QR Codes vs. Barcodes: What's the Difference?

May 10, 2021
qr code and barcode stickers on rolls
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If you're looking for an easy solution to storing a lot of data or routing to landing pages instead of just traditional barcode tracking and antiquated serial numbers on items, QR codes are the perfect way to go. QR codes and barcodes perform some of the same functions but on the other hand each has its own specific uses so we'll be comparing the similarities and differences between them.

Since installing barcode technology is a bit harder and more expensive than QR codes, QRs are gaining popularity and the adoption rate is growing across the globe and spans many industries. They are two different technologies and some functionalities are quite similar where QRs could easily replace barcodes because more content can be added to them. Now it's possible to store more information in one place so companies, as well as the end consumer, don't have to go to another website separately to see the information.

The background behind QR codes and barcodes

Barcodes were invented in 1951 in the US and the first UPC was scanned at the checkout stand at a grocery store in 1974. This made for a technological advance that would last decades. They were supported by all major logistics companies like FedEx and DHL to scan the barcode every step of the package's journey and customers could look up a serial number online for easy tracking. They also benefited the inventory and pricing processes of the retail industry.

QR codes were invented in 1994 by Denso Wave for the Japanese automotive industry and have grown in popularity every year as they have expanded to users in all industries and even for personal use. After people saw the value in the variety of information QRs could store and share, teamed with the ease of use in the common smartphone, they have been used for just about anything and led the contactless service trend of 2020.

Now, QR codes are the newest way to track inventory, shipping, find out product information, and more. In these ways, QRs could easily replace barcodes as they store more information that could be seen on a mobile phone instantly instead of logging into a computer with a tracking number later. However, there are many functionalities QRs have that barcodes weren't intended for, like building two-way communication between customer and brand over SMS, social media, email and even giving feedback. Tacking those features onto what barcodes already do adds consumer trust regarding traceability and a lifelong relationship between business and customer. 

woman scans qr code on boxes on shelves
Image source: Tzido Sun / Shutterstock

Features of QR codes vs. barcodes

Storage capacity

  • QR codes - QR codes go steps further than barcodes as they are all two-dimensional and store information horizontally and vertically so they can hold more information. QR codes can store up to 4296 alphanumeric characters, 7089 numeric, 2953 binary, and 1817 kanji characters. For this reason, QRs can store URLs and other long amounts of data that barcodes cannot. Additionally, since QR codes store more characters, the unique identities on every item have far more possibilities than traditional barcodes do.
  • Barcodes - Most barcodes are only one-dimensional and store information in many vertical lines and store up to 25 characters. Some are two-dimensional and still only store basic inventory and tracking, and pricing information, only storing up to 2000 characters.

The convertibility of barcodes to QR codes isn't something difficult to do. As long as you have the characters stored in the barcode they can be input into a QR code and even store additional information because QR storage is so much bigger. 

Scanning abilities

  • QR codes - QR codes also scan faster due to the three edges on the outside that prepare the scanner to capture the code within. This is also why it can be scanned at any angle which is a great advantage so items don't have to be moved around to scan. Moreover, QRs are scannable with 30% damage as long as the 3 edges can be read.
  • Barcodes - Barcodes have to be scanned horizontally and used to require special devices but now there are plenty of free scanning apps for mobile phones. Since they cannot be scanned at any angle it's difficult to scan them if there aren't multiple codes on inventory when stacking and shipping. Barcodes can't be scanned if damaged but they do have a number written on them that can be typed into systems to find the information.

Customizable sizing

  • QR codes - QR codes should be at least 3/4" x 3/4" to be able to be scanned. Because of their flexibility, they can be printed very large to accommodate long distances which is advantageous to avoid getting on ladders for higher materials, for instance.
  • Barcodes - Barcodes are also adjustable in size as long as they can be read at the appropriate distance with the scanner the company uses.

Visual appearance

  • QR codes - QRs are great for brand awareness and recognition. They are easy to create and design. Putting a company logo in the center and using branded company colors makes it personalized and easily identifiable. As long as contrasting colors are used and are scannable, the code will be readable.
  • Barcodes - Barcodes are black and white lines with numbers and could have come from anywhere. The colors do not have a lot of room to vary for scanning purposes and are not customizable.

