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The Bar Code Is Back!

After several years of articles stating RFID would spell its death knell, end users are finding advantages to using the humble bar code.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 06, 2006I received an e-mail the other day from a gentleman who sells bar-code systems, pointing out that back in March 2003, I wrote that the use of radio frequency identification systems "leads to 'zero human involvement operations,' which may actually boost productivity" (see Getting to 0HIO). He also referenced my Jan. 25 news story about Wal-Mart rolling out handheld and forklift-mounted RFID interrogators, exploring the use of wearable RFID interrogators. He then wrote: "RFID is marching backwards, and it's about to meet—the BAR CODE!"

This man's point was that end users are finding RFID too expensive to deploy at every dock door and on every shelf to get to 0HIO (zero human intervention operations). The way end users are deploying RFID system looks a lot like the way bar-code systems have been deployed for years. My e-mail correspondent believes end users will soon discover that even putting RFID interrogators on forklift trucks and in people's hands will be too expensive, and they will revert to using tried-and-true bar-code solutions.

While people may be rethinking RFID deployment strategies, that doesn't mean RFID is marching backwards. It's cheaper to put an interrogator on a forklift than on every dock door, and using an RFID-enabled forklift reduces human involvement because the driver doesn't have to scan the bar code manually. Plus, it's hardly a surprise Wal-Mart sees benefits in adding RFID capabilities to its current handheld devices—companies will always try to leverage existing infrastructure rather than rip out systems they have in favor of new ones.

From what I see and hear, RFID is marching forward at an incredible pace, far beyond what I had ever expected. A few years ago, virtually all commentators, including me, thought RFID would be used for several years at the case and pallet level before companies started deploying it at the item level. And yet, item-level tracking is moving ahead rapidly. Pfizer recently announced its use of RFID in tagging Viagra (see Pfizer Using RFID to Fight Fake Viagra), for instance, while Alien Technology CEO Stav Prodromou told me recently that more and more apparel companies are looking at tagging individual items (see Tipping Point Is Closer, Says Alien CEO).

That said, I think companies are rethinking the way they deploy RFID and the future role of the humble bar code. Not too long ago, many end users thought the bar code would be relegated to a backup role for cases and pallets, and continue to be the main method of identifying individual items (no serious thinker I know thought the bar code would become obsolete any time soon). Today, companies are examining where different auto-identification technologies make sense. There's some talk, for instance, that serialized bar codes might be a better solution for tracking individual units of pharmaceutical drugs and creating electronic pedigrees.

Airbus and Boeing have launched a joint effort to create RFID standards in the aerospace sector, but they are also reexamining the use of bar codes. Alan Thorne, manager of the manufacturing automation laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England and a member of the Cambridge Auto-ID Lab, is working with the Aerospace ID Technologies Programme at Cambridge. He told me, not two days before I received the e-mail from my bar-coding friend, that the research group is creating a matrix to determine when it makes sense to use different types of auto-ID technologies in the aerospace sector.

As the founder of an RFID media company, I could feel threatened by the fact that some end users are reexamining the role of bar codes, RFID and other technologies, but frankly I don't. It's healthy for companies to reexamine their approach to deploying a new technology. We're now beyond the phase where companies are infatuated with the idea of deploying RFID and into the stage of looking at the hard, cold realities and determining where it makes sense to deploy RFID and how to do it cost-effectively. Some potential applications won't work out. New ones will be discovered. But ultimately, companies will develop applications and back-end IT systems leveraging a variety of auto-ID and sensor technologies—including bar codes—to help them do business more effectively. And that, in the end, is what it's all about.

