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11/16/2004
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Analyzing RFID's Reliability And Stability Limitations

RFID and bar codes are both auto-identification technologies, but bar codes have a much longer track record and therefore boast greater reliability. In addition to stability issues, there are other potential shortcomings in the readiness of RFID that enterprises must understand and weigh.

Larry ShutzbergEditor's note: This is the fourth in a series of RFID perspectives from Larry Shutzberg, vice president and chief information officer at Rock-Tenn Co., a leading manufacturer of consumer packaging, promotional displays, and recycled paperboard. In Part One, Shutzberg urged readers to not miss the innovation opportunity that RFID presents. In Part Two he detailed the costs and potential costs of RFID. In Part Three he provided an overview of key RFID technologies.

In this piece, Shutzberg compares RFID to bar codes and explains current limitations with RFID technology

Radio-frequency identification and bar codes are both auto-identification technologies. Though some futurists believe RFID tags eventually will cost pennies and one day will be used for everything, even they agree this vision is years away. In the meantime, manufacturers will continue to use bar-coded labels in the absence of RFID tags.

While bar-coded labels are generally reliable to read, RFID tags today are not always reliable and will not work with some products or in certain situations. Manufacturers will therefore continue to use bar-coded tags indefinitely as a fallback when RFID fails.

Given that RFID tags will not replace bar-coded labels any time soon, it's important to understand the distinct differences between these two auto-identification technologies.

This chart reflects some of the differences:

Bar-coded labels RFID Tags
Inexpensive (but not reusable) Costly (though potentially reusable)
Reliable to read Not always reliable to read
Work with virtually all products Work with most products but have trouble with some (such as those containing metals and liquids)
Can be printed before production or printed directly on items Must be programmed, applied and verified individually, and data synchronization is usually required
Must be read one at a time and line of sight is required Many tags can be read simultaneously and no line of sight is required
Written once with limited data Can potentially be written multiple times, have higher capacity, and can be combined with sensors
Have a limited read range Can have a longer read range

RFID technology has been around for years, but it has only recently been introduced to the consumer-goods supply chain. Due to the potential for enormous benefits (primarily for retailers), few question its inevitable widespread adoption. But RFID in our supply chain today is anything but stable. It is therefore critical to understand the many challenges, barriers, and issues with RFID deployment while developing an RFID mandate compliance strategy.

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