QR Codes vs. Barcodes in Inventory Tracking

When looking for ways to track your inventory, you will undoubtedly arrive at the dilemma of whether you should use barcodes or QR codes. Even though the basic concept behind the two options is the same, there are notable differences between the two.


What is a Barcode?

Barcodes are one-dimensional codes that typically consist of a series of black bars with varied widths superimposed on a white background. The variation of the width of the bars creates a unique combination that is readable with a barcode scanner.

Inventory specialists use barcoding software to create a different sequence for each individual Stock Keeping Unit, print out labels with the barcodes, and stick them onto the package, the goods themselves, and the racks where the goods are held.

These simple barcodes can convey small amounts of information, usually up to 25 characters. That is enough, however, if you only need the tags to convey a small piece of information, such as the SKU code and the price of the item.

Read more about Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) – Definition and Best Practices.

The European Article Number (EAN) code is one of the more widely used linear barcodes.

What is a QR code?

QR codes (Quick Response codes, also known as 2D barcodes) are two-dimensional codes that typically consist of black squares and dots on a white background (but they may also be colored). The vertical and horizontal placement of these elements creates a unique combination that can be read with a dedicated scanner, or more often, with a smartphone camera connected to a QR scanner app.

As QR codes contain information both in the vertical and horizontal dimensions, they can convey a lot more than regular barcodes. A single QR code can store more than 1500 alphanumeric characters, which is around 60 times more than the standard barcode.

This larger data storage capacity gives QR codes a substantial advantage over traditional barcodes whenever more information needs to be included in the code.

The Quick Reaction (QR) Code contains information both vertically and horizontally.

Benefits of barcodes and QR codes in inventory management

Digital inventory tracking offers many benefits in the realm of inventory management and manufacturing management. As labels can be used to mark everything from materials, WIP, and finished goods to storage locations, equipment, and manufacturing orders, they help bring visibility into processes throughout your operations. Here are some of the direct benefits you can reap by implementing a barcode or QR code inventory system:

Reduced paperwork

Barcodes and QR codes eliminate the physical paper trail and introduce a digital one. This automates many clerical tasks and makes keeping records and finding the correct documents much easier and less time-consuming.

Reduced human errors

A scanner cannot miss a number or a part of a code like humans very well can. Consistently using a scanner to record inventory movements reduces record-keeping errors by a very large margin. Additionally, a properly implemented barcode system helps avoid picking and dispatching mix-ups.

Increased productivity

Scanning a barcode or QR code is instantaneous and makes the reception, picking, and dispatch of goods much quicker than when using manual records. Additionally, using them on manufacturing orders can provide workers with quick access to their tasks and instructions. This all can lead to noticeable increases in worker productivity.

Improved traceability

Using a lot tracking and traceability software is essential for ensuring end-to-end visibility in many manufacturing or distributing companies. Stock lot numbers assigned to batches of goods allow you to track individual parts of those lots, trace product nonconformity back to certain batches, and easily organize product callbacks when nonconformity is detected in a stock lot. Expiry date tracking helps you avoid expired goods from ending up in production or in the hands of customers.

Read more about How to Achieve Traceability in Manufacturing.

Reduced inventory costs

By eliminating the need to perform manual data-entry tasks as well as much of the search time spent locating items, a barcode or QR code system helps reduce inventory labor costs. Better tracking and analysis of stock, however, allows companies to optimize their inventory levels, avoid dead stock, and reduce inventory holding costs as a consequence.

Data-driven decision-making

Having a real-time overview of stock movements and the capacity to analyze your inventory processes gives you the opportunity to gradually improve the way things are handled. Thanks to the data accumulated by using a barcode system, you can determine which goods are more important to the business, where they should be physically located in the stockroom, etc. Not to mention that you would have accurate information about inventory levels and requirements.

Learn also about ABC Analysis (80/20 Rule) in Inventory Management.

When is it better to use QR codes?

Regular barcodes do offer all of the aforementioned benefits, but there is only one instance when implementing barcodes over QR codes is justified. That is when you already have designated barcode scanners at your disposal. However, if you plan to use a smartphone or a tablet as the scanner, it would be better to pick QR codes. Here are some situations where QR codes beat barcodes any hour of the day:

1. Items that are small in size

QR codes can fit much more information to a much smaller surface than regular barcodes can. That is why QR codes should be preferred over barcodes when tracking small items or items with little surface space available for labeling.

2. Label wear and tear

Handling items can easily damage or stain labels attached to them. The smallest smudge can make a regular barcode unintelligible to scanners, not to mention when a piece of the label is torn. QR codes are much more damage-proof in that way. Even when more than a quarter of a QR code is gone, the label may still be scannable.

3. Scanning with a smart device

If you use a smart device to scan regular barcodes, you will need to have a high-quality label printer and excellent lighting in the facility. QR codes are much less needy and can be easily scanned with tablets and smartphones.

4. Scanning from difficult angles

Barcodes can only be scanned horizontally, from a limited amount of angles. The scanner laser must extend over the whole length of the barcode. QR codes have much more flexibility when it comes to scanning them from different angles.

When deciding to use either QR codes or barcodes, it would be wise to look at the bigger picture behind inventory tracking. The barcoding solution you use should integrate with your inventory management software and your POS system, but the best solution would be a business management software that already has an integrated barcode or QR code module.

Key takeaways

  • 1D barcodes consist of varied-width vertical lines on a white background. These are used to convey a small amount of information like the SKU code and the price of an item.
  • QR codes (also known as 2D barcodes) are two-dimensional codes that typically consist of black squares and dots placed vertically and horizontally on a light background. These codes can be used to convey much more information than regular barcodes.
  • Using barcodes or QR codes as an inventory management tool helps companies digitalize and automate their paperwork, reduce human errors, increase productivity, improve traceability, and generate data for better and more informed decision-making.
  • Even though barcodes usually do the trick when it comes to managing the inventory of a small business, QR codes are much more reliable and foolproof.
  • QR codes are great for smaller items and difficult scanning angles. They are also more failsafe when it comes to staining, tears, or other damage.

You may also like: How to Implement a Barcode Inventory System.