What’s the difference between RFID and barcode technologies?
by Karl Trepagnier | Senior Solutions Architect
Each has advantages depending on how you plan to use the RFID or barcode system. A clear understanding of your requirements around security, durability, cost, and implementation of the system can help you evaluate the best option for your business. In this article, we’ll define RFID and barcoding, discuss the advantages of each, and give some real-world examples to explain the difference between the two technologies.
"If RFID is truly more efficient, why hasn’t it replaced barcoding entirely? Like all technologies, RFID has its limitations – and so does barcoding."
What is RFID?
RFID stands for radio-frequency identification, which uses radio waves to transmit information from RFID tags to an RFID reader. An RFID tag contains a sensor attached to an antenna that enables the transmission of data to the reader. Each sensor typically contains unique identifiers, and an RFID reader can simultaneously scan more than 100 tags and does not require line of sight visibility.
What is barcoding?
Barcoding uses a scanner with a beam of light to “read” the black and white lines of a barcode. The scanner includes a sensor that creates a signal from the reflected light, and a decoder then translates the signal into text and sends it to a computer or database. Barcode scanners require line of sight and must “see” each barcode one at a time in order to capture the data.
On the surface, RFID seems like the clear choice. It can scan multiple items at once, whereas barcoding requires a person to physically scan each item individually. But if RFID is truly more efficient, why hasn’t it replaced barcoding entirely? Like all technologies, RFID has its limitations – and so does barcoding.
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RFID examples and benefits
To understand the advantages and disadvantages of RFID, let’s take a closer look at some situations where RFID is a better choice than barcoding.
RFID is available in three main types: low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF).
Low Frequency (LF)
Under 134.2 KHz. The low frequency range requires the tag to be in close contact with an RFID reader in order to transmit data.
Examples of Low Frequency RFID:
Animal tracking – Using RFID tags on cows' ears offers a durable way to track the animal over a period of many years, from birth until it reaches the customer. In the event of contamination, grocery stores can determine exactly which batch of meat needs to be recalled and even which animal it came from.
In this scenario, RFID tags work best because they will last longer and are more durable than a barcode. With exposure to rain, sun, and other animals, a barcode can become damaged and unreadable, which isn’t ideal for long-term monitoring.
Access control – Low frequency RFID badges are commonly used as a “key” to control access to office buildings. Door badges must be placed very close to the reader in order to function properly. As with the animal tracking example above, RFID badges will be more durable over time than a printed barcode. ID badges with barcodes don’t offer much security either, because they can be easily duplicated with a copier.
High Frequency (HF)
Around 13.56 MHz. HF RFID tags have a read range of approximately one to three feet at the most.
Examples of High Frequency RFID:
Libraries – RFID technology can increase the efficiency of the book checkout and return process. At the checkout desk, you typically scan the barcode on your library card, and then stack your books on an RFID reader pad. The pad detects the RFID tag embedded in each book. Later, when you return your books in the book drop, an RFID reader can use the information in the RFID tags to sort the books by category or location. For libraries that are trying to do more with less, RFID technology offers a more accurate, efficient, and faster way to get books back out on the shelves. Barcoding would require an employee to scan each book separately during the checkout and return process, and if a barcode became unreadable as a result of scratches or marks, the item information would have to be entered manually into the computer system.
RFID also offers more security than barcoding in this situation. If someone is returning four books, they can easily scan the barcode on each one so that the system thinks they’ve been returned, but what if the person only drops off one book and keeps the other three? An RFID reader would immediately recognize the discrepancy.
Medical supplies – RFID can be used to monitor the use of surgical items while the patient is on the operating table. A system of checks and balances can help doctors and nurses keep track of how many sponges were used during surgery to make sure none are inadvertently left inside the patient. An RFID reader can count the sponges before and after they’re used. If 20 sponges were “checked out”, the staff can make sure all 20 were “checked in” after the surgery is finished.
Quality control – RFID can be used to monitor the quality of wine from the time it leaves the winery through to the distribution center and the retailer. The RFID tags can be programmed to monitor the temperature and other environmental factors that can affect the quality of the wine. If the data collected from the RFID tag indicates that the wine was stored in in a suboptimal environment for too long, it may be considered compromised and get pulled from the shelf. In contrast, barcodes are read only, whereas certain kinds of RFID tags can receive additional data after they are created.
Ultra-High Frequency (UHF)
800-900 MHz and higher. UHF RFID is typically used in large warehouses and distribution centers that need to track and identify multiple items at once.
