RFID Technology Disadvantages & Alternatives

By Bert Markgraf

Bar codes are a popular alternative to RFID.
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Radio frequency identification systems tag items with small antennas and electronics, allowing nearby readers to track their movements via radio waves. These RFID systems are especially useful for quick identification of the contents of a shipping pallet, inventory on a shelf in a warehouse, and for secure checkout. While the technology has many benefits, industry groups and suppliers of competing technologies have highlighted some disadvantages, and are working to develop alternatives that address these issues. Other technologies are often better suited for specific applications.


Active RFID tags contain a chip and a power source while passive tags get their power from the scanner radio waves and are less costly. Both are more expensive than bar codes. The cost is justified if sensors have to read hidden or obscured tags, but for tags that are in line-of-sight for readers, bar codes and image ID are much less expensive alternatives. Image ID scanners, which read a colored dot or other image, can scan a whole pallet in seconds as long as the images are visible from the outside.


While an RFID tag can encrypt its data, that adds to the already high cost. Without encryption, a company's competitors or other unfriendly organizations can read the tags when the material is in transit and obtain sensitive or confidential information. Image ID systems require line-of-sight scanning like bar codes but use non-directional images. Each image encodes a unique ID that the system uses to call up individual product data from a database. Without access to the database, the ID has no sensitive information and the data remains secure.


When manufacturers insert RFID tags in products, the tag is often integrated permanently. After a sale, the tag continues to carry its ID. Consumers who purchase such a product run the risk of being tracked. Stores or other organizations could theoretically place RFID readers at their entrances and identify visitors and some of their past purchases. Bar-code readers do not have the range to scan at a distance and are more privacy-friendly in that respect.


RFID tags have problems common to all radio-frequency transmissions and the tags themselves may cause errors. Metal reflects and blocks radio waves, and some frequencies suffer from interference. More than one tag may reply at one time, causing reception errors. If all tag messages don't get through, the totals for pallets or inventories contain mistakes. Image ID systems don't suffer from the same problems. As long as the scanner can see the images, it can read them.