When RFID Becomes Obsolete

By Mark Roberti

What new technology will replace radio frequency identification for inventory management, asset tracking and other applications?


I am often asked, by analysts considering investing in RFID companies, as well as by businesses considering deploying RFID technology, if there are any future technologies out there that will make RFID obsolete. I understand why people ask me this, but it really is the wrong time for such a question. Let me explain why.

Radio frequency identification is still in its infancy. Although it has been around in its current form for the past 15 years, less than 5 percent of companies globally are using RFID for asset tracking, inventory management and other core applications.

The first patent for a bar code was issued in 1952. The first bar code was scanned at a retail store in 1974—22 years later—and RFID didn’t start to make serious inroads into retail for another decade. Thirty-three years after that, the bar code is still widely used, and no one seriously believes RFID will replace the bar code (it will complement it).

So asking what technology will replace RFID is like asking in 1984 what technology would replace the bar code. No doubt, any company deploying a bar-code system in 1984 or 1985 probably asked that question. But the truth is that, industry-wide, technologies do not come along every five years and replace what predated them.

As someone who started an RFID business 15 years ago, I have spent a great deal of time considering technologies that might replace RFID or stall adoption. So let’s take a look at some of the possible alternatives.

Infrared: Infrared tags require line of sight and a batter, so they are good for some real-time location applications for high-value assets, but they cannot be used on low-cost items.

Ultrasound: The technology works great for the real-time location of high-value assets when you need room-level accuracy—but like infrared tags, ultrasound tags require a battery, making them too expensive for tracking billions of low-cost items.

Wi-Fi and ZigBee: Like infrared, tags that use these protocols require a power source. This makes them unsuitable for tracking billions of low-cost items.

2-D Bar Codes and Other Forms of Visual ID: These have their place, but they require line of sight, meaning you can’t identify or count items within a box or stacked on a shelf unless the data carrier is perfectly aligned to a reader.

Video: Video holds the most promise. The amount of computing power makes it possible to analyze images quickly, but it has several weaknesses as an automatic-identification technology. One is that it can’t see inside boxes, cartons and other containers, so you cannot inventory items. Another has to do with the organization of items. If you had items that were all the same and stacked on a shelf, a video camera could recognize that there were 10 or 12 of them. If you had a shelving unit containing jeans, however, you could not determine which sizes were out of stock, since video would not be able to distinguish between the different sizes. Video also could not detect that the specific item a customer was looking for was crumpled up on a display under four other items.

The way I see it, tracking billions—or even trillions—of low-cost items from manufacture to disposal or recycling requires something that is low in cost, does not require line of sight and does not need its own power source. The only thing I’ve seen that meets these requirements is passive RFID.

Could something eventually come along that replaces RFID? Sure, that might happen one day. I doubt I will be alive to see it, though, because I’m positive that RFID will be used for the next 30 years or more, and it takes a long time for existing technologies to be replaced by new ones. But if you think you’ve seen something that will make RFID obsolete, please post information about it below.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.