Systems that use UHF RFID are not as mature as those used by LF and HF RFID frequencies. A standardized global bandwidth has not yet been determined, and the frequency range varies by country. The U.S. currently uses a higher UHF bandwidth than Europe.
Common applications for UHF RFID include shipping and receiving, end-to-end manufacturing, and industrial asset management. Unlike LF or HF, UHF RFID offers a much longer read range of up to 30 feet in the right conditions. UHF wavelengths also allow data to be transferred more quickly, which means large volumes of product can be moved faster.
When receiving pallets or large cases, UHF RFID technology can speed up the process. A designated dock door can be equipped with RFID readers that are tuned to the same bandwidth as the tags on the items being received. With proper implementation to minimize interference, UHF RFID can provide an accurate, efficient way to move items through the supply chain more quickly.
In these examples, RFID has clear advantages over barcodes when it comes to durability and longevity, security and efficiency. But RFID has disadvantages, too, and there are situations where barcoding is far more practical.
Disadvantages of RFID
RFID technology has several limitations regarding materials, reliability, cost, and implementation.
Scanning multiple items
While RFID is well known for its ability to scan multiple items at once, this isn’t always an advantage. In large warehouses, an RFID reader can scan all tags within its range, which doesn’t work well if you’re only trying to scan items from a specific shipment or in a certain location on the floor.
If you have a pallet containing multiple boxes of different shapes and sizes, you need to know how many items are on the pallet so you can be certain you’ve scanned them all. Similar to our surgical sponge example above, if you know the pallet is supposed to have 30 items on it, you need to scan it from all angles until you’ve captured all 30.
To effectively use RFID in a warehouse or loading dock environment, you may need to use RFID blocks to form barriers between RFID readers, so that the same items aren’t scanned multiple times. In some cases, an RFID block may be placed between each dock door to make sure only items at that particular entrance are being scanned.
While barcoding can’t scan multiple items at the same time, it offers more accuracy and reliability compared with RFID. Since a barcode scanner captures each barcode individually, you don’t have to worry about accidentally scanning more items that intended.
RFID tags and labels are very specific to the type of material and size of your assets. For example, metal will deactivate the RFID antenna and the tag will not transmit at all. Using RFID on metal requires a special type of tag with an RFID block to prevent interference with the antenna. Liquid products can also affect the reliability of the RFID signal. If you’ve ever wondered why RFID is not used in grocery stores, this is the reason. Taking a metal shopping cart full of beverages through an RFID reader will not yield an accurate or reliable scan.
With barcoding, you still need to consider the application and surface on which your label or tag will be used, but a barcode won’t simply become unreadable based on the material or contents of the item. RFID requires different types of tags depending on the characteristics of the item itself, whereas one type of barcode label can be used on different assets.
Cost is one of the main obstacles to RFID technology for many businesses. A typical barcode label costs a few cents each, while an RFID tag can run from one dollar upwards of 30 dollars. depending on the type of tag you need. RFID readers are also about ten times more expensive than barcode scanners. To print and encode RFID labels, you will need a printer like the Zebra ZT410R that is capable of doing both.
In addition to the cost of the RFID tags and readers, RFID implementation is significantly more expensive and complex than a barcoding system.
Deploying an RFID system requires careful planning, along with a clear understanding of the technology capabilities and limitations. Most service providers including Peak-Ryzex require you to invest in a consultation and site survey to confirm whether an RFID solution will work for you. If you find a service provider willing to sell you an RFID system without doing these things, you probably shouldn’t purchase it from them.
Unlike basic barcoding where you can plug your USB scanner into your computer and get started, RFID is best implemented in stages. In a warehouse environment, start by deploying RFID at one dock door and then add more after you’ve tested it and confirmed that it works correctly for your application.
While RFID is a powerful technology, the implementation and use require careful planning. We have regular conversations with customers that think they need an RFID system, but the complexity and expense is not feasible for their business. Whether you choose barcoding or RFID depends largely on the security and durability requirements of your application and the time and money that your business is prepared to spend.
Senior Solutions Architect, Peak-Ryzex
As a dedicated solutions architect for Peak-Ryzex Direct customers, Karl brings extensive technical expertise with multiple data collection technologies, including WLAN, RFID, mobile computing, printing, media and software. Prior to joining Peak-Ryzex, Karl spent eight years in the RFID industry where he focused on the healthcare and pharmaceuticals markets. Before that, Karl spent 26 years at Intermec as a Sr. Field Engineer.
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