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RFID versus Bar Codes

Tips on deploying RFID in the Supply Chain

With all the noise around RFID, it seems like bar code technology - today's standard for data collection - will become obsolete overnight. Although RFID promises to be a more comprehensive data collection technology, the still emerging standards and lack of end-to-end, supply chain RFID deployments are making customers think twice before taking the plunge.

Hybrid solutions that leverage both bar code and RFID technology are one way that customers can meet the compliance guidelines of Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense (DOD) without overhauling their entire data collection process. The key to deploying a hybrid solution is understanding the differences and benefits of both technologies and taking this into account before implementing RFID in your operations.

Bar codes have become the standard for identifying and tracking objects in the supply chain whether it is cereal boxes at the grocery store or children's books at the public library. Although bar codes are ubiquitous in the supply chain, RFID technology offers key benefits that increase transparency across the product handling lifecycle.

One key benefit is that with RFID, there is no need for line of sight back to a reader whereas bar codes require a scanner to pass over each item. RFID enables pallets of products to pass through a stationary portal reader and the information is automatically captured -requiring less human intervention in the data capturing process. Unlike bar code technology, multiple RFID tags can be identified simultaneously and they often have a longer life span than bar codes because they can be produced in a variety of form factors depending on the environment.

Also, the data capabilities of an RFID tag are superior to a bar code. Product maintenance instructions, shipping histories, manufacturing and expiry dates are just a few examples of the types of information that can be programmed onto an RFID tag. This information can help track specific products as they move through the supply chain giving a detailed snapshot of how a product was handled from the moment it enters the warehouse to when it is purchased by a consumer.

Although there are advanced capabilities and benefits of RFID technology, many companies will not abandon the use of bar codes within their operations. An example of this would be equipping part of an operation with RFID technology (often to meet compliance initiatives) but still have the bulk of the data capture task within operations delivered by barcodes. A hybrid solution is a safe option that allows organizations to leverage both technologies - minimizing risks and costs.

When deploying RFID, there are four key considerations to take into account before an implementation:

  • Consider the capabilities of different RFID technologies in relation to specific applications.
  • Look for hardware that can support both bar code and RFID technology.
  • Understand that since RFID data is captured differently than traditional bar code data, it will need to be managed in another way.
  • Identify a solution provider that has experience with the technology and the ability to provide low-risk solutions.

One reason RFID pilots fail is because the technology's limitations were not considered for the specific application. In the supply chain, Ultra High Frequency (900 MHz) has been chosen for RFID compliance initiatives with the Department of Defense (DoD) and Wal-Mart and is a primary focus of the EPCglobal initiative. Although UHF delivers long read ranges and high data throughput rates, it has a limited ability to penetrate liquid or metal objects. Organizations must take these limitations into account when deploying EPC-compliant RFID solutions.

Another consideration for RFID supply chain deployments is tag type. Today you can choose from UHF class 0 read-only tags or class 0+ and class 1 tags having both read and write capabilities. These different classes are currently not interoperable. This is a short-term problem as EPCglobal is working with several industry players to develop a universal protocol called UHF Gen2 to provide a global standard within the supply chain. In the interim, companies should look for "agile or multi-protocol" readers that can read different tag types as well as operate with bar code technology. For example, Psion Teklogix' offers an agile UHF tethered reader that reads class 0, 0+ and class 1 tags. This reader can be connected to devices such as the Psion Teklogix 7535 hand-held computer, giving customers a solution for both RFID and bar code needs.

An additional consideration when deploying RFID is determining how to manage the influx of data. Companies need to make provisions to collect and filter data coming from multiple sources, manipulate and evaluate the information and send it to a management system. If these steps are not taken, the accuracy of the data obtained through the RFID system cannot be validated and the management system could potentially be overwhelmed by data as the RFID system continues to read tags multiple times. Psion Teklogix currently offers Enterprise level software designed to reconcile RFID data with other management systems, ensuring customers get an accurate snapshot of their operations.

The final consideration when deploying an RFID pilot is to work with a solution provider who understands the benefits and limitations of RFID technology. It is important to look for companies that have proven experience with the technology, the ability to provide low-risk and systematic solutions and support throughout the course of the implementation.

RFID technology has stormed the supply chain industry and customers are trying to fit the pieces of the technology puzzle together. It is important to see through the hype and realize that bar codes will not be replaced by RFID overnight. The new reality for many customers will be a hybrid solution that leverages both technologies to deliver enhanced visibility across the supply chain. Can RFID and bar code technology co-exist in today's supply chain? Absolutely.

Todd Boone is a Senior Product Manager at Psion Teklogix