The Big Showdown?

Will RFID technology eventually phase out the bar code? Industry experts agree, bar code's days aren't numbered just yet.

If a technology can be sexy, then the many application possibilities of RFID (radio frequency identification) make it the Marilyn Monroe of the world of data capture and automatic identification. From inventory management to security applications, RFID is undeniably hot.

But along with the recent hype surrounding the technology has come speculation of the eventual replacement of bar codes with RFID. It is unquestionable that the capabilities of RFID outweigh those of bar codes, but critical issues of cost and standardization create serious problems for mainstreaming the technology.

Revolutionizing the Business
Bar coding has been the mainstream method for inventory management since the early 1970s when it revolutionized the retail industry with the introduction of the UPC (Universal Product Code). With costs as low as less than one cent per bar code and standards managed under the Uniform Code Council (UCC), this easy-to-produce method of tracking has kept up with industry needs for more than 20 years.

“One of the benefits of bar coding was that it gave you inventory control,” explains Steve Liker, director of marketing at Trident-ITW, Brookfield, CT. “It told you what were hot sellers, what was going out the door, and what items had to be replenished on the shelves, so it was very helpful in allowing [retailers] to have that control.”

But with RFID applications making headlines recently, the spotlight definitely has been shining in RFID's corner. A great deal of the buzz surrounding RFID's dominance over bar codes has been generated from current research and development of a new tracking network being created by the Auto-ID Center. The center is a not-for-profit global research organization headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Founded in 1999, the Auto-ID Center's vision is of a world where computers will be able to identify any object, anywhere, instantly. The center is dedicated to designing the infrastructure and standards to create a universal, open network for identifying individual products and for tracking them as they flow through the global supply chain.

The Auto-ID Center is developing the Electronic Product Code (EPC) network, as well as the standards needed to ensure products can be identified regardless of which manufacturer tags them, and they are building some of the software that will manage the flow of data. The Auto-ID Center says this will revolutionize how products are manufactured, tracked, sold, and recycled. The center's research is said to be focused on developing five fundamental elements for automatic identification: the Electronic Product Code (EPC); ID System (radio frequency readers and tags); Object Name Service (ONS); Physical Markup Language (PML); and Savant. These elements reportedly will be combined with a network of tags, readers, and computers to enable — in the case of business adoption — manufacturers and retailers the opportunity to track inventory accurately in real time. The key to creating this network for tracking items is that it will use low-cost RFID tags.

This emerging network, along with other current RFID applications being used on higher-end products and warehouse rooms, has put the future of bar coding in doubt. But the Auto-ID Center maintains the goal isn't to replace bar codes. According to its spokesperson, “The Auto-ID Center does not advocate replacing bar codes, as bar code-based systems such as the UPC are a standard automatic identification technology in many industries and will be an important legacy system for many years.”

Diane Watt, VP, emerging business segments, Flint Ink, Ann Arbor, MI, which is currently producing conductive inks for RFID tags, comments that standardization, trying to streamline RFID production, and dealing with the still high cost of RFID tags, will keep bar codes in widespread use for years to come. “RFID is considered to be next-generation bar coding, [however] I don't think there is any expert out there that will tell you that bar coding is going away any time soon.”

John Nettekoven, marketing manager at MACtac Technical Products, Stow, OH, describes the obstacles of standardization. “Unlike bar codes, RFID has very few standards. There are common frequency ranges, for example, but the reader power output and specific frequency may vary by country and manufacturer. In addition, systems within the frequency range may have their own chip set, protocol for memory storage, air protocol, and antenna design.”

Continues Nettekoven: “The industry is gradually developing standards [for RFID], but various countries have their own regulations. It is a much more difficult issue than with bar codes. If countries sold the rights to certain frequencies to commercial enterprises, they can't easily take them back. They can't just increase output levels without potentially causing interference with other systems.”

Although the expectations of the five-cent tag appear to be far from reality, the cost of RFID has decreased. With the still reliable mass producibility of bar codes, a marriage of the two seems the likely outcome of a “big showdown” between RFID and bar codes.

“The way that we have seen the technology evolve, we have seen some very exciting applications being used where a bar code may have never been considered,” says Dan Mullen, director at AIM Inc., The Association for Auto Identification and Data Capture Technologies, Pittsburgh, PA. “A lot of scenarios will probably see bar codes and RFID working side by side for many years to come. In many cases, it won't be an either/or but rather which problems are best answered with bar codes, which problems are best answered with RFID, how do we make them work together and evolve to make the user satisfied.”

RFID vs. Bar Code
Bar code advantages include:

  • Lower cost of consumables
  • Many proven solutions available
  • Competitive pricing among integrators/suppliers
  • Lower start-up cost/quicker ROI
  • End-user confidence/knowledge
  • Existing compliance standards

Advantages of RFID over bar codes:

  • Monitoring & sensing
  • Ease of reading
  • Speed of reading
  • Item-specific information
  • Longevity
  • Volume of data
  • Dynamic information
  • Improved security

RFID features bar codes can't offer:

  • Auto locate tagged objects
  • Better survivability; can be encapsulated
  • Differentiate tags of many items in field
  • Competes with/supplements bar code
  • Don't have to physically see tag to read it
  • Read/append or read/rewrite data

Other distinctions of RFID vs. bar codes:

  • RFID has lots of frequencies, air interfaces, and readers with minimal volume
  • Not all chips, antennas, tags, and readers are created equal; nor are they interchangeable as a general rule
  • RFID is technology driven
  • RFID isn't standardized yet
  • RFID is application-specific

Information courtesy of MACtac Technical Products

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