Bar Coding and Radio Frequency Identification

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Bar Coding and Radio Frequency Identification

A bar code is a series of parallel black bars and white spaces, both of varying widths. Bars and spaces together are called elements. Different combinations of the bars and spaces represent different characters, such as numbers or letters. Each combination or sequence of bars and spaces is a code that can be translated into information such as price, product type, place of manufacture, or origin of shipment.

Bar codes are simple to use, accurate, and quick. Almost everyone is familiar with their use in retail establishments. They also often are used in warehouses and manufacturing for selecting items from storage, receiving goods, and shipping.

In the 1950s, two men, Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland, took out a patent on the bar-code concept. In the 1960s Kroger attempted the use of bar codes in its retail stores. Though they first envisioned a classification system based on a mark of concentric circles, the standard bar code systemdeveloped in 1970used the lines and spaces people are most familiar with today. This system was known as UGPIC, the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code. Through the 1970s and 1980s, bar codes became more and more common, adopted by both industries and government.

Few bar-code uses are regulated. However, according to requirements established by the FDA in 2004, certain human drug and biological product labels must include a specific amount of information, often placed on the container but at times micro-stamped onto the medication itself. This code must include the drug's National Drug Code (NDC). This is mostly to prevent theft and mistake at hospitals. Such bar-code requirements issued by government departments are currently established for the safety of the public.


The bar code itself does not actually contain detailed information. The bar code simply provides a reference number that cues a computer to access information. A bar-code reader is required to read a bar code. Bar-code readers may be fixed, portable batch, or portable RF. Fixed readers are attached to a host computer and terminal, and transmit one item at a time as the data is scanned. Battery-powered portable batch readers store data into memory for batch transfer into a host computer at a later time. The portable RF reader can transmit data in real-time, online.

Scanners and Decoders. The basic reader consists of a scanner and a decoder. Scanners capture the image of the bar code, and the decoder takes the digitized bar space patterns, decodes them, and transmits the decoded data to the computer.

There are several types of scanners. Laser scanners use a single spot of light to sweep across the bar code in a linear fashion. CCD scanners use an LED array with thousands of light detectors; the entire bar-code image is captured and then transmitted. Automatic scanners are in a fixed position and read bar codes as they go by on a conveyor. Handheld scanners, such as wands, are portable and may be carried from place to place, as in a warehouse.

When a scanner is passed over the bar code, the dark bars absorb the scanner's light while the light spaces reflect it. A photocell detector receives the reflected light and converts it into an electrical signal. A low electrical signal is created for the reflected light and a high electrical signal is created for the dark bars. The width of the element determines the duration of the electrical signal. The decoder then decodes the signal into the characters represented by the bar code and passes it to a computer in traditional data format.


There are different types of bar codes. Some bar codes are entirely numeric, whereas others have numeric and alphabetic characters. The type used is dependent upon the implementation, the data that needs to be encoded, and how the bar code is to be printed. There are several bar code standards, called symbologies, each serving a different purpose. Each standard defines the printed symbol and how the scanner reads and decodes the printed symbol.

While America used the Uniform Product Code (UPC) during most of its bar-code history, this code has been replaced in recent years by the EAN/UCC-13 code, which is becoming the international standard for bar coding. The EAN/UCC-13 code is comprised of three different parts: a company prefix, a supplier number, and a check digit. Together, these equal thirteen numbers, although when transferred to older formats such as GTIN (Global Trade Item Number), a zero is presumed at the beginning of the code. This standardized code has been an important step in business globalization.

In certain industries dominated by their own classification systems, the use of EAN/UCC-13 has lead to some internal modifications. An excellent example of this

would be the publishing industry, which uses ISBN codes that can be scanned as bar codes. At the beginning of 2007, ISBN codes began to be transferred over to ISBN-13s. If UPC codes are still active in such industries, they are treated as the new 13-series code.


