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Serialized Bar Codes or RFID?

Serialized bar codes are not a replacement for RFID, but they should be considered for applications where line of sight is not an issue and a lot of labor isn’t needed to scan items.
By Mark Roberti
Jul 25, 2005I spoke at an event in Michigan a couple of weeks ago and presented some background on an implementation done by Procter & Gamble at a manufacturing and distribution facility in Spain. I explained that P&G embedded tags in the floor to identify pallet pickup and dock door locations, that the implementation cost less than $100,000 and that the company got a return on its investment in less than a year (see RFID Speeds P&G Plant Throughput).

During a break in the proceedings, a gentleman asked me: "Why didn't P&G just use serialized bar codes to identify the dock doors?" I explained that the company felt an RFID system was the best way to achieve its two main objectives: increase throughput and eliminate shipping errors (the goods were being put on trucks going directly to retail stores, and P&G didn't want to ship the wrong goods to any of its customers).

The gentleman listened politely, then said: "To me, RFID is simply a way to collect serialized data, and serialized bar codes would work just as well in most cases." My response: "There are times where RFID's ability to collect serialized data without line of sight and without human intervention make it preferable to serialized bar codes, but certainly, if a serialized bar code works, you should use it. It's less expensive than RFID and easier to implement."

Later in the day, I hosted a panel that included Jan Beauchamp, general manager of global automotive industries for IBM; Morris Brown, program manager for the Auto Industry Action Group; and Scott Medford, vice president of RFID for Intermec Technologies. I tossed this question to the panel: "Why not forget about using RFID and use serialized bar codes?" Each panelist said exactly what I'd said: If a serialized bar code will do the job, use it.

I was reminded of this exchange recently by a piece written by Jeff Woods, an analyst for Gartner Research. The article, published in CIO magazine, states that many of the benefits from RFID implementations that companies are talking about don't flow intrinsically from RFID, but from other things, such as data synchronization. "RFID can be used to get people thinking about certain types of business problems—it is, in essence, a conversation starter,” Woods wrote. “However, you shouldn't be afraid to jettison RFID if you determine it's not essential to your project."

RFID doesn't do anything that can't be done today by people and bar code technology, so companies should consider serialized bar codes as a possible alternative to RFID. For instance, it could be used to reduce anticounterfeiting of high-value items. Secure Symbology, a New York City-based auto-identification technology company, has introduced a serialized bar coding and software platform for anticounterfeiting and other applications. (see Bar Coding for Item Tracking).

But for some applications bar code technology is impractical. If, for instance, serialized bar codes were used to track pharmaceuticals and create drug pedigrees, it would require an army of people in many different locations to pick up and scan each vial of liquid medicine and each bottle of pills.

And it's not just a question of manpower cost. It's a question of speed, efficiency and accuracy. In the case of the P&G implementation, if bar codes were used instead of RFID, forklift drivers would have to stop and scan a bar code at a dock door each time they loaded a pallet on the truck. Not only would that slow them down and make them less efficient, it would also introduce the possibility that they would forget to scan a bar code and make a mistake in loading goods on the truck, which would lead to an angry customer.

RFID should be considered as one application in a suite of tools that includes regular bar codes, serialized bar codes, passive and active RFID, wireless sensors and other monitoring and data-collection technologies. Each of these needs to be applied in an appropriate and cost-effective way and integrated into a single back-end system that enables companies to have accurate, up-to-date information about what's happening within their own operations and within their supply chain.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.
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Robert Mabry 2005-07-29 08:38:14 AM
Serialized Bar Codes I understand the gentleman's comments - really displaying three aspects - first, properly - when existing technology & processes can properly do the job - why adopt something new & unproven (and expensive)?; 2nd, the reluctance to consider something new; and 3rd, the lack of fully understanding the new technology's benefits. I don't mean that to sound harsh, but the fella needs to realize the aspects that serialized bar codes can't do by what they do require. They do require line-of-sight, they do require individually scanning - even with fast processing line speeds - that can still be significant labor time. Serialized bar codes can be easily copied, therefore are not suitable to prove pedigree. Therefore, they can't be blindly read and simultaneuosly to multiple others. They can be destroyed, replaced, copied, and printed over top of. What overcomes these aspects is the radio tag (minus obstructions from metal/liguid, etc.). It is read in a range, can read multiples simultaneously, can be on a mixed pallet, not requiring the individual lay out to be physically scanned. Can withstand temperature extremes and harsh conditions, can be reprogrammed (appropriately), while can be locked and unable to be changed. Can't easily be duplicated as the basic premise of the signal & EPC-type nature is uniqueness of tags/tag signals, basically - a built-in serialization. Granted, if a facility is set up such that a slower receiving line can be autoamtically configured to scan a case or product individually and record transactions automatically - there can be some similar benefit - it all depends on the setup and applications. Think the correct analogy is something akin to air transportation for a major league sports team. Yes, all the players and managers can fly individually either on mass trans or individual private jets. But the more efficient and less costly would be to charter one larger plane sufficient for the entire group. And - it also maybe the difference of a turbo prop vs. a Lear in the same scenario. Best Regards, Damon McDaniel
Andrew Marker 2005-08-28 10:17:20 AM
Serialized bar codes vs RFID This comment comes from Chris Hook at Deloitte Consulting. Application definitions will drive optimal technology selection. As you report, if bar codes do the job as defined, giving requisite functionality and meeting financial metrics, then we have determined sound fitness for purpose. Case in point: Allied Domecq developed a system based on 2D Datamatrix bar codes applied to individual bottles of spirits (printed on the labels) for unique identification at the item level (consumer pack - bottle), developing a system to track and trace items based on those unique identifiers. And so to my second point... [Somewhat loosely speaking] Infrastructure being put in place to deal with serialized data stored in RFID tags can equally well deal with data originating in bar codes; it has been proven that an RSS-Expanded bar code label can easily hold an EPC (96 bit structure), in a compact symbol which could certainly be applied to categories of consumer goods which do not warrant application of chip-based RFID tags. Development and deployment of such infrastructure is key to the successful and widespread utilization of item-serialized coding, irrespective of whether the identification data comes from a bar code or RFID tag. Going forwards, I anticipate a dynamic mix of bar coded and RFID tagged "items" in a supply chain, with track and trace functionality being administered from a common IT architecture. The supervisory system does not care whether the IDs come from bar codes or RFID tags. (Of course, you do a whole lot more and differently from a system and operational perspective with RFID by comparison with bar code.) So called "RFID middleware" which comprehends this dynamic will be favored over products which are only concerned with managing RFID client devices. Best regards, Chris Hook Deloitte Consulting LLP

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