Five RFID Myths Exposed

By Alex Goldman

January 06, 2004

RFID technology is new and many misconceptions remain concerning the opportunities it offers. The RFID wave is coming but its shape may not be what the pundits expect.

In our previous article, RFID Primer: Where the WLAN Hits the RFID Fan, we described what RFID technology is and what it can and cannot do. In this article, we continue our exploration of RFID technology by extrapolating that knowledge into actual deployments.

We'll look at where the money is, what people expect from the technology, and what it can, at present, deliver. Much hyped, RFID is the subject of several myths.

Myth 1: RFID will replace bar code
In reality, these are two complementary technologies. While RFID can store more data than bar code, bar code is much cheaper. Most consumers are familiar with linear (one dimensional) bar codes. Many industrial applications employ a denser rectangular (two dimensional) bar code which can contain a significant amount of data.

Bar code is so reliable and cost effective that it will continue to provide a better ROI than RFID in many new deployments. Bar code is synergistic with RFID, and serves as a useful backup to RFID. In fact, all Tech Center RFID implementations to date also employ bar code technology.

RFID tag inlays may be affixed directly behind bar code labels, and programmed by new Intermec and Zebra Bar code label printers equipped with the RFID tag write ability.

Bar Code vs. RFID
Bar Code
RFID
Optical technology RF technology
line of sight only non line of sight
read only read only or read/write capable
Can carry data
(2D only)
Can carry data
(depending on tag vendor)
Typically attended read
(can be unattended)
Typically unattended read
(attended read for handheld)
Typically not reusable Reusable

The real savings from RFID comes not from simply deploying the technology, but from improving the entire business process. It's therefore no accident that many early implementers of RFID, like Tech Center, have experience implementing CRM and ERP, which are other technologies whose true value can only be realized after significant changes in business processes.

Compared to bar code, RFID enables greater automation of the data collection process. With RFID, non line of sight (NLOS) interrogation is possible. With circular polarized antennas, the beam does not need to be oriented manually, as it may have to be with a linear bar code. It enables the reading of multiple tags at the same time and even allows the reading of selective tags, as determined by identification data residing on the tag.

RFID (and bar codes) allow data to be securely transmitted from one company to another. Many companies use independent suppliers. Data from those suppliers can be carried on tags and uploaded automatically to the receiving company's ERP system the moment a component is delivered.

Most companies are accustomed to knowing what's in their warehouse, but RFID promises to enable them to drill deeper, tracking each pallet, lot, or even each unit.

In turn, an RFID tag will allow companies to track each pallet, lot, and unit long after it has left the factory or warehouse. Manufacturers will be able to track product genealogy, understanding better the creation of successes and defects. Product recalls could be far more focused, saving massive amounts of money, especially in the health care and automotive industries.

Companies will therefore have better data about post-production product performance. Taking the automotive industry as an example, a car would consist of individually tagged components. The car body, engine, each tire, and each air bag would have a separate tag. Data could be collected at repair shops or accident sites.

Even within the factory, tags could enable foolproof manufacturing. An auto body tag could tell a factory person or robot, "please install a red steering wheel on me." If a mistake is made, the unit can be tracked and fixed later without stopping the assembly line, or it can be fixed immediately.

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