receivers on the ground. Receivers (GPS tracking devices) are programmed to communicate with the sattelite system at a preset time intervals, receive an information and recalculate it into geographic coordinates. Some tracking devices then store collected information internally, so that you need to retreive the device, connect it to the computer and download device location log. Most common and useful are GPS devices which immediately push collected information to the central server, where it can be accessed in real time from any computer or mobile phone or tablet.

In order to implement GPS asset tracking system, you need:

  • A service provider
    A provider who owns a server network that will communicate with GPS tracking devices, process information and display it on the map and via reports.
  • GPS tracking devices
    You will need to attach a GPS tracking device to each asset you plan to track.

Unlike previously described system (QR code / barcode scanning, NFC, RFID), GPS asset tracking does not require any human participation to track assets: no scanning, recording of transactions, filling out the forms, etc.). Once you attach GPS tracking device connected to your provider system to an asset, the tracking starts and continues automatically.

gps asset tracking device   gps asset tracking device

GPS Asset Tracking Devices

Although GPS asset tracking devices are sometimes called GPS tags, they are not anywhere close to tags or labels. These are devices, somethat similar to a smartphone in size and appearance, that you attach to the asset you want to track. GPS tracking devices communicate with GPS system at a regular time intervals, receive a GPS signal, recalculate it in geographic coordinates and either store the geographic position internally or push it to the server for processing. For the real time asset tracking you will normally need a device that pushes data to the server, so that you could monitor real time asset location.

Each GPS tracking device that reports information to the server must be configured to communicate with a specific provider. If you would like to implement a GPS asset tracking system, you would usually select GPS tracking devices from the provider with whom you plan to work. Provider will then ship you pre-configured devices. This works somewhat similar to how your order a smartphone from Verizone or AT&T and sign up for a data plan. As a rule, you will pay a fee for each device itself, and then monthly fee for each trackable asset, again similar to how it works for the smartphone plans. On average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $10.00 and $100.00 per each device, and $5.00 to $30.00 per asset / device for the monthly service. (Notice that prices vary significantly, you might want to take this into account when shopping for the provider.)

Tracking Assets Using GPS Asset Tracking System

GPS asset tracking stands apart from the other asset tracking systems (barcode / QR code scanning, NFC, RFID) and is used for somewhat different purpose. If all of the above systems are used to track asset location in terms of business units (e.g. which office, room, remote site, real estate unit, service van an asset is located in, or which employee has it - geographical position is not that important and may change in case of service vans or employees). GPS system tracks only geographical position of an asset. Unlike barcode / NFC / RFID systems, GPS system tracks asset position continuously and automatically, without any human participation. Barcode / NFC / RFID systems track assets transactions history (where and how an asset was used over its life cycle), while GPS system tracks assets path and changing of geographical position.

As a result, GPS asset tracking is commonly used for the moving assets (such as vehicles), shipping containers, valuable assets and in the other situations where geographical position and path of an asset must be tracked in real time. If your primarily goal is to track assets location, life-cycle transactions and usage history, you need to use other asset tracking technologies -- either barcode / QR code scanning, NFC or RFID.

If you are not in the position to implement full-blown GPS asset tracking system (perhaps due to a necessity of a significant investment or if your assets are not suitable for attaching GPS tracking devices to them) the workaround can be a QR code scanning system that uses smartphone as a scanner. Smartphones have a capability to determine current GPS location and send it to the server along with the other transaction information. You will just need to ask your employees to scan QR code on the asset in their posession or on site periodically to determine geographic location of an asset at certain time intervals.

 

 

Which Asset Tracking Method Is Best For Your Business - Takeaways

When deciding which asset tracking technology will work best for your business, you can use this general rule of thumb:

  • Barcode / QR Code Asset Tracking
    This is the least expensive and easierst to implement method, and it works well for any situation where your main goal is to organize assets, make sure you know where each asset is at any moment, be able to track assets movement history and periodically audit assets to identify if something is missing or misplaced. Specific business scenarios may include:

    • Tracking work tools -- tracking who takes a tool, when is it returned and in what condition, checking where tools are and how they are used.
    • Tracking expensive audio-video and electronic equipment - tracking expensive equipment that employees are borrowing for a job.
    • Tracking rental equipment -- tracking assets and equipment that is rented out or leased out to customers. It can be anything from IT equipment to events management equipment to heavy construction equipment.
    • Real estate asset tracking -- tracking assets in rental units: which asset is in what unit, which assets are not returned, missing or broken after rental ends, assets inventory.
    • Tracking of assets circulating between office and remote / customer locations -- may include containers that are sent to customers and are returned when empty, testing equipment installed at homes during inspections and removed, beer kegs tracking, etc.
    • Tracking of office and IT equipment -- tracking of office computers and other IT equipment, assign equipment to employees, perform audits to check for misplaced or missing assets.
    • Asset tracking in storage and logistics - tracking of client's assets that are temporarily stored in your warehouse and / or returned or shipped to a client.
  • NFC Asset Tracking

    NFC asset tracking can be used instead of or along with QR Code / barcode scanning based asset tracking if you need to process large volume of assets fast. If your regular asset transaction (such as receiving new assets, processing rental returns, etc.) may include 50+ items you will save significant time by processing these transactions faster using NFC. You can also use NFC scanning only for a part of your assets that require it, and QR code / barcode scanning for the rest.
    NFC is only slightly more expensive than QR code / barcode scanning. The cost increase is due to the fact that NFC tags are more expensive, and you need to outsource their production or purchase a special NFC printer. Also, if you plan to use smartphones for NFC tags scanning, currently you are limited to the Android phones, although you can use both iPhones and Android smartphones with the attached NFC reader.

  • RFID Asset Tracking

    RFID asset tracking system is much more expensive to implement than barcode scanning based or NFC systems. In addition to the software and service fee, you will need to purchase a lot of dedicated hardware: RFID scanners, RFID printers, possibly RFID mobile computers if you need to track assets outside of the office. Some situations where RFID investment is warranted are:

    • Tracking of the very high volume of assets on the regular basis
    • Tracking of the assets inside containers or packaging
    • Automatic tracking of assets passing through a checkpoint (e.g. conveyer belts, people carrying assets through the gates, etc.)
    • Assets that are not suitable for labeling, such as linens or clothing that need to be washed on a regular basis)
    • Requirement to discover and map real time asset location within a limited distance range (requires active RFID tags)
  • GPS Asset Tracking

    GPS asset tracking makes sense only if your goal is to continuously monitor real time geographical position of an asset, restore an asset path during any given time interval and make sure that an asset is staying withing the set boundaries (you will receive automatic alert if it crosses established boundary). It is a very specific purpose, and it is different from broader asset tracking goals (tracking asset locations, transactions, life-time history and usage, auditing assets) which can be achieved by using other methods: QR code / barcode scanning, NFC or RFID.

 
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See It For Yourself - Mobile Asset & Inventory Tracking In Action