There is a perception in the supply chain sector that radio frequency identification (RFID) will soon replace barcodes. However, speaking to the industry you quickly discover that this is not necessarily the case.
The barcode’s origins can be traced to David Collins in the early 1960s who, while working at Pennsylvania Railroad, became aware of the need to automatically identify train carriages. He developed a system using blue and yellow reflective stripes, encoding a six-digit company identifier and a four-digit carriage number.
Meanwhile, Mario Cardullo’s U.S. patent for a passive radio transponder with memory in 1973 was the first true ancestor of RFID.
Since this time, work to develop both technologies has continued at great pace and the modern versions of these automatic identification solutions offer a number of benefits and disadvantages.
Pierre Bonnefoy, Director of global RFID solutions at mobile technology manufacturer Psion Teklogix, explains: “The barcode is much cheaper. RFID is faster to read, can be read through carton boxes and is more rugged. However, the integration is much more complex, but RFID can enable new innovative functionalities: possibility to have local information embedded into the chip, high security transaction, research function, fast inventory function.”
Grant Wickes, Vice-President of Marketing at Wasp Barcode Technologies, says that the barcode retains its popularity because smaller firms cannot afford the costs of implementing RFID.
However, he says: “What RFID has done for these businesses is stimulate awareness of the benefits of automated tracking systems in areas such as efficiency, productivity and profitability.”
David Weatherby, business consultant at GS1 UK — the membership organization which develops and implements data standards and solutions — says that both technologies have an important role in helping companies reduce costs and environmental impact, as well as improving their services.
END OF THE ROAD?
While RFID and barcodes are considered crucial, there are those who believe that the development in both technologies is coming to an end. “Developments these days in both technologies are very incremental,” says Ian W. Bowden, President of Aurora Barcode Technologies. “There’s nothing all that groundbreaking left to discover or develop. What is getting better are technical aspects, such as hardware reliability, read range and technology standards, which open up new markets and allow the technologies to be used in ways we hadn’t originally thought of. Of course, the general lowering of costs also opens up the technologies to use in places where they weren’t previously financially viable.”
He adds that better standards and interoperability — for example, the use of different manufacturers’ technologies in one system — are also ways in which the technologies are being developed.
Bonnefoy says his business is working to improve the reading ergonomics of RFID tags with mobile readers, and has introduced a reader shaped like a paddle to help the operators scan items faster.
“In RFID, low frequency and high frequency (HF) domains are quite mature. We are seeing the introduction of near field communication [short-range HF wireless communication technology which enables the exchange of data between devices over a 10cm distance] in HF. We are expecting more evolution in the ultra high frequency (UHF) domain, where we can see the introduction of higher performance tags and readers,” he said. “In UHF, the near field technology is allowing the possibility of combining long range scanning, and short range, when the environment is more difficult, with water and metal content.”
Wickes believes that the increased use of barcodes will likely make RFID a marginal, specialized application. “The growing awareness of 2D [barcodes], with its ability to store more information, will help drive overall use of barcode systems. Both 1D and 2D barcodes will continue to provide an efficient and error-reducing way to help business,” he says.
Very few competitors have rivaled RFID and barcoding technologies. However, in 2008, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the Bokode, a label measuring 3mm that can encode visual information, which can then be read using any ordinary camera up to a few meters away.
Unlike RFID tags, Bokodes require an open line of sight to the card for it to be read. Prototypes have been developed for about $5 each, but it is believed this can be dropped to as low as five cents when they are produced in larger volumes. Whatever developments occur in the future it seems that these two technologies are likely to co-exist for some time, at least until the cost of RFID comes down, because for most companies, the cost is the main