Mark Beauchamp from Citizen Systems Europe debunks the RFID myth, presenting an unbiased overview of both RFID and bar coding.

There is much debate as to whether RFID tags will eventually displace the familiar bar codes that are widely used in the food and drinks sector. Food manufacturers and retailers can, for example, be instinctively taken by one of the main advantages of RFID over bar coding, where the obvious absence of line-of-sight equipment needed to track items has the potential to reduce staffing levels and human errors. Additionally, RFID can offer higher levels of security, as tags can be hidden out of sight, making RFID tagging also less susceptible to potential fraud.

But all isn’t just as straightforward as it seems. The pitfalls of RFID tagging are many and some, though less obvious, are even more insidious.

Food and drinks manufacturers are particularly concerned, for example, when tags are used with metallic packaging or liquid products, as these may interfere with signals, reflecting radio waves and making the tags unreadable. Many food items are also quite small. This can generate tag and reader collision, a common problem with RFID when numerous tags are present in a confined area, as the reader can energise multiple tags simultaneously, failing to differentiate between incoming data and creating a variety of errors.

Above all, RFID systems are still expensive to implement, requiring a complete overhaul of a company’s processes, thus making them less appealing for commodity goods and much more appropriate for highly expensive items (for example, RFID tags are commonly placed in jewellery cases or in high value clothing and other luxury goods).

It is estimated that the cost of RFID hardware can be up to four times that of comparable bar code equipment, while the cost of producing and installing an RFID tag can be up to eight times higher.

By comparison, bar coding appears almost as the poor cousin, certainly in terms of the technology involved. In practice, however, simpler bar code systems, which have been proven over many years in tens of thousands of applications, offer a real and future-proof option, either used as an independent system, integrated into the supply chain or even used alongside RFID systems.

Although bar coding may not have the technical cachet of RFID, it should not be forgotten that it still remains an advanced, flexible and potentially powerful technology. For instance, it is a misconception that bar codes hold less data than RFID tags; indeed, a 2D barcode can hold a vast amount of data, much more than a standard EPC tag.

The absence of line of sight equipment is also making consumers wary of RFID. Tagging has often been referred to as an invasive technology and there are even well visited blog pages, advocating rebellion against it. Consumers are worried about privacy, fearing that once a radio chip is installed in a product, tracking could potentially continue, with personal information being gathered by RFID readers every time the consumer comes within range (although this is an irrational fear, as stores routinely deactivate RFID tags after the product has been purchased, it nonetheless fuels media paranoia).

Lack of commonly agreed RFID standards is also a major issue. Right now Europe, the USA and Japan utilise different transmission frequencies, making it logistically very complicated to adopt the system at global level. In contrast, bar coding already complies with well recognised international standards.

All in all, it’s hardly surprising that only 17% of all food and drink companies, while being attracted to the idea of innovation and the prospect of better stock control or product traceability, have adopted RFID. Bar coding, despite being a mature technology, continues to deliver greater levels of control and reliability, which yet has much to offer. RFID has also lots to offer, but currently only as a niche application, particularly where absence of line of sight equipment is essential, such as in animal husbandry, or high value goods.


Citizen Systems Europe

Citizen Systems Europe operates from locations throughout Europe covering the EMEA region. It offers a wide range of printers for industrial, retail, healthcare and mobile applications specialising in label, barcode, portable and point-of-sale printers.  In each case, the company’s products are sold and supported by a network of specialised partners.

Citizen Systems Europe is a wholly owned subsidiary of Citizen Systems Japan and part of the Citizen group of companies, a global organisation that manufactures products ranging from its world-famous Eco-Drive watches, calculators, mini-printers and industrial printing systems to machine tools, quartz oscillators, LEDs and other electronic components.


For further information contact Mark Beauchamp, European Marketing Manager, Citizen Systems Europe, 643 – 651 Staines Road, Feltham, Middlesex, TW14 8PA.

Tel: 020 8893 1900. Fax: 020 8893 0080. Email: [email protected]