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RFID and bar codes may co-exist for now

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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From inventory management to security applications, radio frequency identification (RFID) is a hot topic. According to RFID.org, an RFID system comprises a reader, its associated antenna and the transponders (tags/RFID cards) that carry the data.

One of the key differences between a bar code and an RFID tag is that you don't have to physically see a tag to read it — a wireless reading device can automatically read hundreds of tags in a second. RFID tags also can be encapsulated, making them suitable for a variety of challenging applications/environments.

But will RFID replace bar codes? Experts caution that cost and standardization issues remain unresolved.

Bar coding has been the mainstream method for inventory management since the early 1970s when it revolutionized the retail industry with the introduction of the Universal Product Code (UPC). With costs as low as less than $.01 per bar code and standards managed under the Uniform Code Council (UCC), this tracking method has kept up with industry.

“One of the benefits of bar coding was that it gave you inventory control,” explains Steve Liker, director of marketing at Trident-ITW (Brookfield, CT). “It told you what were hot sellers, what was going out the door, and what items had to be replenished on the shelves, so it was very helpful in allowing [retailers] to have that control.”

Leading RFID charge

A great deal of the recent buzz surrounding the RFID-vs.-bar-codes debate has been generated by a new tracking network being created by the Auto-ID Center. The center is a not-for-profit global research organization headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA).

Founded in 1999, Auto-ID Center researchers envision a world where computers can instantly identify any object. The center is designing the infrastructure and standards to create a universal, open network for identifying individual products and for tracking them as they flow through the global supply chain.

The Auto-ID Center is developing the Electronic Product Code (EPC) network, as well as the standards needed to ensure products can be identified regardless of which manufacturer tags them, and they are building some of the software that will manage the flow of data. The Auto-ID Center says this will revolutionize how products are manufactured, tracked, sold and recycled. The center's research is said to be focused on developing five fundamental elements for automatic identification: the Electronic Product Code (EPC), ID System (radio frequency readers and tags), Object Name Service (ONS), Physical Markup Language (PML) and Savant. These elements reportedly will be combined with a network of tags, readers and computers to enable — in the case of business adoption — manufacturers and retailers the opportunity to track inventory accurately in real time. The key to creating this network for tracking items is that it will use low-cost RFID tags.

This emerging network, along with other current RFID applications being used on higher-end products and warehouse rooms, has put the future of bar coding in doubt. But the Auto-ID Center maintains the goal isn't to replace bar codes. According to its spokesperson, “The Auto-ID Center does not advocate replacing bar codes, as barcode-based systems such as the UPC are a standard automatic identification technology in many industries and will be an important legacy system for many years.”

Diane Watt, vice president, emerging business segments, Flint Ink (Ann Arbor, MI), which is currently producing conductive inks for RFID tags, comments that standardization, trying to streamline RFID production and dealing with the still-high cost of RFID tags will keep bar codes in widespread use for years to come. “RFID is considered to be next-generation bar coding; [however,] I don't think there is any expert out there who will tell you that bar coding is going away any time soon.”

Few RFID standards

John Nettekoven, marketing manager at MACtac Technical Products (Stow, OH), describes the obstacles of standardization. “Unlike bar codes, RFID has very few standards. There are common frequency ranges, for example, but the reader power output and specific frequency may vary by country and manufacturer. In addition, systems within the frequency range may have their own chip set, protocol for memory storage, air protocol and antenna design.”

Continues Nettekoven: “The industry is gradually developing standards [for RFID], but various countries have their own regulations. It is a much more difficult issue than with bar codes. If countries sold the rights to certain frequencies to commercial enterprises, they can't easily take them back. They can't just increase output levels without potentially causing interference with other systems.”

Some observers anticipate that RFID and bar codes will co-exist. “We have seen some exciting applications being used where a bar code may have never been considered,” says Dan Mullen, director at AIM Inc., The Assn. for Auto Identification and Data Capture Technologies (Pittsburgh). “A lot of scenarios will probably see bar codes and RFID working side by side for many years to come. In many cases, it won't be an either/or but rather which problems are best answered with bar codes, which problems are best answered with RFID, how do we make them work together and evolve to satisfy the user.”

Paper-thin batteries could expand RFID horizons

What if you could print, paste or laminate a battery onto paper, plastic and other media? Well, for one thing, you might feel a little silly following Robert Conrad's lead and daring people to knock a battery off your shoulder.

But not only do they exist today, these ultra-thin printable batteries are paving the way for innovative applications, such as smart labels and tags; medical bracelets that monitor temperature and provide health readings; prescription labels that read directions aloud to patients and remind them to take their medication; and payment cards that record account balance, frequent flyer miles or other data.

Power Paper Ltd. (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Graphic Solutions (GSI) (Burr Ridge, IL) recently announced that GSI will become the first licensed manufacturer of a Power Paper roll-to-roll battery production line in the U.S., able to produce hundreds of millions of the ultra-thin energy cells per year. The patented energy cells can be adapted to fit the size, thickness and form factors required for the design of any product.

The two companies have also signed an agreement to co-develop Power Paper's PowerID System, a smart active (battery-assisted) label system based on radio frequency identification (RFID) communications.

According to Power Paper, the cells are composed of zinc anode and manganese dioxide-based cathode layers. The cells are made of proprietary inks that can be printed or pasted onto virtually any substrate to create a thin, flexible battery.

The printed cell can be integrated with printed circuits, RFID antennas and microchips to perform functions such as controlling prescription drug injections, monitoring smart tags and labels, or transmitting RFID label information over long distances.

Unlike conventional energy cells, Power Paper's cells require no metal casing. Each Power Paper cell produces 1.5 volts and has a shelf life of more than 2½ years. What's more, the materials used in the technology are environmentally safe, according to international standards, and contain no heavy metals.

Founded in 1985, GSI specializes in hot-stamped and screen-printed pressure-sensitive labels, aluminum nameplates, polycarbonate panels, printed circuitry, electroluminescent lamps and RFID antennas. (See graphicsolutionsinc.com.)