From hammers to jigsaws, nail guns to compact loaders, every builder needs a reliable method of tracking the company’s assets. Knowing where your tools are and getting them to the correct jobsite saves the time of your workers and keeps your project timelines intact.

The two major types of tracking systems are radio frequency identification (RFID) and barcodes. Both barcodes and RFID tags are methods of collecting data, but what type of system is best suited for your needs? Each system operates differently and the choice between the two will depend on your specific needs and budget.


Barcode Basics


A series of fine to thick black lines on a white background has become a familiar sight on nearly every item you might purchase or see in any store. These barcodes are scanned using a sensor that must physically see the barcode label. This is called a line of sight reader. The lines of the barcode represent a series of numbers, which are then translated by the sensor and relayed to the inventory management system, which then either checks the item in or out of the inventory.

A barcode tracking system will require labels, a scanner, and software to manage your inventory, plus a human component to physically place the barcode stickers under the scanner each time an item is being removed from the tool crib. This might become a problem if the labeled items are used in an environment where they might become covered in dirt or grime. If the lines of the barcode label are obscured, the scanner won’t be able to read the label.

RFID Revealed

An RFID system uses radio waves to send information from the tag to the tracking system. RFID tags contain a microchip, which can store a lot of information like product serial numbers, purchase date, warranty information, and service logs. Depending on your system, the RFID tags can store anywhere from 2 to 8 KB of data. Some active, battery powered tags can store up to 128 KB of data.

The RFID system requires at least three components: the tag, an RFID reader, and a computerized tracking system. When a tagged item comes within range of the reader, the tag is activated. The reader receives the information and passes it along to the tracking system. In some cases, the reader can be programmed to update the item’s tag with newer, up-to-date information. This is very helpful when you need to track the maintenance of power equipment. RFID readers can activate multiple tags at one time, so an entire toolbox or kit could be checked out at once, reducing the time needed to maintain an accurate inventory.

Choices, Choices

Each system has some limitations, so how can you decide which type of system is right for your business? Barcode labels must be kept clean and in good condition to be readable by the scanner. However, printing a new label will cost only a few pennies, and labels can be placed on any type of item. Additionally, each barcoded item checked in or out must be scanned individually.

RFID tags must be purchased with the specific item in mind. Metal deactivates the antenna and interferes with the transmission of data from the tag. Special RFID tags can block this interference but can be quite expensive. RFID tags can cost as little as one dollar or be as pricey as $30 depending on the specifics of the tag. The hardware to run an RFID system is also more expensive than typical barcode scanners.

If you only want to know which items are in your tool crib, a barcode scanner system might be right for your needs. However, if you need to know at which jobsite the compound miter saw is in use, an RFID system will provide that information and more. Many inventory management systems will allow you to use a combination of barcodes and RFID tags. The more specialized pieces of equipment from your inventory could have RFID tags to assist you and your crew in maintenance and usage tracking, while the remainder of your tools are simply checked in or out.