Using RFID and Bar Codes Together

By Ken Traub

By starting with the right data format, it's easy to achieve interoperability in business applications.

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As more companies ramp up their RFID deployments and share data with supply-chain partners, a common problem has come to light. While many business applications need to process data from both bar codes and Gen 2 EPC RFID tags, enterprise software is not always designed with interoperability in mind. As a result, end users are finding their business applications "locked in" to either bar-code or RFID technology. Lock-in occurs with just RFID data as well. An application designed to process data only from 96-bit RFID tags can't handle data from 256-bit tags.

To address this issue, GS1 published, in September, a guideline titled "RFID Bar Code Interoperability." The guideline recommends that enterprise applications use a data format designed for business use—one that is not specific to RFID or bar-code technology. This can be accomplished because Gen 2 passive RFID tags support the same GS1 system of identification bar codes have used for decades.

Lock-in occurs when business software uses the specific data formats from a bar-code scanner or an RFID reader. The output of an RFID reader for a 96-bit EPC tag is typically an encoded hexadecimal value, such as 3054257BF4C21B4000001ABF. A bar-code reader, on the other hand, yields this: ]d20110614141987655216847.

It's important to decode these different formats into a business-level representation at the lowest level of software—ideally, within the RFID reader or bar-code scanner, or with middleware, software that resides between readers and scanners and enterprise applications. Essentially, you're translating RFID and bar-code data into well-established GS1 codes. Let's take the GS1 standard Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), used in the apparel, consumer goods and pharmaceuticals industries, as an example.

GS1 standards define the GTIN as 14 digits and the serial number as 1 to 20 alphanumeric characters. Business software designed for interoperability stores each tag read as a GTIN and serial number. Using the previous example, the RFID hexadecimal value would be translated to GTIN 10614141987655 and serial number 6847 for transmission to business applications. The bar-code scan would be translated to the same GTIN and serial number. Similar principles apply to other GS1 codes used in industries in which bar codes and RFID coexist.

Companies need the flexibility to use either RFID or bar-code technology or both, depending on the circumstance. So to avoid lock-in, make sure your enterprise software processes data in an application-level format, not specific to one technology. Also, employ smart readers and scanners and/or middleware to translate RFID and bar-code data to application-level format. Don't assume commercial products implement the GS1 guidelines. Ask your systems integrator about this feature, and insist it is part of your solution. A little foresight today will help ensure interoperability tomorrow.

Ken Traub is the founder of Ken Traub Consulting, a Mass.-based firm providing services to soft­ware product companies and enterprises that rely on advanced software technology to run their businesses.