"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.
Components of a Barcode Label
A barcode label is composed of the following:
- Face stock
- Face stock is the material on which the barcode is printed. It can be paper, polyester, foil, synthetic film, metal, a magnet, and a variety of other types.
- Laminate or Top Coat
- Laminate or top coat is the protective coating or covering placed on top of the face stock after the barcode is printed. Usually the laminate is some form of plastic material.
- There are a variety of inks available. If your assets are indoor-only, you can get away with a less expensive ink. For outdoor assets, you'll want ultra-violet light-resistant ink. These inks can last for years in direct sunlight.
- Adhesive is glue. It comes in different strengths, or "aggressiveness". The two main types are removable and permanent. For durable asset tracking purposes, you want highly aggressive or permanent adhesive.
- The labels we sell use a certain 3M adhesive that has "flow". Over a 72-hour period, the adhesive continues to work its way into the surface, increasing the bond strength. The longer it sits, the better it grips.
Barcode Label Features
The following features can be added to labels.
- Size and shape
- Consider carefully when choosing a barcode label size and shape. Generally speaking, the bigger the barcode, the easier it is to scan it from a distance. But large labels can cause problems for some kinds of assets.
- Some of TrackAbout's customers track gas cylinders. The right place for a barcode label on a gas cylinder is on the "shoulder", not the side. The shoulder is the spherical top of the cylinder where the valve is attached. Gas cylinders are stacked upright, next to and touching other cylinders. Putting the barcode label on the cylinder's side would subject it to much more abuse over time than on the shoulder.
- Large labels do not affix well to the spherical shoulder of a gas cylinder. A too-large label will crease, bubble or otherwise deform. Dirt and other substances will get under the label, and it will not last.
- A professional label manufacturer can manufacture specially-shaped labels that perform better on spherical assets than the typical rectangle label, like these:
- Logos and design
- Adding your company logo to your barcode label makes your assets more easily recognizable. It also gets your company name out there and turns your assets into "brand ambassadors", which a marketing person will tell you is a Good Thing™
- You can get very creative with QR Codes. They were designed to support placing graphics or logos directly within the barcode without harming readability.
- A good label design helps to distinguish the asset tracking barcode from other barcodes that may appear on a piece of equipment. We've seen cases where there are three or four other barcodes for other purposes on a single asset. It becomes hard for workers to know which barcode is the right one to scan. A unique look and consistent placement helps your workers know which barcode is the right one.
- Ultra-violet ink
- Information can be hidden in plain sight on labels, made visible only by shining a UV lamp on it. This might be useful if you need to keep your label footprint small, but still encode human-readable information that only needs to be viewed rarely.
- Destructible vinyl
- You may be familiar with this feature if your city or town issues vehicle stickers. Most vehicle stickers cannot be removed and reused without causing them to be destroyed. We do not recommend this feature for asset tracking as it intentionally creates a brittle label. Generally, this feature's goal is fraud prevention.
- Holograms, or "Help me Obi-Wan. This label costs too much."
- Wouldn't holograms look cool on your assets? They might, but this will drive up the price of the label and provide no real benefit for physical asset tracking. Mainly, holograms are a security product used for forgery prevention, anti-counterfeiting. authentication, document security, IDs, scratch cards, and some kinds of packaging.
- Infrared ink
- A special laminating film can make it impossible to read the information on the label with the naked eye. Instead, special infrared scanners are required to read barcodes through the black film. Typical uses include identifying black cables and other black objects. It creates a virtually undetectable label for tracking tools or other capital assets. Not super useful for our purposes.
- Assets can be subjected to many challenging environments. You'll need to choose the appropriate label features depending on the kinds of conditions your assets might be exposed to.
- Do your assets get cleaned with industrial strength cleaners, solvents like methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) or even high-pressure steam? Are your assets exposed to grease and oil? Jet fuel? Brake fluid? Face stock, laminate, ink and adhesives can all be adapted to survive these kinds of conditions.
- For asset tracking, you want a laminate that resists yellowing and cracking for years. You want protection from physical abrasion and scuffing, cleaning solvents, and harsh chemicals. You want a tag that will provide a clean (and cleanable), scannable image for years of useful service.
- Labels made with high-quality polyester face stock improve resistance to ultraviolet light, temperature and humidity extremes. This type of label will be much more resistant to oil, grease, solvents, caustic cleaners and acids.
- If your assets are often in the sunlight, you'll want all components of the label to be UV-resistant.
- Shine and gloss
- Which scans better, a high-gloss label or a low-gloss label? It depends on the scanner technology being used.
- Laser scanners used to be the best. Around 2007, imager technology began to replace laser technology. Imagers are cheaper to manufacture, have fewer patent and licensing restrictions, and no moving parts. A smartphone camera today can make a great imager scanner.
- Laser scanners perform best with shiny, reflective labels. Conversely, image sensors can be blinded by glare coming off a shiny, reflective label. Imager scanners work best with flat- or matte-finish labels.
- Tamper indication
- Labels can be made so that if removed, they leave behind a unique message readable using ultraviolet light. If you have problems with customers or employees removing your labels, you might consider adding a tamper indication feature to your labels. This obviously increases manufacturing cost.
Quality Control in Printing
Does your label printer produce readable barcodes 100% of the time? How would you know?
Do you test your labels to ensure no duplicate barcodes were printed? Unwanted duplicates are the bane of all asset tracking systems.
Are you sure the checksum or error-correction encoding is correct 100% of the time?
The best professional label printers have sophisticated quality control systems with both manual and automated checking of the printed labels. A good system will scan every label after printing to ensure correctness and guard against duplicates.
Don't think of barcode labels as simply "stickers". Not all labels are created equal. If you need your labels to survive for years in challenging environments, then you must seriously consider the points outlined in this chapter. If your assets are worth tracking, then they're worth labeling with the best label possible.