Advantages of QR codes in the supply chain

For moving products, QR codes are a better option overall. Since QR codes can be adjusted in size according to what they are printed on and how far away they would be scanned, they are a practical choice for unique product identities and movement in the entire supply chain. When items are stored and shipped it is easy for barcodes to become damaged, scratched, or worn down. QRs can be damaged up to 30% and will still be readable. Barcodes, on the other hand, have a set of numbers under them so if they are damaged the number can be typed into a system to be read. However, if the numbers are scratched off too, or if inventory is left outside with harsh weather, it's more likely a QR code would be the best option.

QR codes are also scannable at any angle. When they are placed on a product that needs to be shipped or stored in a certain direction or stacked properly and marketing and packaging experts don't take this into consideration later on, then it holds up the production process making it longer for warehouse workers, procurement specialists, and logistics experts to scan barcodes on individual products or on a bulk package to keep inventory and track movement. QR codes give a better remedy to this problem. If more than one is printed on materials or is printed in a place where it will face out, it can be scanned from any angle and it is extremely advantageous for less stressful movements, inventory counts, and tracking altogether. Being able to scan from any angle when a warehouse worker is up on a ladder or a trucker needs to scan during on and offloading makes it so much easier. 

Considering QR codes are versatile in terms of storage, sizing, and materials they can be printed on, such as, labels on packaging or metal tags for equipment in fast-paced supply chain environments and critical weather conditions, they are the most durable and easy-to-use option out there. 

qr code stickers on pallets
Image source: HERMA

One point to remember is that QR codes should be at least 3/4" x 3/4" to be scanned and distance matters. They can be printed large or small. If one is manufacturing a product that is thin and round such as cables, smaller pipes, metal rods, just to name a few, then barcodes may have to be used on an individual level. This doesn't mean that businesses cannot benefit from both QRs and barcodes. For certain inventory, businesses can choose the option that's right for them and even use QRs on materials that are packaged in bulk. Most of the time QRs are the best option for physical size, flexible scannability, and data storage.

Advantages of QR codes on equipment

Equipment in warehouses, throughout logistics, on construction sites, and more, experience years of severe weather conditions, handling, storage, and movement. Not only does equipment require SKU numbers for warranties and repairs but nowadays QR codes accompany data routed to manuals, instructions, and precautions that barcodes do not provide. A new solution to the wear and tear on QR codes is metal QR tags which are cropping up on tools and heavy equipment which withstand hard conditions for long-term scanning abilities. In these sorts of environments, regular printed codes and stickers wouldn't survive. 

At William Adams in Australia, they supply CAT products and services to the construction, mining, quarrying, ground and marine logistics industries. A part of their product support includes QR codes on equipment for sharing details immediately to smartphones. Since QR codes store a great amount of data, William Adams provides landing pages for each piece of equipment with pricing, sales representative contact details, catalog and serial numbers, and images of the equipment. They even offer an app to be more user-friendly when saving and storing the information.

qr codes for CAT equipment william adams
Image source: William Adams

QR codes can advertise and promote two-way relationships

Since QR codes are adaptable for a wide range of purposes, they are also used for advertisements, event information, and contest registration, whereas barcodes are not. Not only can your registered products be tracked through mobile phones for the supply chain and the end consumer, but they go many steps ahead in using that information to register owners of products into promotions and contests when scanned and applied. Barcode technology is only one-sided while QR code technology can keep bringing consumers back in for lifelong consumer trust and relationships. 

DEWALT, a well-known, international tool manufacturer uses QR code technology on their equipment boxes and other packaging to provide detailed information about the product, QR codes on each piece of equipment for authenticity and guarantee purposes, and even uses QR codes to advertise for contests on Twitter. Recently, they created a contest where product owners could scan select tools and register them in a contest to win a $499 6-tool combo kit. This is not something that would be as easy to do with a barcode as it would require additional steps like typing in serial numbers on a computer with date registrations and more. Having a QR code that removes typing and searching for old receipts and boxes is much more convenient.

dewalt tweet mobile phone scans qr code contest
Image source: DEWALT Twitter

Finally, the world is going in a QR code direction across many industries. QR codes are cropping up in every place and the versatility and adaptability of QRs are much more convenient for a number of uses that add to the traditional, basic product information use of barcodes. Taking full advantage of all QR codes have to offer, introducing manuals, landing pages, and more, is a large step forward in modernizing how companies and consumers track and trace and communicate further which barcode technology isn't capable of. 

With Supercode's diverse types of QR codes including the ability to create them in bulk, we can assist with any kind of need in making QRs that are secure, reliable, and brand recognizable for any industry. 

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