QR Codes & Electronics Supply Chain

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.

24 comments on “QR Codes & Electronics Supply Chain

  1. Himanshugupta
    November 28, 2011

    Did not know until now what QR code is so the link in the article helped very much. After knowing what QR code is, first thing that came to my mind is this ad by Blackberry:

    Pretty unique in its appeal. 

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 28, 2011

    Interesting possibilities for the supply chain. If the cost savings become compelling enough, it sounds like a good technology.

  3. Eldredge
    November 28, 2011

    Particularly in the case of medical information, providing communication between the scanning device and the symbol becomes critical, allowing the scanner to read only if the device is authorized. Interesting technology.

  4. JADEN
    November 28, 2011

    This technology can ensure product authenticity and solve the problem of counterfeiting in supply chain, it's just to embedded anti-counterfeit encyption into QR codes and place it on the electronics products.  Some electronics products already have it, like Insignia LED TV.

  5. Anna Young
    November 28, 2011

    “Average costs are difficult to determine, because the technology aims to solve unique company problems”.

    This is a great idea and a new venture for the electronics supply chain. If the costing issue is simplified.

  6. Anne
    November 28, 2011


    You're right, it can provide a product verification to know which product is original, and the consumers can as well access the manufacturer's website by scanning the products QR code to learn more about the brand and its products.

  7. stochastic excursion
    November 28, 2011

    The codes can not only link to large amounts of data, but also triggers scripts on a web server linked to the scanner.  This has interesting possibilities for automated manufacturing and logistics.

  8. Dorothea Blouin
    November 28, 2011

    Unless QR codes are a lot smaller than I've seen, they are going to be too big for many electronic components, especially the rice grain sized passive components.  Marking the reel is not enough these days.



  9. Anna Young
    November 28, 2011

    @Dorothea, Valid point. But don't you think the point about size also applies to RFID tags? In the end, perhaps the utility of these devices is more in the packaging than in the individual components. It's also likely supply chain people may seek to use QR codes only in finished goods because it may be easier to place the symbols on the packaging.

  10. electronics862
    November 28, 2011

    With the help of QR code we can store more data about the product than RFID . We can reduce the size as the it's only binary/alphanumeric symbols. The readability is fast in improving the decoding rate. We can hope in the near future QR will be all over.

  11. Daniel
    November 28, 2011

    Electronics862, you are right and it has its own advantages. But the drawback is QR code can be implemented in batch wise only, it’s not able to empose on each resistor or capacitor or IC. So the tracking is possible only by batch or lot wise.

  12. DataCrunch
    November 28, 2011

    QR codes have their purpose, but at this point I can’t see them being used as a replacement for standard barcode in the supply chain.  Believe it or not, many companies still don’t even use regular barcodes within their supply chain.  QR codes require a camera phone to scan them, which would be too slow compared to the almost immediate response time of scanning a barcode.  RFID would be a more practical choice in the supply chain vs QR codes, at least for now.

  13. SunitaT
    November 29, 2011

    Although there are many advantages to using QR Codes there are also a few disadvantages to its use. One of the downfalls is you can't tell what it says, or even who put it there. “A spoofer can get you to click on a QR Code to a malicious link,”

  14. SunitaT
    November 29, 2011

    QR codes require a camera phone to scan them, which would be too slow compared to the almost immediate response time of scanning a barcode.  

    @Dave you are absolutely right, moreover QR codes doesnt work properly if the surface is curved because device can't read the QR code if its on curved surface.

  15. SunitaT
    November 29, 2011

    But the drawback is QR code can be implemented in batch wise only, it’s not able to empose on each resistor or capacitor or IC.

    @Jacob is there any restriction on the size of the QR code? What will happen if we create a tiny QR code on each resistor or capacitor ?

  16. jbond
    November 29, 2011

    Right now there are at least two issues with using QR Codes regularly. The first issue is cost. Right know it would be expensive for many companies to switch over to this technology. Another issue is reliability. I can't tell you how many times I have tried to scan these codes and they haven't worked. They are just too sensitive right now to be reliable enough to implement into a supply chain.

  17. tioluwa
    November 29, 2011

    I think the points jbond raised are very important.


    It is one thing to track vehicle parts across one a manufacturing plant, or check out drugs when purchased, but it is another to track parts when they have to travel across the globe through various enviromental conditions.

    Once a QR code has any physical defect, it changes completely and could become unreadle.

    As for the cost issues, i'm not perfectly sure how much they are compare to the present cost of tracking in the supply chain, but i'm thinking there is no reason why they should be too much.


    If QR codes have any advantage ove rthe present tracking methods being used, then i know it is possible to work around the present limitations that it has to make is useable and affordable.

  18. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 29, 2011

    In my opinion this technology is still in a flux and it will be too early to predict whether it be adopted on a mass scale like the Bar-codes.

    Let the initial excitement turn into a steady state and then only we will be able to predict its future acceptance .

    As of today , I feel there are many issues with this technology , which need to be sorted out – dependance on ambient light, camera quality, the physical wear and tear of such tags are some of these issues.



  19. Taimoor Zubar
    November 29, 2011

    @Tioluwa: I agree with you here. From what I have researched, QR codes are two dimensional barcodes which are an advanced version of normal barcodes. The advantage that QR codes offers over normal barcodes is that they are able to store more information. I don't think that's too much of a need in the case of inventory items. Normal barcodes are good enough to store all the properties of inventory items. Besides, QR codes have to be read in line of sight of the reader, so that will limit their use. RFID technology clearly has its edge when it comes to using tags for inventory.

  20. arenasolutions
    November 29, 2011

    My CTO recently published an article about using QR codes in manufacturing, and while it was focused more on the OEM side, I see no reason why suppliers couldn't adopt this as well.

    QR codes are a natural fit for manufacturing, as scanners are already used for inventory control, and electronic documentation is increasing in usage on the shop floor. With the popularization of tablet computers, I believe this trend will accelerate, and QR codes will provide a great way to connect electronic documents to the real world.

    With the ability to create scannable URLs, manufacturers can implement a point-and-browse experience on the shop floor.  For example, if work orders listing collections of parts included a QR code, a technician with a tablet could scan the work order, and immediately pull up the latest approved assembly procedure.

    Manufacturers could also use this functionality to improve inventory management—with QR code-enhanced bins that provide a real-world bookmark for the latest specifications for each part.

    Has anyone experienced this application of the technology?


  21. Laurie Sullivan
    November 29, 2011

    Hi Areasolutions, can you share that article, maybe post a link, to that article from your CTO, please. Thanks. Much appreciated. — Laurie

  22. Anna Young
    November 29, 2011

    Laurie, Here's the link: Do QR codes belong on the shop floor? Arenasolutions inserted it into her comment.

  23. Laurie Sullivan
    November 29, 2011

    Nice, thank you. It didn't see it.

  24. lmagniez
    February 15, 2012


    At MapYourTag we have developped an application to track any of your resource in no time with QR code
    In one single interface get quickly your QR code, print it and stick it on any of your resource, item, asset, equipment… Flash it with your smartphone to get instantly its geolocation and to update its status.

    Online Tracking Software with QR code for Resources, Equipments, Assets, Items,…



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