April 10, 2019
To barcode or not to barcode? Comparing RFID and barcode technologies for asset tracking and management
By: Shailesh Kalmegh​

When it comes to labeling inventory items for asset tracking and management solutions, two technologies dominate the market today: barcodes and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. A clear understanding of the security, durability, cost and implementation requirements of the system can help make an informed choice.

Let’s take a quick look at the two technologies and their main distinguishing features.


Barcodes require the use of an optical barcode reader or scanner. The scanner, with a beam of light, reads and decodes the barcode’s black bars that represent a series of numbers. The decoded information is sent to a computer for interpretation and typically contains data regarding the manufacturer, product, and, when applicable, price.

To scan a barcode, it must be oriented properly, and the scanner must have an unobstructed view of it. This is referred to as line of sight. Without a clear line of sight, the scanner may be unable to read the barcode.


RFID uses radio waves to transmit information from RFID tags to an RFID Reader. An RFID tag contains a sensor attached to an antenna to transmit data to the reader. Each sensor typically contains unique identifiers, and an RFID reader can scan multiple tags instantly. RFID is a “near field” technology, so the scanner only needs to be within range of the tag to read it and does not require line of sight visibility – this is one of the primary differences between a barcode inventory system and RFID.

On the surface, RFID seems like the clear choice. It can scan multiple items at once, whereas barcoding requires a person to physically scan each item individually. But if RFID is truly more efficient, why hasn’t it replaced barcoding entirely? Like all technologies, both barcoding and RFID have their limitations.

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A typical barcode label costs a few cents each, while an RFID tag can run from one dollar upwards of 60 dollars, depending on the type of tag you need. RFID readers are also about 10 times more expensive than barcode scanners. To print and encode RFID labels, you will need pricey printers that are capable of doing both.


While it is very helpful to have an RFID reader that can scan multiple codes at a time, this may sometimes sacrifice accuracy. Barcodes can read codes regardless of the substance, while RFIDs may not correctly read tags when placed on metals or certain liquids that interfere with radio signals, making it difficult or impossible for the reader to interact with tags accurately. The radio waves emitted from the RFID tags may also not be as accurate as directly scanning each barcode. Speed is fantastic, but not at the expense of accuracy.


Barcodes are processed individually, so it is easy to differentiate products across price and brand. RFIDs allow you to “read” multiple things, but it is not easy to differentiate what has been scanned and what still needs to be recorded. It might even be necessary to create RFID barriers to ensure you do not scan an item more than once.


RFID tags may be read from as far as 50 feet away and are also not hampered by some of the common problems that affect barcode scanning, such as dirty, torn, or obstructed labels. Barcode labels are susceptible to these problems because they typically are printed onto paper or plastic, both of which are easy to damage. RFID tags come in many form factors, from paper labels to extremely durable hard plastics.


RFID tags encourage privacy and security because of the sophistication of the tags and scanning technology. However, the distance at which you can scan and record items brings a security issue. If someone can hack into an RFID network or even have a reader, they can potentially steal sensitive information without being detected. This makes it imperative to carefully monitor the area for suspicious activity because intelligent hackers with malicious intent can make things difficult.


At the Accenture Liquid Studio, we have regular conversations with our clients to understand their requirements around security, durability, cost and implementation and suggest the most suitable option with minimal business disruption. While RFIDs may be more innovative of the two options, the complexity and expense might not feasible for a business where barcodes provide all the necessary benefits at a much lower cost.

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