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RFID vs. barcodes: Is one really better than the other?

There are several advantages to both barcode technology and RFID, which is why many companies are leveraging the strengths of both. Find out the benefits of RFID vs. barcodes.

Making the RFID vs. barcode comparison is a little like comparing apples to oranges. While they're part of the same basic family -- auto identification -- they perform different functions depending on the business process an organization is trying to enable.

"I think people unfairly thought RFID would be a panacea to solve all kinds of tracking problems, and it just didn't turn out that way," said William McNeill, Gartner Research analyst, AMR Supply Chain Leaders. "There were some challenges initially of read rates [how reliable the read off the tag is], speed and cost. They never really got over those humps, and it didn't replace barcodes."

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Instead, McNeill said, companies are creating hybrid environments where RFID and barcodes are being used together in the same supply chains, leveraging the relative strengths of the two.

RFID allows for greater data storage

One of RFID's strengths is that a tag holds more data than a barcode does. In turn, additional information can be written to the tag as it passes through the supply chain.

"You can change and update information; that's the primary advantage. You can't do that with a barcode," said Dr. Marlin Mickle, director, RFID Center of Excellence at the Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh.

That information allows greater visibility on where that tag was, who worked on an asset or an item and where it's located, and whether that item is in a warehouse or on a manufacturing line.

The amount of memory available depends on whether they are active or passive tags. An active RFID has a battery, so there is a lot of memory, similar to that available on a handheld device. These types of active tags are used primarily by the government for tracking large containers.

Passive RFID -- where there's no battery and it's powered by the reader -- is the more dominant. Passive RFIDs can store anywhere from 8K to 32K bytes of memory. An advantage of these tags is that information can be erased and rewritten on them, saving money.

But that can also be a pitfall.

"If it's something that's going to be audited, you don't want to rewrite it; you want to keep the entire list of information," Mickle said. "So it depends on the use case."

Another drawback of RFID is cost. Depending on the kind of information that is recorded on the tag, the cost can range anywhere from $0.5 to $20 per tag.

But barcodes, while cheaper, are a line-of-sight technology, meaning that the scanner has to "see" the barcode to read it, and a person has to orient the barcode so that it can be read. RFID doesn't require line of sight. Tags can be read as long as they're within range of the reader.

Determining the benefits of RFID vs. barcode technology

RFIDs and barcodes also have pros and cons that depend on the type of manufacturing.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers, for example, typically lean toward barcoding for the labeling of individual items. They use RFID when it's aggregated up to the pallet level.

"It depends on how things are stored," McNeill said. "I've seen RFID grow in tracking bulks for example -- bulk chemicals, metals, steel, rolls of paper."

But even process manufacturers would still need to aggregate the product that they're making in some form or another for an RFID or barcode to be applied to it.

Examine manufacturing environment when selecting sensor technology

Barcoding may work better for process manufacturers.

RFID has struggled in process manufacturing where a lot of liquid is present because liquids can prevent accurate reading of the tags, McNeill said. The technology is getting around that, but the challenge is still there.

"If you're manufacturing liquid-based products, sometimes the RFID signal coming through all that liquid is hard to read," he said. "So that's one instance where you might want to consider barcoding instead."

Working with metals is another challenging area for RFID application. Enhancements have been made to RFID tags that can be applied to metal products, but they can still affect how the tag is read. If it's a steel frame or a metal case, for example, barcoding would work better.

"If you have a highly customized manufacturing environment where you have a lot of metal processing equipment and metal duct work, that can affect how RFID is read on the manufacturing floor," McNeill said.

And, with all the information stored on RFID tags, there can be some risk.

"If you're going to put customer information on an RFID tag, there's a higher risk there," McNeill said. "What people don't understand is that companies are collecting that same information on customers now, so it's not that much more of a risk."

While RFID has its clear advantages, there are some cases, such as point of sale, where barcodes simply make more sense.

"The biggest drawback is that people implementing RFID think that it's going to be able to do much more than it can do," Mickle said. "There was an assumption that RFID could replace barcodes in a supermarket by reading everything in a cart without removing each item. It doesn't require line of sight, but you can't read them from every direction."

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