How to choose the right asset tagging solution

Generally, the idea of adding a tag or label to an item is to assist with identification. The most commonly used example of this is the standard UPC barcode which is present on virtually every commercially sold product. When this barcode is scanned, details such as the cost and a description of the item can be retrieved from a database, identifying the distinct product from all others.

Whilst the unique tag on an item may never change, the information stored against it within a database could. For example if the product goes on sale or promotion the price may change but the barcode would remain the same. This system is simple and effective, but without a database combined with the unique number, it’s nothing more than a string of digits stored as a 1D barcode.

1D & 2D Barcode

Another form of barcode is the 2D format. These are commonly found on technology items such as mobile phones and are a mosaic of squares much like a jumbled chessboard. The advantage of 2D over 1D is that the barcode can be much smaller in size yet with a higher data capacity. There are different formats of 1D barcodes, however each typically contain less than 50 characters, 2D barcodes could contain in excess of 200. The two main standards for 2D are QR codes, which have seen some success in marketing and advertising by helping to navigate users to specific online content when the user scans the QR code with their mobile phone. Data matrix (the second most common format), has seen adoption in logistics and manufacturing. Both can be very small (5mm/sq) yet still contain a lot of data and in some applications can be used independently to hold all required information solely in the tag without the need to connect to a database to retrieve more details.

Unlike 1D barcodes where the data is printed above or below the tag for reading without a barcode scanner, 2D barcodes do not usually have the information printed to be read without a scanner. Most barcodes can be read using dedicated barcode scanners (laser or imaging), and virtually all smart phone cameras have the ability to decode both 1D and 2D barcodes natively or via third-party applications. They are reasonably robust and can usually take some minor damage before becoming unreadable, with some formats offering more resilience than others, however they do require a “line-of-sight” to be read. With infinite label and printing options, tamper proof, weather proof and colour independent the technology is cheap and proven.

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Using RFID

In recent years, a number of types of tagging technology have gained prominence. These tags communicate using wireless protocols to the readers or decoders. The most common is RFID which has two main formats, passive and active. Active tags contain a small battery and periodically transmit their data to readers, passive tags have no battery and are activated when radio energy from a reader is transmitted to it allowing it to send its data as a response.

RFID tags do not require “line-of-sight” to be read and whilst there are a number of frequencies and standards, on average the range of data transmission is around 1 metre although some formats can go much further. As with 2D barcodes, the information stored on the tag is rarely printed or visible without a reader, however the data can be re-written or updated if information about the tagged item changes or the tag is reused. This is especially useful as the tags and technology are relatively expensive, although active tags in particular have a limited lifespan as the battery will deplete over time and would need to be swapped out. Tags can be incredibly small, however as the size decreases, the data capacity, transmission distance and other functions are severely limited.

A subset of RFID is NFC, these tags also communicate using specific radio waves, however the technology is increasingly being added to smartphones and computers making the technology very accessible as they can send and receive data to other active and passive NFC tags and devices.

Bluetooth and WiFi tags are other technologies using radio frequencies to transmit data, however both require power to function with no passive, non-powered tags.

Choosing the right asset tagging solution

Deciding which technology is appropriate depends entirely on the situation and budget. Barcodes are proven and once tagged do not need maintenance, however the data cannot be updated without reprinting the tag with the new data. There are many devices which can read barcodes, anyone who has a smartphone has the capacity to do so, and 2D barcodes can hold a lot of data in a very small space. Barcodes do need to be seen to be read however, and this is normally a manual, albeit a split second to take a scan from a short distance away. This does add an element of accuracy as if you know where the barcode reader is, the barcode is there too. It’s incredible cheap and quick to roll out an effective barcode solution and if the desired application has a limited amount of change and updates required to the tags it can be a very effective solution.

Wireless tags pose an interesting option where there is potentially a lot of change and automation and detection are a requirement. The initial investment in the technology can be high as tags, readers, encoders and sensors need to be setup and aren’t cheap. Sensors could be placed around doors to automatically detect tags moving in and out or active tags could emit a signal every hour to indicate they are present in a given location. This could be used to monitor equipment from vehicles to mobile phones or people passing through a building. Accuracy may be an issue, passive tags require a reader to work and like barcodes if you know where the reader is, the tag will likely be close by, but active tags have a relatively high range and could be anywhere in a room or location.

A flexible approach

Our company has deployed a number of solutions to manage IT asset inventories. Usually, 2D barcodes are more than sufficient to tag equipment with details such as name, serial number, asset number, manufacturer, location and owner. This can be done as part of an audit to ensure all information is correct and our small mobile printers can instantly print a 2D tag out to be fixed onto the device. Where a device only moves once or twice a year, when managed with strict change procedures, re-tagging with new information becomes part of the move and validation process. We have also seen success with RFID tags which can be used to detect when an item enters and leaves a room, assisting with installation and decommission processes. We adopt a flexible approach by reviewing and recommending appropriate solutions depending on the exact requirements and can demonstrate each option to help users understand the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Find out how TRACKIT are providing businesses with smarter asset management solutions, empowering them with the insight to make more intelligent business decisions at www.trackit-solutions.com

Author: Michael Pettitt

Trackit CTO

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