Magazine Article | August 25, 2009

RFID & Bar Code Coexistence

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Bar code solutions are still the technology of choice for several applications despite the rise of RFID (radio frequency identification). But, what does the future hold?

Integrated Solutions, September 2009
June of this year marked the 35th anniversary of the first bar code scanned in retail. This milestone is remarkable not only because it highlights the longevity of the bar code, but also because the technology continues to be a mainstay for a variety of applications including retail product and price coding and manufacturing track and trace applications.

This feat is even more impressive given that many industry pundits deemed the bar code all but dead with the rise of RFID in the early 2000s. To the contrary, bar code technology is still going strong thanks to technology evolution and a steady stream of new emerging applications.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Bob Sanders, VP and general manager of the advanced data capture division of Motorola Enterprise Mobility. He suggests that while linear 1-D (one dimensional) bar codes are still the dominant technology for retail product coding applications, 2-D (two dimensional) bar code technologies are taking over for track and trace applications in manufacturing and healthcare.

"There is a need in manufacturing and healthcare settings to pack more product information in a smaller space," says Sanders. "A 1-D bar code that simply provides a product number that needs to be associated with a database is no longer sufficient for many of these applications. Additional data, such as drug dosage information and manufacture or expiration date are now required at the point of scan to expedite decision-making processes."

In manufacturing and healthcare facilities in particular, many of the assets being tracked (e.g. parts, drugs, surgical equipment, etc.) may not be high-value enough to justify the cost of an RFID tracking solution. Therefore, there is an increased demand for 2-D bar code technology for these applications. According to Sanders, the adoption of 2-D bar codes in these and similar track and trace applications is growing by nearly 20%.

While Sanders reports growth in 2-D bar code applications, he also sees increased use of RFID, particularly in manufacturing environments. However, for now, Sanders views the relationship between 2-D bar codes and RFID to be complementary instead of competitive.

For statistics from VDC Research on how bar code technology is performing in today's market, visit

"The barrier for RFID adoption continues to be the cost of the tag, but since the tags can be reused, several manufacturing applications justify the expense," says Sanders. "For example, we have many manufacturing clients that embed RFID tags on the totes or pallets used to transport parts to a build station. These totes are used over and over again, and the RFID tags can be rewritten with new job information for each use. At the same time, the parts that are placed in the totes are often tagged with 2-D bar codes because these assets are not reused and the cost of the part cannot justify an RFID tag." However, Sanders does believe that as RFID technology continues to proliferate, the cost of the tag will continue to drop, making it more competitive with bar code technology. "I think we're going to see a migration from 1-D bar codes to 2-D bar codes and from 2-D bar codes to RFID," he says. "However, I think this migration will occur over several years. Five years from now, there may not be a lot of 1-D bar codes out there outside of retail, but I bet there will still be a lot of 2-D bar codes coexisting with RFID."