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Barcodes Vs RFID: What Are The Differences & Advantages

  • Ravi Pal
  • Jul 04, 2023
  • RFID System
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In the field of AIDC (Automatic Identification and Data Capture), RFID and Barcode technologies are well known. These are two different technologies and have different applications, which sometimes overlap. In most cases, RFID offers advantages over traditional barcodes. The big difference between the two is that barcoding is a line-of-sight technology, which means that the barcode scanner has to actually “see” the barcode to read it, so people usually have to orient the barcode towards the scanner to efficiently read the barcode.

Over the last decade, RFID has made tremendous progress in terms of technology and implementation. The cost of RFID tags has also come down significantly; UHF passive RFID tag earlier costing 40-50 cents now costs 4-5 cents.

Barcode Technology

Barcoding has been the most popular identification technology, universally used over last few decades. The UPC (Universal Product Code) barcodes have totally transformed the product identification using a Unique Identification no. ever since it was first launched on June 26, 1974.

A barcode is a one dimensional image with black vertical lines (bar) on a white label. The vertical lines correspond to 12 digits in case of UPC and 13 digits in case of an EAN (European Article Number) barcode. While UPC barcodes are used in USA and Canada, EAN-13 are used globally.

From FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), fashion retail to supply chain and logistics, barcodes have been the only source of product identification and inventory management for years, all you needed was to point an optical barcode scanner on a product label and the unique barcode ID would be saved in the computer system. It has been of great use at POS (point of sale) as well.

Radio-Frequency Identification Technology

RFID or Radio Frequency Identification is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to communicate instead of the line of sight optical scanning like in barcodes.

Typically, an RFID system consists of an RFID tag, an RFID reader and sometimes an RFID antenna, when we are not using an Integrated Reader. Besides these components, an RFID system also uses a computer software system where the scanned data is stored for future uses, for the end users.

The RFID technology is nothing like Barcoding. When you tag an object with an RFID tag, it sends an RF (radio frequency) signal which is wirelessly picked up by the RFID reader with the help of an RFID antenna either integrated with the reader or deployed separately. The signal is then decoded by the RFID reader for the end users and the information is displayed on a screen as it happens in barcoding.

Now that we know the basics of both these technologies that are presently in use, let’s see some of the advantages RFID technology has over barcodes:

Advantages of RFID

1. RFID doesn’t need line of sight

As I mentioned above, for a barcode to be read, the barcode scanner must be placed directly in front of each label. It has to be closer to the barcode. The RFID tags on the other hand, don’t need to be directly in line of sight of an RFID reader because RFID uses radio waves to communicate. The RFID tag only needs to be in the range of the RFID reader which often varies depending on the type of tag and RFID reader being employed in various kinds of applications.

It is a significant advantage that RFID has over barcodes as it greatly enhances the efficiency of the RFID system in place.

2. An RFID tag can be rewritten

A barcode can only be written once, and the data can never be changed once it has been printed onto a label. It cannot be rewritten unlike RFID tags, which can be re-encoded with relevant data and that too remotely by simply using an RFID handheld reader.

3. RFID tags are durable and reusable

Barcodes are easily damaged and rendered useless as these are typically printed on paper labels or other surfaces that are exposed to the environment unlike RFID. RFID tags are specifically designed to work in harsh conditions such as RFID hard tags that come with a durable hard case that protects the RFID tag from impact, heat, moisture, and changing weather conditions. These tags are used on pallets and RTI (returnable transport items) in supply chain and logistics and are durable.

4. Data is encrypted

Barcodes are prone to counterfeiting and fraud as the data itself is always easily readable. With RFID tags, your data is much more secure with the encryption. Besides, you need special RFID readers with matching frequency to read a particular RFID tag.

5. RFID tags offer high data storage

Standard barcodes are limited when it comes to the amount of data that can be stored. The UPC barcode can hold 12 digits while EAN can hold 13 digits. The new age QR codes however, can hold up to 200 words. RFID tags however, carry large data capabilities such as product maintenance, expiry dates, and shipping history which can all be encoded into the tag. The data is stored in various kinds of memory banks such as User memory bank, EPC memory, reserved memory etc.

Read rate is greatly increased.

Each barcode must be individually scanned in order to be entered into the system meaning you can scan only one barcode at a time whereas an RFID system can read multiple tags at the same time without needing a clear line of sight. Since RFID readers are capable of reading hundreds of tags at once, RFID is highly preferred over barcoding. The longer read range as well as the high read rate is unmatched by barcodes and barcodes don’t offer the same accuracy as RFID and that is why many businesses are now actively considering RFID over barcodes.

Overall, RFID technology offers many more features than Barcoding and both RFID and barcodes are suitable for some specific use cases. While RFID is pretty good for asset management and asset tracking, barcodes have been in use for identification for decades and are still in use due to low cost implementation. Chipless RFID, which is the latest advancement in the field of RFID is, however, going to replace barcode completely as it offers all the best features of RFID at a very low cost, aiming at 0.01 USD per tag.

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