RFID: Death of the Barcode?

By Dr. Hammad Cheema

Black and white lines of varying widths are a familiar sight at the back of almost all packaged items. Popularly known as the barcode, these lines are encoded representation of the company, the product and its price.

Barcode Limitations:

Barcodes have a number of inherent limitations.

  • Barcode has to be directly in front of the reader in close proximity to be read.
  • Any damage or excessive stretching makes the barcode difficult to read.
  • Barcodes have a limited data storing capability due to its inherent design.

All in all, product identification has been yearning for a technological change for a long time and with RFID, we have a capable replacement.

What is RFID?

Radio frequency identification aka RFID is a new generation barcode but with a difference. All communication is done electromagnetically at a certain frequency and through querying a tag which sends back a unique ID. One fascinating aspect of RFID is its passive nature, which means that there is no battery required.

RFID tags are available in all shapes, sizes and encapsulations. A critical component called the in-lay can easily help customize the tags for any purpose. The price of these tags vary from 0.05 USD (5 PKR) to 0.7 USD (70 PKR). The RFID readers, on the other hand, have a wide price variation based on functionality and can cost anywhere between 1000 USD to 3000 USD.

Where is RFID Used?

Most readers of this article are likely to have used RFID somewhere. Conventional applications have been in form of RFID enabled smart cards that are used for door access, attendance systems, library management systems and the like. The e-tag system on the Motorways and certain cantonment areas are also using RFID systems to identify tagged cars.

Despite these applications the use of RFID was still waiting for a major breakthrough which came few years back. Ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID, which allows RFID tags to be read at distances of 6 to 8 meters has opened up a plethora of interesting applications and could finally kill off the barcode once and for all.

RFID vs Barcodes:

RFID tags started to be used in retail stores to tag garments and other apparel. With the help of hand-held RFID readers, the storekeepers could get the store inventory in minutes rather than the old manual method which potentially took hours. This helped brands to improve inventory control and avoid stock-outs to raise customer satisfaction.

Implementing RFID instead of barcodes can vastly improve productivity for businesses

To quote a success story, Marks & Spencer has implemented a complete RFID system in all of its 720 stores in the UK. Using barcodes, they could scan a maximum of 400-600 items per hour whereas RFID allowed merchandise to be accurately scanned at up to 15,000 items per hour.

In addition, M&S has improved inventory accuracy up to 50% and cut out-of-stocks by 30-40%. Another example is of the Spanish brand Zara which has installed the technology at all of it’s distribution centers and more than 700 Zara stores.

Potential Use In Pakistan:

For large cash & carry stores in Pakistan like Metro, Al-Fateh etc, RFID offers a promising technology to explore. It can potentially make the long queues at the cash counters disappear. Complete shopping trolleys with multiple items can be read at once with an RFID reader placed at strategic points without the hassle of taking out each item and placing it on the belt.

Using RFID, items in shopping carts can be scanned in bulk, eliminating need for them to be scanned one by one

Further applications include logistics, airport luggage, dossier localization, item tracking in supply and manufacturing chains, museums, theme parks, car parking centers, banks, animal registration, farming etc.

RFID Research at NUST:

At NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, we are investigating new methods of using RFID tags by extending their functionality.

One such effort is to fabricate or coat the RFID tags with novel materials that are sensitive to temperature, humidity or various gases. Such a tag then becomes a low-cost functional wireless sensor and helps us move towards the ‘smart dust’ realm. Another research area currently being pursued is chipless RFID in which we wish to get rid of the micro-chip to reduce the RFID tag cost down to 0.01 USD (1PKR).

RFID is all set to become a ubiquitous element of our era.

The author is an Assistant Professor at NUST School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (SEECS) in Islamabad.

  • the biggest use of RFID is help reduce goods from being stolen from big stores.The RFID tags are hidden in packaging of products so that thieve can’t remove the tag or temper it.

  • VisiCooler and BottleCooler Manufacturer like VARIOLINE INTERCOOL, COOL INDUSTRIES, PEL & CAREVELL in Pakistan are already offering these to their customers as part of their ASSET TRACKING feature.

  • Nice article. Very informative. I like the example of Metro where you would be able to scan each and every item in the trolley without taking out each item to scan.

  • I have worked at eTag project and it was capable of reading at 100 km/h from 18 feet .. great potential fot replacement of barcode but cost and elasticity should be improved. Little damage can destroy the whole chip.

  • RFID can be used in all vehicles in Pakistan as a technology tool to prevent from the terrorist activities. Many countries used RFID to collect road tax, toll tax etc while recently few countries implemented FRID to identify those cars which enter from border to maintain record of entry and exit.

  • These are positvie sides of RFID, you havn’t mentioned its cons. There are security, privacy and cost of tag issues which still need greater attention.
    One can trace a person with a specific set of RFID tags on his/her wearables. one can read someone medical history by reading tags of medicine which he/she is carry, having a powerful RFID reader. Cost security and privacy are still under research topics.

    a Information Security student from MCS NUST

  • Rightly pointed Farhan. There is work going on for improving encryption on the tags and EPC Gen2 tags are better in that respect. For privacy concerns, retail stores are implementing systems that erase information once the tags are moved outside a certain premises. The cost is continuously coming down with Chinese companies investing in them.

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