RFID versus Barcode

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-11-02-2008, Volume 32, Issue 11

Data capture needs to be fast and reliable...so which automatic identification technology is best?

As radio frequency identification (RFID) becomes increasingly popular in the automatic identification and data capture industry, many business decision-makers wonder how it measures up to a traditional barcode scanning system. More specifically, several pharmaceutical companies are pondering which technology is best suited for automated data collection when tracking assets. Because there has been a great deal of misinformation warning the industry regarding RFID and barcodes, it's critical to separate fact from fiction before making optimal business decisions. Below are a few answers to common myths when it comes to RFID and barcode capabilities.

Ray Cronin

Myth #1: Barcode read rates are higher and more reliable

There has been rumor that RFID is not as reliable as the barcode in capturing the vital information needed to track assets. The real issue at stake is not whether RFID or a barcode scanner reads information better, as both are proven technologies, but rather which solution is best suited for a particular application. Because a barcode is an optical technology, it requires a line of sight to ensure a proper read.

Certain situations such as shrink-wrapped pallets may inhibit line of sight, making it difficult for barcodes embedded within the wrap to be read. In this instance, RFID may be a better solution because it captures data through radio waves, which do not require a direct line of sight.


Pharmaceutical companies do not necessarily need to pick one technology over the other. It is possible to use barcode-RFID hybrids. These solutions enable an RFID reader to connect to a mobile computer equipped with a barcode scanner. If a user does not have a line of sight to read a barcode, the user can simply switch to the RFID function as needed.

Myth #2: Barcodes are more accurate

Another industry debate involves whether or not RFID will work on products that contain water or metal. RFID technology has significantly evolved since it emerged in the 1980s, especially during the past few years. Today's RFID has a high level of accuracy and the ability to track liquids such as cases of liquid pharmaceuticals, along with metal items, including shipping containers.

RFID is more accurate than barcode technology in specific situations. For example, if a pallet of 10 cases is delivered and the pallet requires case-level tracking, a user typically has to scan each case individually. With a large pallet, it is often necessary to move the outside cases to properly scan the cases located in the middle. This process can be very time-consuming and entails a higher rate of human error because it is easy to lose track of which items were scanned.

If RFID is used in these instances, all cases can be scanned without moving the cases on the outside. The pallet can be scanned automatically with fixed portal readers or manually with a handheld scanner, thus saving time and increasing accuracy.

Myth #3: RFID adoption heralds the death of barcodes

As more companies migrate to RFID, there has been speculation that the barcode is on its way out. Contrary to this notion, industry leaders in automatic identification and data capture continue to invest heavily in barcode technology, especially in the 2D-barcode realm. Because 2D barcodes encode data in two dimensions, they can hold more data in a smaller space than a 1D barcode.

In a world where more data is always needed, the greater data capacity of 2D barcodes has contributed to the growing popularity of barcode technology across a variety of applications.

In addition, barcode technology has greatly advanced in recent years. Users are now able to scan the same label whether it is 6 inches away or 50 feet away. Barcode technology is constantly evolving and will continue to be significant in the pharmaceutical industry for years to come.

Selection rules of thumb

When it comes to choosing between RFID and barcode technology, it's not a straightforward either/or situation. The selection process has much more to do with the company's planned use for the technology. For example, 1D barcode, currently the most popular technology in the data capture market, is ideal for applications with direct line of sight in an environment that is free from potential wear and tear that could make a code unreadable. 1D barcodes are also ideal for applications that require only a small amount of data to be stored.

2D barcodes are best for companies with a similar environment, but with greater data storage requirements. Alternatively, RFID technology optimizes business processes in environments that do not always have a direct line of sight, are susceptible to wear, or require higher levels of process automation.

Ray Cronin is vice-president and general manager of RFID at Intermec Worldwide Headquarters, 6001 36th Ave. West, Everett, WA 98203, tel. 425.265.2172, Ray.Cronin@intermec.com