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A drive towards new efficiencies and eliminating bottlenecks in commercial processes saw the rapid evolution in both RFID and barcode technologies over the last few years. While these systems are helping streamline the operational efficiency of companies around the world, pitting RFID vs barcodes is a subject that many procurement, supply chain, and production managers face every day. The primary goals of RFID and barcode systems are to provide better oversight, establish control, and eliminate process deficiencies using the latest applications of these technologies.

Changes in consumer habits, global logistics, and asset management capabilities are increasing competition in every sector. A hyper-competitive market is forcing companies to consider which of these solutions will serve them best. Both can assist companies to reduce bottlenecks, improve control, and reduce shrink (especially in all manners of retail operations). With this in mind, let’s look at what you need to know about modern RFID and barcode technologies and applications.

Quick Takeaways:

  • RFID and barcodes have been around for roughly the same amount of time.
  • Today’s systems work together to provide precise control and deliver greater efficiency across all of the organization’s operations.
  • Drawbacks and benefits from both RFID and barcodes means selecting a single technology is probably not the best option for growing businesses.

RFID vs Barcode: What is the Difference?

There is a common misconception that RFID technology is newer than barcode systems and therefore, will eventually become the predominant solution in the industry. However, when you consider that barcodes were introduced in 1951 while the basis of RFID had been around since 1948, it’s clear that it’s not that simple.

The primary difference between the two systems is how the scanner acquires the product information. RFID doesn’t require a direct line of sight while barcodes use the distance between the black and white lines to identify specific products at a certain point in operations.

Over the last decade, both systems benefited from advances in information and communication technologies. It may also surprise you to learn that the question isn’t as simple as choosing either/or, but rather depends on the exact requirements of the process and you may require elements of both systems to build a robust and efficient solution. Combine this with newer technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), today’s organizations need to consider every element in the process to develop a system that supports every stage of the process.

Still, you’ll need to keep in mind that RFID and barcoding each have specific advantages and drawbacks. Below, we cover everything you need to know about RFID vs barcodes when choosing your asset and inventory management system.

What is RFID?

RFID or radio frequency identification transmits data using a radio wave, essentially broadcasting the data until you pick it up with a scanner. Sensors that use RFID have an antenna that sends data to a reader where you collect, store and send information to your asset, stock, and equipment management systems. With this technology, you can record information about batches of products without needing line of sight.

What is Barcoding?

Barcode scanners use a beam of light energy to measure the distance between lines on a label and convert this information into values. The system then queries a database of items to match the barcode value to provide an item identity and serial number. Unlike RFID, barcoding requires a direct line of sight and scanning each product individually (or barcoding a batch of products) when capturing information. As barcoding works on a one-to-one scan to product principle, it provides granular control of items throughout a facility or operation.

How to Choose Between RFID vs Barcode Systems

The principles behind RFID and barcode systems make them ideally suited for different types of applications. For most companies, neither RFID nor barcodes alone will suffice. Supply chain management systems may depend on RFID while stock and inventory control requires barcodes.

Depending on the exact process involved, you should consider what the underlying goal is before making a final choice between the two systems. Most organizations have come to realize that a combination of all these technologies (including IoT and BLE systems) is the best way to improve productivity, ensure efficiency, and deliver better experiences for customers across their supply chains, distribution channels, and fulfillment processes.

Benefits and Drawbacks of RFID Systems

RFID matured over the last decade mainly due to advances in information technologies. The latest implementations are helping every industry from food production and vaccine distribution to ensuring product safety and quality.

The main benefits of RFID are:

  • Uses a microchip to store information relating to a product, piece of equipment, or location in your facility.
  • Stores more data on the RFID tag instead of just referencing a code to a database of information.
  • Allows for bulk scanning of devices, products, or equipment without requiring direct line-of-sight.

Conversely, there are drawbacks of RFID to consider:

  • There’s a perception that it is expensive to implement (although costs have come down drastically over the last decade).
  • Microchips are prone to interference from other electromagnetic devices as well as some liquids and metals.
  • Bad actors can attempt to hack RFID sensors and change the data without having to access your information management systems.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Barcodes

Similarly, barcodes provide many benefits but may not be suitable for every type of process. Modern barcode systems come in a variety of types, including 1D, 2D, or more recently, QR codes that allow quick identification from any smartphone or mobile device. While RFID has received a lot of attention over the last few years, barcodes are still a versatile option available to organizations.

Some of the benefits of barcoding include:

  • Cheaper to implement and capable of supporting a variety of different operations.
  • Easy to create and maintain from a central location while the barcode doesn’t actually store any information (i.e. difficult to hack).
  • Provides an easier way to track items through a company compared to manual processes like using paper-based asset registers.

The primary drawbacks of barcodes are:

  • Labels can become damaged or scratched that prevents the reader from “understanding” the code.
  • Requires users to scan each barcode individually, requiring a longer time to record batches of items.
  • Depends on a network connection to “lookup” the code against a database of codes to identify the exact item.

RFID vs Barcode: Which Technology is the Best

When you are handling batches or groups of items, RFID provides you with a quick and convenient way to record all tags in a single operation. Barcodes, on the other hand, help you to track individual items at specific points in your process. You should consider the workflow involved during each step of your operation and determine which solution will improve efficiency while providing accurate data for a specific task.

You’re likely to find that the technologies work well together, with RFID helping capture inbound inventory quickly while barcode scanning keeps track of individual items exiting your store or distribution centers. For most companies, RFID combined with barcodes will provide the best results.

Optimizing Your Inventory and Stock Management using RFID and Barcodes

To learn more about the latest applications available from RFID and barcode technologies, join RFID Journal LIVE! this September. You’ll discover how these systems can work together and which applications suit your existing technology stack to speed up your processes.

To register  today and secure an opportunity to learn more about the latest RFID and barcode applications from around the globe, sign up for RFID Journal LIVE! here.

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