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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Jun Kawakami 2006-02-06 12:54:48 PM
Nuts to barcodes Here at Merillat corp, where we build thousands of kitchen cabinets a day. barcodes can only be applied in limited places in the process. Barcodes don't like sand paper, stain or paint. Once the label is painted it's very difficult to read. However an embedded chip in the component to be sprayed is very effective. RF doesn't care. We are in the process of implementing RFID into our plant. Not only will it give us total visibility of the process, we will even use it to mistake proof the process. Nuts to bar codes! bj o'day maint supervisor Merillat corp Ocala, fla
Sanjay Chawla 2006-02-07 08:35:49 AM
OHIO In the early days of Barcode, “Zero Human Involvement Operations” (OHIO) was the goal. The first application involved the Automatic Identification of Railroad Cars as they traveled at up to 80 mph. Permanent scanners were installed rail-side at the entrance and exit of every railroad yard terminal. Does this sound a little like RFID portals at supply chain distribution centers? When barcode was later adopted for Point of Sale (POS) in the retail industry, hand-held scanners were introduced, and everyone began to use them for everything because they were cheaper. Getting to OHIO was abandoned, and fixed position barcode scanning is now virtually unknown. Is RFID in the supply chain going down the same path, and is history going to repeat itself?
Ameeta Soni 2006-02-08 01:13:43 AM
The bar code is better? Just buy unify reading range tags from your supplier and ask your packageing vendor to embed tags into cases or pallets, you will find RFId is better than bar code!
Jonathan Beattie Beattie 2006-02-09 06:47:51 AM
The Barcode in Healthcare! ‘Well, it saves them money in France’ Said the hospital chief, Paul Vance; ‘So if we had bar-codes,’ Replied pretty Nurse Rhodes, ‘You could patch that hole in your pants!’ ‘It’s years since we’ve had a raise’ Said the nurse in ward two, Miss Hayes; ‘Well,’ said Nurse Rhodes, ‘We’re getting bar-codes, So the bosses deserve some praise.’ In a hospital, medical toads, Were discussing the use of bar-codes; Croaked one, Nurse Cunney, ‘If it saves us money, We could treat frogs injured on roads.’ ‘It’s important to save lives and money’ Said the doctor on duty, Jack Cunney; ‘Well,’ said Nurse Rhodes, ‘We should use bar-codes! Seriously, I’m not being funny!’ ‘Well, we all could do with more pay!’ Said a nurse to her friend one day; ‘Too right!’ said Nurse Rhodes, ‘When we get the bar-codes, That cow in ward five can have hay!’ ‘I’d like to give bar-codes a try’ Said the hospital chief, James Fry ‘Good!’ said Nurse Ash, ‘That should save cash! There’s equipment we need to buy.’ ‘The-benefits wouId i-mmense’ Said a doctor with eloquence; I know,’ said Nurse Rhodes, ‘We should use bar-codes; I believe it makes perfect sense.’ ‘Big decisions do make me nervous’ Said the hospital chief, James Purvis; ‘But the bar-codes, Neil, Should have wide appeal, As they’ll greatly improve our service.’
Sanjay Chawla 2006-02-10 07:43:05 AM
RFID vs Barcode in the Supply Chain The reason that users are regressing to manual scanning is not economics; it’s poor performance. Pilot installations show read rates between 50% and 80% through RFID Portals. As a result pallets must be broken down and cases must be read one at a time. RFID equipped storage locations have shown that an accurate count is not possible, and manual scanning of location tags and each item during Put-Away is necessary. If every item has to be individually read in order to maintain accuracy, Barcode is not only cheaper, but in fact it’s better since the user does not have to deal with unintended readings
Luca Petruzzi 2006-02-10 08:49:50 AM
Bar code isn't back -- it never left If "Bar Code is Back!" as the headline says, can someone please tell me when it left? I consider the whole bar code vs. RFID marketing angle largely unproductive and lacking in credibility. Responsible integrators, consultants and vendors will tell you there is a place for bar code and RFID. Look no farther than the two largest proponents of RFID implementations: Wal-Mart and the DoD. Both have asserted that their bar code infrastructures will remain in place even as RFID use grows. RFID will replace bar code about the same time TV replaces radio and the Internet replaces books. The "bar code is going away" argument is almost always forwarded by organizations who are selling something RFID specific. Proclaiming bar code is dead suggests an alarming lack of understanding about the business processes and value drivers that make RFID, bar code and other automation programs successful.
JOSHUA GIRVIN 2006-02-11 11:20:32 AM
Barcode is back It never went away.More money is being spent today by US DoD and their Tier One Suppliers on the UID programme which uniquely identifies key item-level components with a Data Matrix barcode than on any DoD RFID programme. Good to read about RFID pilots but the DoD barcode programme is in full roll-out and this is real and profitable revenue for the Auto ID Industry. See http://www.acq.osd.mil/dpap/uid/ for more information. Data Matrix is a high capacity data carrier similar to a RFID tag but not quite sexy enough for the media to mention.

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