Many of us think of lasers when we think of scanning barcodes. Indeed, lasers were the dominant scanning technology for the first several decades of the barcoding industry. Around 2007, new imaging technology became competitive with lasers. Today lasers are no longer the best choice in all (or even most) scenarios.
In this chapter, we’ll explore the barcode scanning technologies that are being used successfully for asset tracking. In keeping with the theme of this book, we won’t be going into great detail about how the technologies fundamentally work. Instead, we’ll focus on what you need to know to make a wise choice in technology and have good outcomes depending on your particular use case.
- Ability to read the most barcode symbologies
- Reading a barcode on a screen
- Reading at a distance
- Motion tolerance
- Reading poor quality barcodes
- Lighting conditions
Choosing a Tracking ID
When tracking your equipment, every item must have a unique identifier (ID) assigned so the system can tell them apart. This can be called the “tracking ID”, “tag ID” or “barcode”.
But how do you choose the format of that unique ID? What do you encode into the barcode?
Depending on your industry, this might already be decided for you. The GS1 organization helps many industries standardize their barcodes. As a company, you would register a globally-unique barcode prefix with GS1. Your company is then free to use the remaining space in the barcode to encode your own unique numbers.
If GS1 barcodes aren’t right for you, then the most important thing is that you choose numbers that are going to be unique among all your supply chain partners, among all their assets and all the systems they might use.
Many assets have serial numbers assigned by the manufacturer. The serial number may be on a sticker, a metal plate, or indelibly stamped or engraved into the asset.
TrackAbout recommends capturing the serial number in the asset tracking system whenever possible. The serial number serves as an extra way to find an asset should the barcode or RFID tag become unreadable or lost.
You might think, “Hey, the manufacturer went to all this trouble to stamp this serial number on here. It’s unique, let’s use it as our tracking ID.” Please believe me when I say this is a Really Bad Idea.
We covered the Code 39 barcode symbology in a previous chapter. Now we’ll tackle Code 39’s little brother, Code 128.
Code 128 is an improvement on Code 39. It was designed to be more compact than Code 39 and it is about 30% narrower. This means more data can be encoded in a smaller space. It also means spending less money on ink or toner.
Here is the string 1234567 encoded using Code 128.
Here is the same string 1234567 encoded with Code 39:
You can see it takes a lot more bars to encode the Code 39 version. Code 128 is more efficient.
Everyone loves efficiency, BUT creating Code 128 barcodes is more complicated than creating Code 39 barcodes.
In keeping with the theme of this book, we’ll try not to get bogged down in the complications. Instead, we’ll narrow our scope to just what you need to know to get the job done.
If you only think of a barcode as a tracking ID, think bigger. Shortcut barcodes can be used as work accelerators enabling great gains in worker productivity.
A shortcut barcode is a custom barcode that speeds data entry or makes the software do something other than just collect data. Whenever there’s a chance to scan a barcode rather than type or tap on the screen, we try to use a shortcut barcode.
TrackAbout’s mobile apps support shortcut barcodes in many places. We’ve worked with our customers to accelerate mobile workflows in dozens of ways through the clever use of well-placed shortcut barcodes.
This chapter will discuss several uses of shortcut barcodes that we’ve implemented in TrackAbout.
“Will it last?”
We get that question a lot. In TrackAbout’s 15 years of business, we’ve had the good fortune to see our barcode labels used in the harshest, most challenging environments in the world. We’ve learned the hard way what makes a great barcode label that lasts. TrackAbout sells asset tracking barcode labels to most of our customers.
You might think a label is a label is a label, but you’d be wrong. There are features you can tweak to arrive at the best label. In this chapter, I’ll focus on exactly what you need to know to make a great barcode label for use with an asset tracking system.
What is a Barcode Symbology?
If you’re learning about barcodes, you’ll quickly come across the term “symbology”. The easiest way to think about symbology is that it’s the look and feel of the barcode. A barcode symbology is a specification that describes how a certain barcode looks and how it does what it does.
More than a hundred different symbologies have been developed since the invention of the barcode. Many are obsolete and have been replaced with more robust, readable symbologies. Many aren’t used in typical asset tracking applications. We’ll focus on the barcode symbologies that we see most often in asset tracking software and applications.
We see the following symbologies most frequently in asset tracking applications:
- Code 39
- Code 128
- QR Code
- Data Matrix
In this chapter, we’ll focus on Code 39.
The first barcode, with a design like a bullseye, was invented in 1948 by two Drexel University students named Norman J Woodland and Bernard Silver. They were interested in tackling the problems of the supermarket industry, which sorely needed a better method of inventory management and customer check-out. The pair received a patent in 1952. Long story short, it worked in the lab but was wildly impractical due to the limitations of the technology of the day.
The first practical implementation of a linear barcode came in the 1960s. The Association of American Railroads sponsored the project and Sylvania (Needham, Massachusetts) built the KarTrak ACI (Automatic Car Identification) system.
David J. Collins, an MIT graduate, designed the system. He had become aware of the need for tracking rail cars while working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an undergraduate.
Collins’ KarTrak system used a pattern of 3M Scotchlite blue and orange strips which encoded mainly ownership details and a unique car number.
“KarTrak code” photo by Quinn Rossi – http://www.flickr.com/photos/theeskimo/4898894840/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.
Barcodes are technology, but we don’t often think of them as such. It’s easy to take barcodes for granted. They are everywhere, quietly playing a vital role in the identification of objects moving through the world.
TrackAbout built its asset tracking software business on the back of the humble barcode. Our customers all use barcodes and related auto-ID technology such as radio frequency ID tags (RFID) to track their assets. We felt there was a lack of writing that focused on the use of labels and tags specifically for the purposes of serialized, unique asset tracking.
Today we’re announcing the start of a project to write an eBook we’re calling, The Ultimate Guide to Barcodes for Asset Tracking. The mission of this eBook is to provide practical, need-to-know information about the use of barcode labels as it relates to physical asset tracking, and specifically the kind of asset tracking TrackAbout sees every day with its customers. TrackAbout’s sweet spot is tracking durable, physical, reusable assets that go out into the world and eventually return home to be serviced and sent out again.
We’re not going to dive deep into every technical nook and cranny. That is not in keeping with the mission of this book. Instead, if you’d like to learn more, we’ll provide links to sites where you can explore the topics in more depth.
Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags are another important auto-id technology that TrackAbout supports. We have several customers using the technology today. However, to keep the scope of this eBook focused, we will primarily discuss barcodes with only some basic information on RFID. Please do know that TrackAbout works with all tag technologies. There’s a right tag for every job, and we love all our tag children equally.
Here are the chapters we are planning, in no particular order. Completed chapters have links to the blog post.
- Barcodes: A Brief History
- The Code 39 Barcode Symbology
- What Makes a Great Barcode Label?
- Use Shortcut Barcodes to Accelerate Your Work
- The Code 128 Barcode Symbology
- Pitfall: Serial Numbers are Not Unique
- When is a Laser not a Laser?
- Best Practices for Affixing Labels
- How to Scan Like a Pro
- QR Code and Data Matrix – What You Need to Know
- When Barcodes Aren’t the Right Tool for the Job
- RFID vs Barcodes for Asset Tracking
- Online Barcode Generators
- Maintaining Your Asset History Chain
We may add or remove topics as we go.
We will be publishing the chapters of this book on our company blog. When the book is complete, we’ll release it in a variety of formats including PDF.
If you’d like to be notified when new chapters are released, please subscribe using one of the forms at the top or bottom of this post.
Thanks for reading!
Chief Technology Officer