To Barcode Or To RFID, That Is The Question

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Posted by: briansittley Comments: 2 0 Post Date: November 9, 2009

rfid tagRecently, we’ve had a flurry of inquiries (well, three…) from customers asking about the differences between barcodes and RFID tags.  I’ll try to hit a few highlights here, with links to some great references.

Barcodes and RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags are both simply means of tagging objects for purposes of identification by various readers and scanners.

Everyone knows about barcodes by now, and we see them everywhere.  There’s even an iPhone ap called Red Laser that lets you point at a barcode on a shelf, and it will quickly link you to Amazon.com where you can price, view, study and buy that same item online.

RFID is basically next-generation barcoding, with a technology boost.  RFID devices consist of a small chip and an antenna that puts out a radio frequency signal.  This allows it to communicate with a transponder (or tag).  The chip can typically carry 2K of info.  The antenna is also the power source.  For this reason, and this is key, they don’t need batteries, and can remain useable for years, even decades.  When an RFID tag passes near the antenna, the tag detects the signal and “wakes up” the chip. 

RFID has actually been around for fifty years, but only recently has the price become so low that tags can be considered, in some cases, throwaway technology.

A key RFID advantage is that, unlike barcode, it does not need to be positioned carefully relative to its scanner.  For example, a bagful of groceries loaded with RFID-tagged goods could be read and totaled immediately.

RFID can be used to track just about anything, if the cost is justified.  For example, Gillette bought 500 million tags a few years ago for tracking shipping pallets and cases, at a cost of about a dime apiece.  You can track animals (or people).  You can track expensive guitars so when stolen, the police can spring into action.  And of course, you can track entire shipping containers, rail cars, machinery or containers.  Your toll road transponder (I-Pass or EZ-Pass) uses RFID, and Kodak has even patented a digestible RFID tag.  (Eat your RFID kids…)

Unlike barcodes, RFID does not require a direct line of sight.  It works at distances up to 300 feet.  It’s faster: RFID can read forty or more tags per second (compared to about two per second with barcode).  While barcode is a “read-only” technology, RFID is read-write: the reader can communicate with the tag and alter allowable information.  Of course, RFID tags are more expensive, but in the right application, their cost saving (and shrink reducing) capabilities are unmatched.  If you have valuable products to track, and you want to follow them throughout the supply chain, RFID is one technology to consider today.

We’ve only scratched the surface here.  To learn more, just Google RFID, where you’ll find a mere fifteen million or so results to peruse.  The RFID Journal is a good place to start.  Ultimately of course, the key is to integrate RFID technology with the inventory control of your ERP system, and then work on moving it out to your supply chain (customers and suppliers).  It’s the future of product tracking and traceability.  Study up.  Quiz on Friday.

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