Bar Codes Aren’t Going Away!

By Chris Kapsambelis

At the recent AIDC 100 Truth in Technologies 2005: Supply Chain RFID forum at Stony Brook University on Long Island, speakers extolled the many benefits of RFID. In numerous applications RFID is enhancing supply chain effectiveness, saving money, improving security, making anti-counterfeiting measures more effective, reducing healthcare administrative costs, and benefiting business and commerce. WOW!

Will RFID eliminate bar codes as the dominant data collection, tracking, and monitoring technology? Although conference speakers were understandably excited about RFID, they admitted there is much to be done to capitalize on this exciting technology. Today RFID is where bar codes were twenty five years ago – at the starting gate.

Just as, in construction, nails and adhesives are complimentary attachment methods, in data capture bar codes and RFID are complimentary technologies. RFID does have attributes bar codes do not have, but bar codes have a major continuing role to play. They are economical, reliable, highly functional, and supported by a vast infrastructure. Bar codes are to automation what the nail is to construction.

In this article RFID, as it relates to security applications, is compared with a bar code security and anti-counterfeiting label system. The bar code used for the comparison is Watson Label Products SecurityCode. SecurityCode is a security label that contains three moving targets within the label: a conventional bar code for data collection, an overt human readable code, and a covert code. The three codes sequence independently. For label authentication all three must correctly match, in the way a combination lock works.

At the Truth in Technologies Conference, speakers presented some of the key challenges facing RFID:

1. Antenna durability: The antenna is the most fragile part of an RFID tag. For best scannability the antenna should extend out from the tag. It does best when it hangs free in space. Antennas are easily damaged. A relatively minor bump or scrape can separate the antenna from the tag.

Comment: In anti-piracy applications a bar code label might be a more damage resistant approach or a good back-up for RFID.

2. Education: An overly optimistic view is that RFID is a “cure-all” that will eliminate other forms of automatic identification and data collection. A less than optimistic view is that RFID is a solution looking for a problem. There is a critical need to educate end users about how, why and where to use RFID. Presenters at the Truth in Technologies conference took the position that RFID, bar codes, magnetic stripes, voice recognition, and other technologies all play key roles in automation, and will be used separately and in combination.

Comment: Bar codes, with their long success history, can be a useful security protection transition technology, and eventually be used in conjunction with RFID when industry education better defines the how, where and why questions.

3. Invasion of privacy: Truth in Technologies speaker Katherine Albrecht, co-author of “Spy Chips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID,” presented evidence of wide ranging consumer opposition to RFID. Are the RFID tags that are now being imbedded in garments, shoes, shampoo, credit cards, dog chow, or other products creating an “Orwellian” invasion of privacy? And as with internet security, how can anyone tell whether a used chip is dead or just dormant with the ability to have the confidential information it carries reactivated?

Comment: Bar codes avoid the invasion of privacy concerns by end users who fear they will be RFID tracked.

4. Waste removal: With the continuing growth of RFID usage, hundreds of billions of passive RFID tags may be soon in circulation. This presents a huge challenge for waste removal and recycling. RFID tags will wind up in someone’s trash! Then what happens? Chemicals present in trace quantities in tags include lead, mercury, chromium, poly-brominated biphenyls, and poly-brominated diphenyl ethers. Silicon, aluminum and plastics present in tags create recycling problems. Recycling RFID antennas can be a particular problem. A typical passive tag antenna contains 4% silver, 38% copper, and trace amounts of tin and nickel. With the huge worldwide demand for old corrugated cartons, which can be worth $40 to $60 per bale for their fiber content, RFID tags in waste will significantly increase recycling costs. Residual silver in corrugated waste clogs filters. RFID residues may downgrade recycled plastics so they are only suitable for fabrication into park benches. In glass recycling, silicone content causes cracks, and copper fouls furnaces. In steel recycling, copper and aluminum downgrade the quality of scrap metal.

Comment: Bar code labels don’t generate these serious recycling problems.

5. Customer specifications: Target doesn’t want Wal-Mart to have its RFID generated information and vice versa. How can competitive privacy be maintained? Different companies will want different RFID tag specifications. How can tags which don’t fit a particular customer specification be changed to meet another specification? How do trading partners exchange information?

Which scanners will be able to read which customer specifications? What does it take to kill a tag to insure privacy? When a tag is “killed” is it really dead, or can it be brought back to life? How can technically savvy counterfeiters be prevented from redoing or hacking active tags to change them into something else? These major concerns need to be addressed

Comment: There is much work to be done to establish uniform, worldwide RFID standards. Meanwhile, the bar code protocols which have been established over the last 25 years avoid these challenges.

6. Testing and verification: As with bar codes, verification is critical. Scanners are not verifiers. RFID readers should not be used to test RFID system components. Unlike bar codes, RFID verification is very expensive, and not yet readily available. One Truth in Technologies speaker showed pictures of a $40,000 system designed to accurately and consistently test tags. Another presented a somewhat less expensive horn antenna tester. Speakers were asked if they were initiating testing services. The answer was, “No, not yet.” It was suggested end users go to third party testing labs such as University of Kansas, UPA Texas, University of Wisconsin, or other schools with proper facilities for verification testing.

Comment: Tag verification adds complexity, the need for expensive equipment or outside services, and training requirements, significant additions to the cost of an RFID data collection and security system.

7. Shadowing and RFID efficiency: Tag readability is affected by many factors. Metal can create a solid barrier to RFID data capture. Electrolytes, such as the electrolyte in a jar of pickles, can affect readability. Tips of antennas can have a voltage interaction with products causing the tag to “retune” itself. When tagging steel or aluminum plate, the tag must be placed on something non-conductive to avoid scanning problems. Recently, the use of foam balls has been tested to assist RFID tag readability. Tags are placed inside balls which, in turn, are placed in cartons of products prior to shipment.

Comment: Careful study is needed to evaluate the offsetting time and cost advantages and disadvantages of bar codes versus RFID in applications such as these.

8. Cost: According to the proponents of RFID at the Truth in Technologies Conference, a passive RFID tag that sells for $0.05 is years away. Active RFID tags can cost from $1.00 to $5.00, or more, depending on requirements. At these premiums RFID may be difficult to cost justify versus bar codes.

Comment: A security label, such as SecurityCode, with its price tag of $0.04 or less per label, can be a significant cost saving. A UPC Symbol and/or another multiple functional element can be placed next to the security function in the label. Multiple function security labels offer an attractive stand alone system, or a valuable enhancement when used in conjunction with RFID.

Prospects for RFID are exciting: worldwide supply chain tracking; hazardous waste control; port of entry import/export screening in combination with GPS and radioactive/explosive materials detection; dramatically higher scanning speeds with the new generation of MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical-scanning) scanners that are lower cost, higher durability, and more compact; tire tracking and maintenance using imbedded RFID tags; and many more intriguing applications.

Yes, RFID has a bright future, and yes, bar codes are here to stay.

Jud Miner
Automation Associates
8334 Brae Court
Chesterfield, MO 63017
December, 2005
Telephone: 636-519-8545