RFID vs Barcodes: which provides the best solution for reading data?

When you’re looking for a reliable method of reading digital data, it comes down to a straight choice between using barcodes or RFID. They both offer a similar end result, but what are the differing advantages and disadvantages and what do you need to consider when choosing one over the other?

Barcodes

Barcodes are a proven technology which have been used for many years. They are low cost and can be easily replaced or reproduced using a basic printer if damaged or removed. Barcodes can also be easily read by unskilled operators using handheld devices or fixed barcode scanners. 

On the down side, if they are damaged, dirty or a piece of the code is partially missing, barcodes can be impossible to read. They are also easy to copy or counterfeit. In order for the code to be read accurately, the operator must stand within a few feet and have a clear line of sight. Barcodes can only be scanned individually and they have a limited data capability, with no read-write capability at all.

If you‘re looking for a simple and straightforward data reading device, the many limitations of barcodes will be outweighed by the cost advantage of this system. For example, if you only need to scan a few items or you don’t require the option to collect large amounts of data.

However, for many applications, especially in industrial settings or where there is a need for high speed and accuracy, these restrictions are too severe. This is where RFID should be considered.

RFID

The obvious disadvantage of RFID compared to barcodes lies in the cost of an RFID transponder. No matter what the process, the installation cost will be more expensive than that of a standard barcode reader. In addition, there may also be some adaptation to software packages and potentially some re-training of employees. 

However, for many applications and industries, this initial outlay is well worth the ongoing benefits delivered by an RFID system.

A key advantage of the new generation of RFID transponders lies in the amount of user memory available. Besides the EPC section, used as a serial number, you also have the user section of the transponder. Traditionally this is in the region of 512 bits, but HARTING now produce a 3.3 Kbit version. The increase in memory allows the storage of complex information and data, such as when the item is due to be serviced which could be read automatically when the transponder passes installed readers, for example, along a conveyor line.

This highlights another advantage of RFID, namely that you do not need direct line of sight to read the transponder. It’s possible to read multiple tags at once from up to 16m away and the high speed technology means you have the ability to read up to 300 tags per second! HARTING have also developed high speed transponders that can be read at over 120 mph, as this article demonstrates.

Another huge advantage of an RFID system is the ability to cope with harsh, industrial environments, making them ideal for the robotics, transportation, and energy markets. Many HARTING RFID products are IP65/IP67 rated and can endure wide temperature variations, high humidity and continue to be readable in dirty environments where the tag may become coated in oil and grease.

A HARTING RFID reader in use on a railway line

Better security is also a consideration, as the risk of counterfeiting and forgery is reduced massively with RFID because transponders can be encrypted and password protected. Furthermore, RFID transponders can be inserted into an enclosure or tucked away out of sight, a process which would render barcodes unreadable.

In conclusion, it is evident that both barcodes and RFID have a place in today’s markets. Whilst it is likely RFID will become increasingly popular in the future, barcodes can still fulfil the basic function of a data reader. However, as industry demands faster, reliable and more robust readers, RFID is likely to become the go-to product.

If you’d like to know more about RFID, its applications and how it could benefit your business, visit our dedicated RFID product page or click below to contact our specialist Product Manager.

Get in touch
Gavin Stoppel
Product Manager