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Barcodes vs. RFID: When Should You Use One Over the Other?

Good business owners are always seeking ways to optimize their business processes. To continuously improve efficiency and lower costs, many organizations pinpoint one specific function: asset management.

Knowing where your assets are and that they are being efficiently utilized is crucial to the performance of any business. However, many businesses have manual systems for tracking assets, which is both time-consuming and error-prone. 

Shaving time, reducing the labor cost and improving the accuracy of your asset data can significantly improve your bottom line. To accomplish this, organizations often consider either barcodes or RFID systems. Both technologies offer improved speed and accuracy, but how do you know which technology will provide the best ROI?

Let’s start by looking at the definition of each and then explore what use cases may be better suited by RFID over barcode technology. 

Barcodes vs. RFID: What’s the Difference?

Barcodes

There are two types of barcodes: 

  1. A linear code, which consists of numbers and a pattern of black and white, vertical parallel lines of varying widths
  2. A QR code, which consists of a matrix of black and white pixels in a square grid. 

Either way, barcodes are flat codes that represent data in a visual, machine-readable form. Barcodes are printed on product (or on a label that is applied to a product) and read via an optical scanner that decodes the data and sends it back to a computer or database. 

Advantages

  • Barcodes are cheap.
  • Barcode readers are inexpensive and ubiquitous. 
  • Most computer systems are fully compatible with barcode inputs.

Disadvantages

  • Barcodes only function if the scanner can “see” the barcode (there must be line of sight).  
  • Reading barcodes can involve significant work in some environments. 
  • Assets can only be identified one at a time.
  • Barcodes need to be clean. They function poorly in dirty or greasy environments or where the codes can be scratched. 

RFID

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is an automated data capture technology that wirelessly identifies tagged objects. RFID tags are small radio transponders that are attached to objects, typically made out of two parts: a chip and an antenna. 

Advantages

  • RFID readers do not need line of sight. They can work at significant distances from the assets. Some passive tags can be read from 100’ away.  
  • Many assets can be identified with a single scan. An RFID reader can identify all of the assets in its ‘field of view’ with a single scan.
  • Reading can be totally automated – a human operator is not needed for some business processes.  
  • RFID functions in dirty/oily and otherwise difficult environments without maintenance.   

Disadvantages

  • RFID tags and readers are much more expensive.
  • Tag performance is sensitive to the material on which the tag is mounted, so care must be taken in tag selection.
  • Interfacing RFID readers to existing systems tends to be more difficult. 

Barcodes vs RFID: When Should You Use One Over the Other?

#1. Are Your People Spending A Lot of Time Identifying Assets?

Even with barcodes, your team could still be spending too much valuable time manually identifying assets. This is because they have to physically turn products and align the scanner with the barcode. 

If this is the case, RFID can eliminate that time completely and improve accuracy in the process. 

#2. How Important Is Tracking Assets to the Performance of Your Business?

If having accurate, timely data about your assets is crucial to the performance of your business, you should use RFID. 

The more valuable the asset, the more likely you can justify investing in RFID. If you’re simply tracking a can of soup, for example, RFID is too expensive to see any ROI and barcodes work just fine. By comparison, if you’re tracking weapons going in and out of an armory, RFID is definitely worth the cost. 

RFID is a much better way to maintain accurate information for valuable assets – especially when, in the case of weapons tracking, those valuable assets are also highly sensitive and require utmost security. 

That said, assets don’t necessarily need to be innately expensive to be considered valuable and crucial to your business’s performance. 

A scalpel itself isn’t expensive, but it’s essential to know that it was cleaned and processed appropriately before the next use. For rental companies, poor data about the assets you rent out can be very expensive. 

Ultimately, whether or not the asset you’re tracing is expensive, RFID makes the most sense if knowing about the state of the asset is really crucial to the performance of your business. 

#3. What Is the Asset’s Environment Like?

It’s not terribly difficult to harden a barcode so that it tolerates the environment. However, a dirty environment can cause the barcode to be obscured. Now, not only do you have to turn an asset to point a reader at the barcode, but also you have to clean the barcode before scanning because the reader is optically sensitive. 

On the other hand, the environment won’t impair the ability for an RFID tag to be read. This is because radio frequency can go right through any obstructions caused by the environment. Plus, many RFID tags will stand up better if exposed to a tearing or cutting force, though this depends on the type of tag and provider. (Vizinex RFID tags are specifically designed for tough environments and use cases.) 

#4. How Important Is Loss Control?

RFID has a real advantage if loss control is an important element of your asset management program. 

For example: anti-theft measures at a retail store. If a pair of jeans has an RFID tag, the store can detect if the jeans leave the store. 

Another example follows a hospital hematology department’s IV pump. What happens if the IV pump goes with the patient to an operating room and stays there? Without RFID, the department may deem it missing and buy a replacement. If it has an RFID tag, as it moves, they can detect that it has changed position in the hospital. Now, when it seems to be missing, the department knows it moved with the patient. 

Barcodes need to be scanned by a reader in real-time, while RFID tags simply have to pass through sensors to track movement. 

#5. Do You Need to Change Information Locally?

Sometimes, you need crucial information to travel with an object, like a date, code or number of uses if it’s approaching end of life. With RFID, you can have that information stored and updated locally on the tag, as opposed to having to retrieve it from a database. 

While barcodes allow you to store more information in the code, a barcode cannot be changed. With RFID, you can reprogram the memory to change the information in the tag.

#6. Are You Tracking Objects in a Container?

If you’re trying to track objects within a container, say in a cardboard box, you can do that with RFID without having to label the outside of the box. The radio frequency energy goes right through the container and can read multiple assets within a container at once. 

With barcodes, you would have to put information outside of the box – further compounding the issue of needing to turn the container to read the barcode. 

Conclusion

When it’s time to further optimize business processes, many organizations weigh the pros and cons of barcodes vs RFID. Other times, a company already using barcodes might realize they could improve efficiencies even more by taking the leap to RFID. 

Either way, RFID makes sense in a number of applications over barcodes. The bottom line: RFID is well worth the investment when knowing the state of an asset it critical to your business’s performance. 

Vizinex delivers specialized RFID tags, systems and solutions for industries in which accurate, efficient asset tracking is mission critical. Explore our tag finder or contact us for a custom solution today.

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