Advertising agencies and companies use QR codes to promote specific brands and products. Each scan of the code streams not only location data, but also product-specific information and the type of device scanning the code. The codes can support and transfer more information than radio frequency identification (RFID), near field communications (NFC), or traditional bar codes. The devices that read QR codes — standard cameras on smartphones — can send information through cellular service to any connected Web-based application.
Should electronics manufacturers consider using QR codes to track goods through their supply chains? Denso, a Toyota subsidiary, created the codes in 1994 to track parts and cars in vehicle manufacturing. The technology does not appear to have caught on across the electronics industry, but adoption in other industries, such as pharmaceutical and consumer products, tell another story.
Though Denso created the codes to track auto manufacturing, consumer adoption continues to increase at staggering rates, proving that today's technology can easily support deployments. About 14 million US mobile users scanned a QR code in June 2011, according to a comScore study. Other industries are also looking into using the codes.
Scanbuy CEO Mike Wehrs said in an interview that his company continues to have talks with pharmaceutical companies to put drug interaction codes on packaging. “We're advocating that the codes go on the product,” which could also help to curtail drug counterfeiting.
When parts of New York were evacuated during a recent hurricane warning, many hospital patients were left wandering in the streets, and it took days, not hours, to find everyone, Wehrs said. As a result, the American Heart Association approached Scanbuy to create a code that could be scanned with a mobile phone to provide emergency contact information. An emergency medical technician who scanned the code would get full Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA)-compliant information, he said. The trick would be to determine whether the scanner was an average person or an EMT.
QR codes would not face HIPPA compliance challenges, but Wehrs said any surface irregularities, such as bumps or cellophane wrap, would hinder scans, and dim light could cause code errors. Cost might also become a factor. Scanbuy and NeoMedia charge for their code-tracking services. Scanbuy tailors packages to customers' needs. According to Meghan J. McDonough at LAPTOP Web, the services generally range from limited-traffic scanning for $25 a month to packages that start at $1,500 for larger marketing campaigns.
Average costs are difficult to determine, because the technology aims to solve unique company problems. But Mark Roberti, founder and editor of RFID Journal, argues that QR codes are “way more expensive” than RFID technology. “You can buy UHF EPC Gen 2 inlays for 7 cents in quantities of 1 million or more. Converted labels are about 15 cents. Outfitting small distribution centers with, say, 10 dock doors might be $100,000. Outfitting a store with one receiving bay, one impact door, and one exit is probably $50,000 plus tagging of items.”
Let's use an example of tracking humans rather than assets. In a recent forum discussion on the RFID Journal Website, Cheryl of Dayton, Ohio, wrote about researching RFID-enabled wristbands for event check-ins. By scanning a wristband at Facebook or Foursquare reader stations at the event, a visitor would check in to that location. That check-in would show up on the visitor's Facebook news feed and allow the visitor to upload photos and post a status update on social media sites.
Roberti wrote that providing detailed pricing on this type of example is difficult, because multiple factors influence cost. “A wristband might cost $10 for one that is reusable and has some style — versus, say, $3 for a wristband that is used once and then thrown away.” The costs also vary depending on whether you use passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) or passive high-frequency (HF) tags, which cost a little more, he wrote.
Another example posted in the RFID Journal forum involves a small freight company that wants to track cargo and show a customer when a package is shipped, its location in transit, and when it is delivered. According to Roberti, the actual expenses could vary quite a bit, including 20 cents for each RFID label and $10,000 for a tagging station that includes a PC, software, and a label printer-encoder.
The electronics industry could get another option as Google builds out its network of NFC mobile phone readers supporting Google Wallet, an electronic payment service being used by retailers such as Bloomingdale's. QR codes and NFC technology are just two of the asset-tracking alternatives the electronics industry may want to consider when rethinking inventory systems.