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The Great Debate: Barcodes vs RFID

May 04, 2017 04:57:00 PM By Felicia Jordan

mobile computer scanning a box

Barcodes have been a time-tested method for many different aspects of how a business functions. From asset control to patient care to inventory tracking, barcodes are imbedded into businesses. They’ve been the best way to conduct business for a very long time, and up until recently, the only real question was whether to use 1D or 2D barcodes and readers.

But technology is always changing, and even the reliable barcode was bound to be challenged by a worthy competitor. Though RFID, and the utilization of radio frequency to track objects has been in use for decades, it’s only recently become popular for everyday uses. But is it worth the hassle of switching an entire infrastructure build on barcodes to a new technology?


RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. It’s a powerful data-capture technology that is capable of using radio waves to communicate with ‘tags’, similar to barcodes. An RFID system is typically comprised of three parts: a reader that generates and receives radio signals, an antenna that transmits the signal, and tags that can receive and send data. Depending on the strength of the frequency, ranging from low to ultra high, RFID tags can be scanned at great distances, through solid objects, with a clear and concise readout.


A longtime fixture in business, the barcode scanner uses reflected light to read detailed information from labels printed with precisely aligned lines. Like RFID tags, barcodes pack a lot of information into a small space, and both are used for applications like inventory control and hospital patient identification. Barcodes have also evolved to include 2D barcoding, like QR codes, which are capable of storing even more information.

The Debate 

So which solution is right for your business? If you’re an established company, you’re likely using barcodes already, in some capacity or another. If you’re looking to start a new business, or debating refreshing your existing tech, there are many things to consider before making the choice between barcode and RFID.


RFID is, like many new and upgraded technologies, quite a bit more expensive than traditional barcoding, or even 2D barcoding. If you’re on a tight budget, or you’re a small business with little inventory, you’ll certainly want to consider sticking with barcodes. If you’re at the helm of a larger company, and making the financial jump to a new technology is feasible, just consider that not all RFID is made equal.

You’ll still have to determine which kind of RFID you’ll need: passive, or active tags. Passive tags draw their power from the signals they receive, but can only be read across moderate distances – 15 or 20 feet at most. Active tags have a battery, and they’re much more expensive, but you can read them from longer distances—more than one hundred feet—which makes them useful for high-value items, like railroad cars.


Both RFID readers and barcode scanners are available in fixed and mobile versions, allowing either to be integrated in a manner that best suits your business. Additionally, both kinds will effectively scan – to what degree is really where they differ. barcode labels must be seen, and scanned, individually. Typically, an operator has to point the scanner directly at the barcode. RFID tags work via radio waves, and can be scanned even when they’re invisible or embedded in an object.

Additionally, RFID readers will reliably scan tags – often more than 100 in a single scan – with no concern about smudged or damaged images. And if you’ve ever had a barcode not scan properly because of damage or poor print quality, you know how disruptive that can be to a work environment or transaction.


RFID can be implemented into security solutions, such as door locks, security tags, and asset tracking in the same ways that barcodes can. The difference comes down to real time tracking, and the ability to exclude entry to certain tags. You can program the reader to read some tags and not others, or to read tags at specific intervals. The reader can find tags whether they’re stationary or in motion, and the tag can respond—it’s both a receiver and a transmitter. So an RFID tag can provide information to the reader, and can even be ‘triggered’ to activate other electronic devices, like locks and cameras. RFID is also exceptionally difficult to duplicate or hack – unlike barcodes.

Many manufacturers, retail locations and other businesses have already chosen to implement RFID into their work spaces. Barcodes are a reliable and trusted tool, and they will continue to serve your business well moving forward – they certainly aren’t going anywhere just yet. But for businesses looking to upgrade their systems and tech, or new companies considering just what’s out there, RFID is worth a second look. However, budget is always a major consideration, and completely overhauling your company’s infrastructure to phase out barcodes isn’t a task to sneeze at, by any means. It’s important to take stock of your options, do your research, and determine what’s best for your company right now. 

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