What If All Barcodes Were Replaced By RFID (Part 1)?

Jun 01, 2021 by Mark Dingley

Want to eliminate waste and increase efficiency on your production line? Here are our top 5 reasons why upgrading your product ID and inspection technology today can improve your business tomorrow!

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We live in a data-driven world – there’s no denying it. In fact, it fuels businesses all over the world - and it’s value and significance is growing. For better decision making, companies must capture and refine vast amounts of information – after all, good data equals good business. In the first part of this series, Matthews takes a closer look at some of the big RFID questions.

Did you know that, in the world of manufacturing, data is drawn from a variety of sources? The stream of information that is becoming increasingly important for businesses to understand, however, is the flow of materials and products (right down to an individual item).

This is where Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) comes in.

Believe it or not, RFID is not new – it's actually been available for more than 50 years now. As businesses look for better ways to improve efficiency and visibility across the value chain (from the manufacturing floor, to distribution, then to the actual retail store), RFID has begun to present an increasingly attraction option when it comes to product identification.

 

Barcode Factsheets
 

So, what exactly is RFID?

RFID falls under the umbrella of automatic identification technologies. In other words, it’s a system that transmits the identity (a unique serial number) of an item or person wirelessly, using radio waves. There are different types of RFID systems available, however, they typically have two components – the reader and the tag.

The tag is contained within the product or packaging. It contains a microchip, which stores information about the item or shipment (such as the manufacturing date, use-by date, destination, and so on).

The reader is used to retrieve this data from the tag. It is made up of two parts – a transceiver (which generates a weak radio signal, often with a range of only a few metres, to activate the tag) and an antenna (which receives signals back from the tag). The reader then passes this information, in digital form, to the computer system where it is collected and analysed.

GS1 is responsible for managing RFID’s global standards (which are known as RFID/EPC global standards). GS1’s seeks to ensure that globally unique identification numbers are used for RFID, as this allows users to effectively track and trace products, services and a range of other items through the supply chain.

2. Pros of using RFID over barcodes

Keep in mind that every identification system is about collecting data. Whilst RFID tags and barcodes both carry information about products, their differences come down to their speed, accuracy and the ease with which they can be used.

  1. As RFID scanners utilise radio frequency waves in order to access the tag, it eliminates the need for line-of-sight access. Unlike barcodes, RFID devices don’t need to be perfectly positioned in front of the scanner to be read – which has huge implications on speed.
     
  2. RFID tags can be read at much greater distances than barcodes can. RFID readers can potentially pull information from a tag that is hundreds of metres away, whilst the range to read a barcode is far less.
     
  3. The factors outlined above all contribute to RFID having a much faster scanning speed. In fact, inventory management and tracking systems that are based in RFID can actually scan items up to 25 times faster than those using barcodes.
     
  4. Whilst some barcode systems require a person to manually scan labels or tags in order to capture the data, RFID is completely automated by being designed to enable readers to capture the data on tags and transmit it to a computer system – no person involvement required.
     
  5. RFID tags can be as small as a grain of pepper, plus they can be embedded right into the packaging or even into the product itself. This makes this highly durable and reusable. As line of sight is required for barcodes, on the other hand, they must be positioned on the outside of the product (where wear and tear become a problem).
     
  6. You can’t add to the information that is included on a barcode, but RFID tags are often read/write devices – which means that the reader can communicate with the tag, allowing you to alter as much of the information as you like.

3. Cons of using RFID over barcodes

You might be wondering why RFID is not the mainstream when it comes to product ID, but there are actually some large barriers to its implementation that need to be considered – the biggest of these being cost.

  1. In the past, the development, deployment and maintenance of the software systems and business processed used for the allocation and distribution of serial numbers were costly and complex. Whilst RFID devices have recently fallen to the point where they can be used as ‘throwaway’ devices, they still haven’t fallen enough for a lot of people.
     
  2. Another common problem with RFID is known as reader collision, which occurs when the signals from two or more readers overlap - the tag cannot respond to simultaneous queries. Tag collision can also be an issue, which occurs when too many tags are present in a small area. Experts carefully setting up the systems can help to overcome both problems.
     
  3. Devices like forklifts and walkie-talkies can create possible interference, which sometimes makes it difficult to get a precise reading. Mobile phone towers have also been known to interfere with RFID waves.
     
  4. Readers can actually have difficulty reading the information when RFID tags have been placed in liquids and metal products. These sorts of surfaces tend to reflect radio waves, making tags unreadable. The tags need to be placed in specific angles and alignments in order to be read.
     
  5. Unfortunately, an RFID tag can’t tell the difference between readers – which means that the contents of the tag can be read even after the item has left the supply chain (and without the consumer’s knowledge).
     
  6. Some RFID tags can be difficult for consumers to remove, especially if they’ve been embedded within a product where they can’t be seen.

Matthews has ample experience in using RFID for product identification; we can help you to overcome some of the challenges we’ve outlined above. We have access to a comprehensive portfolio of tags and readers that are suitable for a wide range of markets and applications.

In the second part of this series, we’ll take a look at how RFID is opening a world of opportunities and the future as we know it.

Want to discuss RFID in more detail and find out how it could work for your business? Give the team at Matthews a call today.