Barcoding and RFID can be traced back decades, yet many businesses are still in the infant stages of their identification offering. Sam Tulip investigates the reasons behind this and looks at the innovations reviving the use of barcode and RFID technologies…
Barcoding, and its techie relative RFID, should by any rational judgement be mature technologies by now. The concepts behind barcodes were patented in 1952, Universal Product Code promulgated in 1973, and the first pack of Wrigley’s gum was scanned in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio in 1974. Meanwhile, the founding patents for RFID were filed in 1973 although the concept can be tracked back to ‘Identification Friend or Foe’ transponders in the bomber fleets of World War 2.
So it is rather strange that in many firms, or indeed entire sectors, ID by either method is still the exception rather than the rule and where it is present is used for often used for a very limited range of tasks.
Richard Gilliard, managing director at Renovotec, says that the key benefits of RFID are the “ability to read hundreds of tags in seconds, at high speed, over distances that can vary from a few centimetres to 15+ metres and potentially without line of sight access to the tag. But while this is beneficial to many applications, for others where, for example, the volumes are much lower or throughput is slower, then the efficiency gains may not justify the transition”.
“Some warehouses are not set up to ensure accurate RFID implementation”, concedes David Myers, international CEO at TouchPath. “Stray and missed reads are an issue. Some materials also make RFID reads more difficult. But in our experience, the companies that have no form of ID have two basic things in common. The warehouse has no defined locations or areas to identify item storage and their business processes do not track inventory. Yet the cost of manual inventory management and inaccuracies would more than pay for the implementation of an AutoID system”.
Steve Clapham is sales manager, transport & logistics, for Datalogic in the UK and sees other problems. “There’s no doubt that RFID has the potential to capture a huge amount of data with incredibly fast read rates; it can even capture multiple items packaged in a single consignment, without requiring direct line of sight. Capturing data however is where the functionality ends and while the advantages of this technology can deliver efficiencies in tracking goods in and goods out, it’s very difficult to implement unless you control every aspect of the supply chain.
“For example, how do you ensure that a tag is applied to every item at the point of manufacture? In 2003, Walmart announced that its top 100 suppliers had to until the end of 2006 to label all cases and pallets with RFID tags. Despite their announcement, which many thought would encourage others to follow suit and force global adoption and cost reduction of the technology, the concept didn’t grab hold the way it expected it to”.
Fortunately, developments in imaging have given barcoding systems a new lease of life. “The fact that most smartphones are now able to read a barcode highlights how ubiquitous the technology is and why the barcode will not die,” comments Richard Gilliard.
Clapham says: “More and more customers are investigating how cameras and imagers can used to streamline pick, pack and dispatch operations. The transition from handheld scanners or mobile computers, to more automated systems is gathering pace. By placing cameras or imagers at multiple angles along a conveyer, it is possible to capture data from a barcode without having to worry about the package’s orientation. For goods in and goods out applications, imaging can start to deliver the increase in efficiency and throughput sought from RFID without the ongoing cost implications.
“Imaging technology lends itself to a wider range of applications throughout the supply chain too, going way beyond traditional capture of serial numbers, size, manufacturer, vendor, expiration date etc. from a 2D barcode. Imaging software can be configured and learn to recognise items in the distribution centre by their unique packaging, size, shape or even weight. This can be used to automate the calculation of shipping costs but can also help to detect damaged products before they leave to be shipped to a customer. We’re also seeing image technology being used to aid with reverse logistics, which has enormous potential in eCommerce environments”.
Imaging is key to getting the most out of barcoding, agrees Samuel Mueller, CEO of Scandit. “Legacy scanners are the biggest barrier to entry because many logistics companies are afraid to change something that they’ve used for so long. The fact is that smartphones, tablets, wearables, drones, and robots can be equipped with computer vision software and deliver enterprise-grade barcode scanning. The total cost of ownership with smart devices is up to three times lower than traditional scanners. With the addition of augmented reality feedback, logistics companies can see real-time information overlaid on the screen, which saves time and improves operational efficiency. This isn’t just future thinking—this is happening in logistics operations today.”
