Serialized Bar Codes or RFID?

By Mark Roberti

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.

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I 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.