Radio frequency identification (RFID) could become the most far-reaching wireless technology since the cell phone. RFID is a method of remotely storing and retrieving data using a small object attached to or incorporated into a product. Its purpose is to enable data to be transmitted via a portable device called a tag, read by a reader, and processed according to the needs of the particular application.

Transmitted data may provide information about product location, or specifics such as color, price, or purchase date. In some systems, a return receipt can be generated. RFID tags contain far more detailed information than can be placed on a bar code. Some tags hold enough information to provide routing information for shipping containers, as well as a detailed inventory of what is inside the container.

It is said the origins of RFID technology began with the use of radar in World War II, when armies began searching for ways to identify incoming vessels as friend or enemy. According to the 2008 RFID Journal, the first patents for true RFID technology were taken out in the 1970s, most notably by Mario Cardullo. At the same time, the government was working on radio identification technology to guard high-level security sites and to mark livestock for the agriculture department. In the 1990s, RFID systems developed by IBM and Intermec began to be used commercially, though the expense kept many companies from entering the field.

An RFID system consists of tags, tag readers, tag programming stations, circulation readers, sorting equipment, and tag inventory wands. The tag is the key component. Data can be printed or etched on an electronic substrate and then embedded in a plastic or laminated paper tag.

Tags are classified according to their radio frequency: low-frequency, high-frequency, UHF, and microwave. Low-frequency tags are commonly used in automobile antitheft systems and animal identification. High-frequency tags are used in library books, pallet tracking, building access, airline baggage tracking, and apparel tracking. Low- and high-frequency tags can be used without a license. UHF tags are used to track pallets, containers, trucks, and trailers. UHF cannot be used globally as there is no one global standard. Microwave tags are used in long-range access, such as General Motors' OnStar system.

While most RFID tags are write-once/read-only, there are some that offer read/write capability. These tags would allow tag data to be rewritten if need be.

Tags may either be passive or active. Passive tags do not have their own power supply; their power comes from a minute electrical current induced by an incoming radio-frequency scan. In contrast, active tags have their own power source. The lack of a power source makes the passive tag much less expensive to manufacture and much smaller (thinner than a sheet of paper) than an active tag. As a result, the vast majority of RFID tags are passive. However, the response of a passive tag is typically just an ID number. Active tags have longer ranges, the ability to store more information, and they are more accurate and reliable.

The tag contains a transponder with a digital memory chip with a unique electronic product code. A stationary or handheld device called an interrogator, consisting of an antenna, transceiver, and decoder, emits a signal creating an electromagnetic zone. When a tag comes within the range of a reader, it detects an activation signal that causes the tag to wake up and start sending data. The reader captures the data encoded in the tag's integrated circuit, decodes it, and sends it over a network to a host computer for processing.


RFID tags can contain far more detailed information than bar codes. Bar codes require a clear line of sight between the scanner and the bar code, a need that is absent from the RFID. Also, it is possible to scan only one bar code at a time. Within the field of a reader, hundreds of RFID tags can be read within seconds. RFID codes are long enough that every RFID tag may have a unique code, allowing an individual item to be tracked as it changes location. Bar codes are limited to a single code for all stages of movement of a particular product.

The foremost problem with widespread RFID use is cost. Many companies cannot afford the expenses associated with RFID technology, and would not see a large enough gain in efficiency to implement the system. According to David Gulbransen at InformIT, a single RFID scanner costs anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and multiple scanners would be needed for many companies. The tags themselves range in usability. As of 2008, active ID tags cost anywhere from $0.75 to $3.00, and the cheaper, more common, passive tags can cost $0.25 to $0.50, though the technology is improving. Some experts contend that costs for the tags will need to reach an estimated $0.10 per tag before RFID use can spread much further.

