Barcode vs RFID

Physical Records Management: Barcoding vs. Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID)


Utilizing a modern software application to manage the full life-cycle of hard-copy, especially file folders and boxes, is crucial to the successful operation of an overall records management program.  Although not necessary, the implementation of tracking technology in conjunction with that application greatly increases the odds of success.

The Beginnings of Tracking Physical Records

Invented in the 1940s and used commercially since the 1970s, barcodes have become a part of everyday life.  Within the records management world, their adoption roughly coincides with the advent of the corporate network and distributed computer workstations.

Entering the records management market in the late 1990s as proprietary technology and utilizing proximity-based rather than line-of-sight detection, passive RFID offered an alternative form of technology-based tracking.

What is Barcoding?

Barcoding is what many think of when it comes to tracking physical records. By using a machine-readable barcode containing bars and spaces, a scanner can interpret the code and associate it to a specific item.

Barcoding is often seen at supermarkets and other stores but can also be utilized in tracking and storing physical records.

What is Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID)?

Radio-Frequency Identification or RFID refers to a technology where digital data is encoded in the label and captured by a reader via radio waves. RFID is used as a non-contact way to identify and track the tags attached to an object.

Similarities Between Barcoding and RFID

Both barcodes and RFID tags contain a unique identifier that corresponds with a data record (usually a box or file) within the physical records management application.  Both may be procured on the open market and then, as needed, applied via adhesive to the physical records themselves.

Differences Between Barcoding and RFID

Barcodes have been around much longer. As a result, they offer more choices for selecting both the barcode labels themselves and the corresponding barcode readers needed to process the barcode information.  Passive RFID tags and readers, not standardized until 2004, provide a more limited selection.

In terms of initial and recurring outlay of funds, barcodes are almost always less expensive.  As a rule of thumb, each barcode label will cost about 1¢, whereas RFID tags, depending upon the volume procured, begin at about 10¢.

Additionally, when comparing the costs of readers, both tethered/fixed and portable, expect a cost differential of approximately 2X-4X for RFID over barcode devices.

Initial label or tag creation also differs significantly.  Barcode labels can be printed on virtually any network-addressable printer, sheet-fed or one-up, within a corporate network. .  RFID tags, however, require special printers specifically designed for the technology.  These printer devices are also more expensive than their barcode counterparts.

From a utilization perspective, as almost everyone knows, barcodes require line-of-sight to be successfully processed. As seen at the checkout in virtually every supermarket, the barcode reader, emitting a light source, must be able to “see” the barcode to process the required information.  RFID readers, on the other hand, only require that the reader gets near the tag.  Passive RFID uses readers that send out a low-frequency RF signal to battery-free tags. The antenna in the tag is actuated by the signal flowing to it, which wakes up its circuit and then transmits its unique ID back to the reader.  Multiple factors affect the read range, but generally speaking, one to six feet is normal for passive RFID.  RFID also possesses the capability of processing numerous tags simultaneously.

Is Barcoding or RFID Better?

Barcodes are the “default” solution.  Barcodes almost always provide significant, measurable benefits for physical records management purposes and are usually the recommended choice.  Depending upon environmental factors, the labels can be prone to degradation. Since barcode readers require a reliable contrast between the black lines and white space on the labels themselves, there are low-light situations where barcodes may not function as expected.  And remembering that barcodes must be “seen” to be processed, consider any logistical factors making it difficult to see the barcode labels when moving or inventorying physical records.

Similarly vulnerable to degradation caused by environmental factors, RFID tags can also be severely affected by the presence of metal, which interferes with the RF signaling.  So, although not the best choice in all, or even most situations, RFID tags are nevertheless sometimes the preferred solution.  Used perhaps most frequently within the legal and/or justice verticals, an RFID-enabled application provides a significant ROI for physical records that are either highly valuable and/or see high volumes and frequency of movement.

In the end, both technologies provide the same outcome – the reliable tracking of physical records throughout their lifecycles.  As you consider your organization’s records management program requirements and specifically those centered on physical records, ensure to adopt barcode and/or RFID-enabled software tools.

Learn how a global pharmaceutical company tackled their physical information management utilizing barcoding, in this case study.

To learn more about how Gimmal Physical can help you track physical records with barcoding or RFID, watch this on-demand webinar.