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August 18, 2022

RF vs. Barcode Scanning

Effective warehouse management requires accurate, accessible data. To collect that data, most organizations rely on either barcodes or RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. RFID is also shortened to just RF (radio frequency). Both have their own advantages and limitations, which makes it important to choose the right technology for the job. Learn more about these two different types of scanning to help determine which is the most appropriate for the task at hand.

Key Takeaways:

  1. There are critical differences between RF and barcode scanning, including advantages and disadvantages of each.
  2. Beyond the innate differences of RF and barcode scanning, there will be differences in the required equipment and in the associated costs.
  3. RF and barcode scanning are both well suited for their own various real-world applications, so it’s important to choose the right tool for the job.

Comparing RF vs. Barcode Scanning

The primary difference between barcode and RFID scanning is how the scanners collect information. Barcode scanners use lasers to visually inspect black and white barcodes. RF scanners, on the other hand, collect information from tags using radio frequencies. The technical differences between these two technologies relate directly to the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

How Does RFID Work?

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) gets its name from how it works. That is, RF tags hold data and transmit it using radio frequency. The average RFID tag can carry about 256 bits of storage, which is the equivalent of roughly 6 phone numbers. An entire RFID system must include three key components:

  • RFID Tag: The tag is a microchip attached to a small radio antenna. The chip stores data (such as a product ID number), and the radio antenna transmits that data to the reader.
  • RFID Reader: This device emits radio waves to activate RFID tags (if necessary), then receives and ingests the information those tags transmit.
  • RFID Database: After RF tags transmit information to the reader, the reader logs the transaction and stores the data it receives.

Some RF tags, known as active tags, include batteries so they can broadcast their IDs continuously. Passive tags, on the other hand, receive their power from the reader’s radio signals, so they only transmit information when activated. 

For an example of RFID in action, consider a hospital. The hospital might put RF tags on or in containers of different medications. Then an employee with a scanner can quickly confirm that all of the expected medication is present.

Some RFID tags are encrypted so only certain readers can access and interpret the information. It is also possible for a reader to send a kill command to the tag, which will permanently disable the tag. These advanced security measures are not normally implemented unless absolutely necessary because they add complication and cost.

How Do Barcodes Work? 

Barcodes represent data visually, using black lines on a light background. The number, position, and thickness of the lines correlate to a simple string of data, usually a product ID. It’s a common misconception that barcode scanners are reading these black lines, but they actually read the spaces in between the lines. 

A barcode scanner shines a laser at the bar code, and the black lines absorb the laser’s light. The spaces in between the lines reflect the laser back into the scanner, which interprets the reflection as data. For this reason, it’s important for barcodes to be on light (ideally white) backgrounds.

There are many different types of barcodes. Linear barcodes hold a single piece of information, such as a product ID, which can typically be anywhere from 8-25 characters. The bigger the barcode gets, the more information it can store. A barcode normally includes a string of characters as well, so an employee can key in the product ID number manually if the barcode is unreadable to the scanner for any reason.

Pros and Cons of Barcode vs. RF

The technical differences of radio frequency tags and barcodes give them different strengths and weaknesses. In turn, these relative strengths and weaknesses of each option make them ideal for different types of situations.

Advantages of RFID

The primary advantages of RF scanning are as follows:

  • Radio frequency is typically readable at a greater distance than barcodes, sometimes up to hundreds of feet. This means a single scanner may be able to pick up information from RFID tags all over the warehouse.
  • Radio frequency transmissions don’t require a direct line of sight from the scanner to the tag.
  • Some RF scanners can read dozens of tags at the same time, which makes the process much faster.
  • Because RF scanners can cover large areas and read multiple tags at once, they require little human interaction.
  • It is possible to encase RFID tags with plastic covers or other rugged containers, which keeps them protected from harm.
  • RFID tags are both readable and writable, which means the information is editable and updateable throughout the supply chain. Alternatively, information can be rewritten to make the tag reusable.
  • The potential to include data encryption, password protection, or a “kill” feature to erase data makes RFID tags secure when they need to be.
  • A single RF tag can contain multiple pieces of data.