Some companies hope to achieve greater profits and a better return on investment (ROI) immediately after switching from bar-coding to RFID technology. However, a 2006 study by RFID Solutions and Strategy of the Manhattan Associates showed that this is not necessarily the case. Organizations that already have an efficient system of bar codes may actually lose some of their efficiency when

transferring to the new protocols required by RFID systems. Only in companies where manual scanning takes time and manpower would RFID systems make a noticeable difference. As Greg Gilbert, Director of RFID Solutions and Strategy, points out, merely analyzing the possible savings of RFID technology allows companies to find alternative methods to save time and increase ROI, such as the elimination of costly paper trails or the conservation of manufacturing space.


Once established, RFID technology began to be picked up by a myriad of different industries. According to Das and Harrop, in their 2008 analysis and forecast of RFID technology, 2008 should see some 325 million RFID tags in use. Das and Harrop divide the uses of RFID into the two separate tags, passive and active.

The uses for passive tags include:

  • Drugs
  • Other healthcare
  • Retail apparel
  • Consumer goods
  • Tires
  • Postal
  • Books
  • Manufacturing parts, tools
  • Archiving
  • Military
  • Retail CPG pallet/cases
  • Smart cards, smart tickets, etc.
  • Air baggage
  • Animals
  • Vehicles
  • People

The uses for active RFID Tags include:

  • Pharmacy
  • Cold retail supply Chain
  • Consumer goods
  • Postal
  • Shelf edge labels
  • Conveyances/rollcages
  • Vehicles
  • People
  • Car clickers

More specific examples include using RFID tags at toll booths for electronic toll collection, using cash cards imbedded with RFID technology, putting RFID tags on prisoners (as is done in the Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Correction), using RFID to monitor expirable foods, and using RFID technology to create paper money to stop counterfeiting, as is done in some parts of Europe.

The RFID Journal gives examples of several companies that have used RFID systems to transform they way they do business. The BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, for instance, uses radio tags to track miners and mining equipment during work hours, to better ensure the safety of their employees. A Seattle sushi chain, Blue C, is using RFID technology to ensure the constant freshness of their sushi dishes. Nordam, which creates airplane parts, uses RFID tags to track its precision molds during the manufacturing process. Stafford Tower Crane tags all of its cranes to make sure the right equipment is at the right job site The list grows each day as more and more companies find new and cost-saving ways to use RFID technology.


The use of RFID has caused some concern for privacy advocates. They feel that it may be a privacy violation for a consumer unaware of the presence of an RFID tracking tag, or if they are unable to remove or deactivate it. Other concerns revolve around the ability to fraudulently or surreptitiously read a tag from a distance, and the ability to identify a purchaser through the use of a credit card or a loyalty card.

In Seattle, a University of Washington team is carrying out an experiment designed to analyze the possible negative effects of RFID use. Begun in 2008, the project involves various students and faculty wearing radio tags that can be monitored to see where they go, who they meet with, and how long they stay in particular areas. The idea is to see where RFID technology proves useful in tracking social interaction, and where the system breaks down in dangerous ways. While such technology can be used to monitor employee performance, it can also be unnecessarily invasive andaccording to Seattle Times reporter Kristi Helma bit like Big Brother.

RFID advocates, however, feel that opposition will lessen as RFID use becomes more widespread and its use across a wide range of industries becomes apparent.

A more active field of concern for RFID technology is patent infringement. As more industries attempt to create or use radio tagging, more targets are created for lawsuits. In 2004 a lawsuit battle began between Intermec, one of the first RFID suppliers, and Matrics, another RFID company. After a series of counter lawsuits these two companies eventually settled. In 2005 Intermec sued another company, Alien Technology, for multiple patent

infringements, which again led to prolonged litigation involving more than one company. Many suppliers of RFID technology wait for a series of standards and trends to be set regarding RFID distribution and application that will bring an end to such problems.

SEE ALSO Distribution and Distribution Requirements Planning; Logistics and Transportation; Reverse Supply Chain Logistics; Supply Chain Management; Warehousing and Warehouse Management


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