An example of how modern imaging can be transformative of barcoding applications is furnished by Ugo Mastracchio, sales engineer manager for Zebra Technologies. Replacing conventional scanners with TC8000 Android-based touch screen mobile computers in the finished goods warehouses of Italian cabling company General Cavi has improved productivity on the warehouse floor by 15 per cent. This is partly through the ability to read even damaged barcodes through a wide range of angles but also through the design’s ergonomics and weight saving – Mastracchio claims 33 per cent lighter and a 55 per cent reduction in wrist movements.
Perhaps one problem is that a really effective solution may need to combine both RFID and barcodes. “Barcodes and RFID are not competing but complementary technologies”, Richard Gilliard. Dean Frew, CTO and SVP of RFID Solutions at SML, notes that “with the ability to handle complex datasets RFID stands apart from less sophisticated technologies such as barcodes,” but that “the majority of retailers are now looking to combine 2D barcodes with RFID. By utilizing the two technologies together, we have seen 50% savings for retailers by not using RFID technology at POS whilst getting access to EPC level data on sold items. When combined, these technologies have the ability to provide innovative inventory, POS and brand protection cases. 2D barcode technology has a larger payload that enables the tag to include additional information such as serialized product information. However, due to requiring a ‘line of sight’ it is not sufficient to support inventory management on its own”.
Frew cautions that “although RFID may seem beneficial, overall adoption has its own set of challenges. For example, we’ve seen that retailers in Europe approach RFID very programmatically – keeping it as simple as possible. However, US retailers approach RFID in an overly complex way; cramming too much technology into the project from the outset and trying to do too much at once that the project ends up costing more with lower ROI. However, if retailers strip away the flashy technology and stick with what works, they’ll experience greater ROI much faster”.
For Adam Bowes, RFID consultant at Red Ledge, the choice of RFID over barcoding is largely dependent on the extent of control over the environment. “There is still quite a lot of misinformation about RFID. People think it solves every business problem but it doesn’t,” he says.
“The big supermarkets have all tried tagging up items in a trolley then pushing them through an RFID portal but that has not usually worked because radio frequencies don’t travel through liquid; if there is a pint of milk on top of another object that’s got a tag on it you probably won’t be able to read it.
“Where you can control the environment RFID is brilliant; in that environment it really will solve every business problem. Tag technology is getting better and cheaper. But it still has its limitations. We’ve been using barcodes since 1971 and there’s no sign of that stopping. RFID will work alongside them but I do not think it will ever replace other forms of automation.
“For example: there are systems where we use an RFID tag, a label which has a bar code printed on it; someone will scan items into a box using that bar code; then they will read the box using RFID. You stack up say 50 tote boxes push them through an RFID portal and dispatch everything. You can then track the tote box as an asset. The two technologies have to coexist and be able to integrate with each other and that’s where we see the benefit”.
David Myers points out that “a worker can point the beam of a barcode scanner to a single box on a shelf to scan. With RFID, all tags surrounding the intended target are also picked up. Barcodes are focused intent-based reads with verification of success (audio, lights, etc.). RFID is an autonomous scan that reads everything in its read range. Knowing if an RFID reader picked up unintended data or missed a tag can be difficult. Both technologies should be viewed as complementary and not mutually exclusive. Both can be implemented simultaneously to expand ID capabilities”.
In some circumstances barcoding may have other advantages. From a security point of view there is something to be said for having to get up close and personal with a barcode reader, whereas RFID tags, particularly active devices, can be fished for from a considerable distance – a ‘hacker’ may not even need to be on the premises.
Another concern that may hinder the wholesale adoption of RFID on consumer goods is the possible impact of adding millions of small electronic devices to the post-consumer recycling streams for cardboard and other packaging materials.
Dr Sabesan Sithamparanathan, founder of PervasID, notes that “implementation is being hindered in scenarios where RFID tags need to be applied at the start of the supply chain or during the manufacturing process, which can often be a challenge. Together with the IT requirements demanded by RFID – often an IT infrastructure update which can take time and resources that are often stretched in this area – the return on investment (ROI) for RFID is often not significant enough in one area alone, requiring top level as well as cross party sponsorship in order to drive it forward within many organisations.
