Barcodes vs. RFID

Part II of a series about today’s smart asset IDs and their best suited applications

In our last post, we kicked off a series about asset ID tags with a look at asset identification using barcoding. Today we pick up where we left off with an introduction to RFID and how the technology compares and contrasts with barcoding. RFIDs and barcodes are similar in that they are both data collection technologies which automate the process of collecting field data. Both forms of auto-ID have their pros and cons for asset tracking, asset management and asset lifecycle management, and either one may be better suited for your specific project.

Some RFID basics…

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. An RFID system typically consists of a transponder – the RFID tag – a scanning antenna [which can be fixed or on a hand-held mobile device], a transceiver to decode the data and a database to associate asset information. Whilst there is an abundance of RFID tags on the market, they are generally of two types. Active RFID tags have their own power source so the tag can be read from further away, whereas passive RFID tags rely on power emitted by the reader to transmit data. Because of this they can be smaller [because they don’t need batteries] and have a longer lifespan.

What are some of the key differences between RFIDs and barcodes?

RFID tags and barcodes can both be used to retrieve and, in some cases, store up-to-date information about the ‘things’ they are attached to. However, there are some important differences between these two technologies.

Read distance – Barcode readers use an optical identification system and so they require a direct line of sight to the label. Whilst some passive RFIDs still require physical contact, there are many RFID readers that do not require a direct line of sight making them a better option for applying to assets in hard to reach areas. Certain tags, such as UHF RFID, can be also read at much great distances.

Ruggedability – Since barcodes require line of sight, they must be placed on the outside of the asset, item or component, where it can be subject to greater wear and tear. RFID tags can be more rugged, since the electronic components are better protected by a cover. Some RFID tags can even be implanted within items themselves during manufacture, delivering greater tamper-resistance and improved asset security.

Operational efficiencies – Some RFID tags can be more efficient and reduce manual labour, particularly for set-ups where multiple tags are read at once, or when part of an automated system that does not require human intervention. Barcodes are more time-consuming because they must be read one-at-a-time.

Environment – RFID can be more effective in visually challenging conditions such as smoke, fog, snow, ice, and other situations where barcodes and other optically read technologies do not work. There are, however, situations where RFID technology gets tricky as it can be affected by environmental factors such as metal, liquid, carbon and other conducting materials which create interference. However, some manufacturers offer new tags that will work in these environments quite well.

Read-write ability – Barcodes have no read/write capability; that is, you cannot add to the information on a printed barcode. Some RFID tags, however, can be read/write so the reader can alter as much of the data as the tag design will allow. This can be useful for applications when up-to-date information such as supply-chain, current pricing or service history needs to be accessed on-the-spot. It also means that data can be erased so they can be recycled, re-purposed and reused, increasing their return on investment.

Size vs. performance – With both RFID and barcode, it’s always a trade-off between size and performance, but if physical space is an issue, then 2D data matrix barcodes can have an advantage as they can hold more data in less space without compromising readability. This enables small-scale items that are difficult to label or embed an RFID in, to still be uniquely identified. Learn more in our blog post ‘Which barcode is best?’ >>

Cost-effective – RFID tags are typically more expensive than barcodes, in some cases, much more so. However, as RFID technology matures it will become cheaper. And, as they become cheaper, the number of applications that include them will continue to grow, driving prices even further down.

Stay tuned for our next blog post where we’ll be playing off HF and UHF RFIDs.

If you want more information, the internet offers a wealth of general articles on all things RFID. However, if you want the intelligence on a specific application for your business, talk to the experts at Relegen +61 (0)2 9998 9000.