Disadvantages of RFID

There is a lot to like about RF scanning, but it remains important to consider the drawbacks as well:

  • RFID depends on computer chips, which adds significant cost, complexity, opportunities for breakdowns, and long implementation times.
  • Unless RF tags are encrypted, they are susceptible to security risks because readers can access them such a great distance.
  • Like the tags themselves, RFID scanners can be expensive, often 10 times as costly as barcode readers.
  • Scanning multiple tags at once is not always a positive thing, as there are some situations where the user only wants to scan a specific item or group of items.
  • If there are too many tags near each other, and they all respond to a scanner at once, tag collision can occur and overwhelm the scanner.
  • Similarly, when there are multiple scanners present, it can cause reader collision and leave the tags unable to respond to the multiple overlapping signals.
  • Some materials, such as liquid or some metals, can interfere with RF signals or block them entirely.
  • Because RFID tags do not always emit perfectly accurate waves, the increase in speed may come with a decrease in accuracy.

Advantages of Barcodes

The following advantages make barcodes preferable to RF scanning in many applications:

  • Barcodes don’t add size or weight because they’re printed onto products with ink.
  • Barcodes have almost universal adoption, so any organization with a reader can process all types of barcodes. It’s even possible to scan barcodes with a smart device and some specialized software.
  • The ink required to print a barcode costs almost nothing. This makes barcode scanning much less expensive than RF scanning, as a single RFID tag can cost more than $30.
  • Barcodes are generally regarded to be more accurate than RF tags, especially when they’re printed on appropriately light backgrounds.
  • Although they cannot support encryption, barcodes are secure in the sense that a reader can only access them when in close proximity.
  • Because barcode scanners only read one item at a time, and only read the codes at which they’re pointed, there is no way the scanner can pick up an incorrect barcode.
  • As long as there is a clear line of sight to a barcode on a light background it is acceptable to print the code on any type of material. It is also possible to display barcodes on screens and scan them from there, which is much more accessible than broadcasting radio frequency from a device.
  • It is easy to create and use a barcode template.

Disadvantages of Barcodes

Finally, consider the following drawbacks of barcodes:

  • Barcodes become illegible when torn or otherwise damaged. Because the code must be on the outside of a product to be visible to the scanner, it is exposed to potential harm.
  • Scanners can only read barcodes when they have a direct line of sight from close range, typically within a few feet unless there’s an add-on to boost range.
  • A reader must scan each barcode individually, which can make the process more labor-intensive and introduce greater potential for human error.
  • Barcodes are more susceptible to reproduction or forgery than RFID tags, and there are no options for encryption or password protection.
  • It is impossible to update or rewrite barcodes, and they only contain the most basic information like manufacturer and product.

When to Choose RFID vs. Barcode Scanning

Are barcodes or RFID tags better? The answer is that it depends on the application. Generally, barcodes are the industry standard because they are accurate and inexpensive. They also simplify logistics in some ways. For example, a barcode scanner will only scan the specific item at which it’s pointed. An RFID scanner might accidentally pick up unwanted tags that happen to be in the area.

For these reasons, barcodes are still the industry standard in many ways, with RFID tags presenting a solid option only when necessary for a specific reason. For example, an RFID tag in weatherproof plastic is preferable for livestock tracking. RFID tags also have quality control applications because they can store additional data like how, and for how long, a product was stored.

If there is no specific reason to use RF scanning, barcode scanning presents numerous benefits. When selecting which type of scanner technology to use, many warehouses have made the switch from RF to barcode scanning for their ease of use and more affordable cost. However, there are still environments where RF scanners are preferable. Choosing the most efficient, reliable, affordable warehouse data management solution is always important because it produces a positive impact on the bottom line.

If you’re still on the fence about which is best for you consult with a warehouse management system (WMS) or other supply chain solution provider. Infoplus can work with partners who use RFID scanning, barcode scanning, or some combination of both. Regardless of your tracking methods, reach out today to see what’s possible.

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