“With these structural IT issues and quite often budget resistance in mind, it can be difficult to get a complete logistics system RFID enabled, meaning many companies are currently implementing RFID for specific applications where ROI is easily attainable, such as for the asset tracking of specific products”.
David Myers of TouchPath points out that some form of autoID is vital to robotics and IoT. “Identification of large quanties of items is not possible without this technology. With IoT and big data, individual serialization of products is necessary. Tracking all this data will require autoID, as block chain data becomes assigned to individual items. Assigning unique, unforgeable identifiers to individual items will also require new forms of AutoID.
“RFID tags with updateable user data areas could revolutionize items/assets with inspection, expiration, and usage tracking. These tags can be updated as the equipment is recertified, serviced, or inspected and returned to service in the field. These user data areas in RFID tags could also store IoT and block chain data as well”.
Dr Sithamparanathan suggests that “Low-cost, Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Passive RFID technology will be one of the major enablers of the Internet of Things (IoT). Using a UHF RFID tag on the hundreds of thousands of products that pass through the supply chain will provide tracking capabilities in previously challenging environments. This creates a large quantity of data which can then be analysed in a plethora of ways to inform decisions in the future”.
Renovotec’s Gilliard adds that “the core RFID is continually evolving with companies now producing passive sensor based RFID tags allowing temperature and other conditions to be identified.
“Other powered or Active RFID technologies are becoming more prevalent, such as Ultra-Wide Band which allows items to be located with a high degree of accuracy (approx. 30cm) within a known and configured environment. This is popular for people tracking for safety and security applications, or for Work In Progress in manufacturing sites.
“Another example is the IoT based technologies like LPWAN, which can offer over 4 years of battery life with outdoor locational accuracy 1-3 metres but over a range of several kilometres from the configured infrastructure. This is already proving popular for tracking large assets like trailers in yard management applications or construction equipment around large construction sites”.
Active RFID tagging is becoming increasingly viable as power needs are reduced and battery lives extended. There are some clever tweaks available – for example the Tracca system from Entopy, which links the RFID transponders (monitoring not just position but temperature, accelerations or other events) on a whole group of, say, roll cages in a truck, so that all are monitoring and recording but only one at any time is actually communicating, which is the power-heavy function.
There is of course no law that says that the coding technology has to be on the items that move. At warehouse automation specialist Linde, Mike Hawkins, head of logistics solutions, is using RFID tags to control very narrow aisle trucks. “We used to rely on magnets and reflectors which meant we were limited in the amount of control functions we could send and consequently the number of functions we could make the trucks undertake.
“Now, we install RFID tags into the floor and tag readers on to our trucks. This allows us to exactly position the trucks in the aisle. We then map the warehouse using software, allowing many control functions to be set. This helps to increase safety within the warehouse and increase operator efficiency compared to traditional systems”.
ID technology is also beginning to make an impact away from the traditional spheres of retailing and manufacturing, and often for reasons that are not primarily cost driven. As Nicola Hall, founder and COO of Ingenica Solutions, reports that “in healthcare to date there has not been a dictated data standard in the UK from the main consumer [the NHS]. The GS1 data standard is now being driven by the Department of Health in the UK”.
Use of ID coding has the potential to save the NHS a lot of money, as part of a drive to e-commerce, but it is being sold internally as Scan4Safety, as a way of ensuring that patients have the right ‘parts’ fitted, and equally that instruments and so on aren’t left in the patient. “For the first time the sector will have structured data that can be shared over multiple systems, and show exactly what supply chain areas the product moved through and what patient the product ended up in. Assimilating data of what implants are where in the supply chain for healthcare to date has proved problematic. The main issue with the PIP Breast implant scare is that the implants could not be traced to the patients, this creates an issue for patient safety and means that product recalls are difficult and costly,” says Hall.
The read-over to sectors such as aviation maintenance are obvious. Dr Sithamparanathan of PervasID says “from a health and safety perspective, RFID works well in automotive and aviation factories where losses can be reduced by tagging tools and other assets. This tool tracking functionality aids in the compliance to legislative standards where all tools are automatically checked back in at the end of the day and therefore safety standard are complied with”.
This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2019