As the humble barcode celebrates its 50th birthday, Qcom salutes this groundbreaking technology and considers its enduring role – alongside the rise of RFID – in the future of AutoID.
AutoID – the process of automatically detecting and identifying data objects with technology – has for many decades sat at the heart of what Qcom does.
A huge proportion of the technology products we commission, install, repair, service and support are either defined or made possible by AutoID. This includes equipment which captures data, records and presents it, detects it, reads it, transmits and receives it, and ultimately responds to and works because of it.
The ability of AutoID systems to track objects beyond any human capacity is absolutely fundamental to the market sectors we support. It is ubiquitous in logistics and warehouse environments, of course, and a familiar part of our everyday consumer retail experience. But it also underpins the increasing level of industrial automation in factory settings, at sits at the heart of innovations in healthcare, travel, hospitality, and more.
Today there are many methods, technologies and devices for the automatic recording, detection and identification of data, but the history of AutoID has been – and continues to be – dominated by two: the barcode, and RFID (radio frequency identification).
In this, the 50th year of the barcode, it is easy to dismiss one of these as ‘old’ technology and see the other as its inevitable heir. But the demise of the barcode has been predicted ever since the first RFID tags began to appear at the back end of the 1990s and – as with so many predictions about new technology adoption – this has led to plenty of false dawns. As we can still see today, this apparent new vs old, David vs Goliath battle remains far from resolved.
The humble barcode started out as lines in the sand, drawn on a Florida beach by inventor Norman Joseph Woodland in 1948. A mechanical engineer and veteran of Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project, Woodland had reputedly overheard a grocery-store executive asking an engineering professor to channel research into how product information could be captured at the checkout.
Despite patenting his idea in 1949, it more than two decades before lasers made it possible to quickly and accurately read the code, and the barcode could finally be developed and implemented. In the early 1970s, Woodland worked with a research team at IBM to develop a barcode reading laser scanner, and an IBM colleague George J Laurer turned Woodland’s original idea into the rectangle design we all know today.
On 3 April 1973, IBM’s Universal Product Code (UPC) was selected by industry leaders and adopted as standard. Just over a year later, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum sold at a supermarket in Ohio became the first product scanned at a checkout using Laurer’s design, and in 1979 the barcode finally crossed the Atlantic, appearing on a box of Melrose teabags at a supermarket in Lincolnshire in 1979.
The barcode works when a scanner reading a label which has black bars which vary in width. Each section of the barcode has different widths or black bars to create a character or number. When combined the reader can detect the pattern and read the value. The introduction of this deceptively simple idea transformed the way businesses operated. By providing a standardised method for tracking and managing inventory, barcodes streamlined processes, reduced labour costs, and led to faster checkout experiences for customers.
The revolution may have started in retail, but the impact quickly spread, with sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing, and logistics all benefiting from the increased efficiency and accuracy afforded by this innovative technology.
Many trace the origin of RFID back to Léon Theremin (he of the pioneering, other-worldly electronic stick instrument), and his 1945 work for the Soviet Union on covert listening devices. But the first true ancestor of today’s RFID was a passive radio transponder with memory demonstrated by Mario Cardullo to New York port authorities and other potential users in 1971. There were significant developments ito this technology throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, with the first patent to be associated with the abbreviation RFID granted in 1983.
In the late 1990s, both Walmart and IBM experimented with the technology in retail settings and, at the start of the new millennium, Marks and Spencer led the UK charge.
The idea, if not the technology, underpinning RFID is simple. While barcodes are an optical technology, RFID is electronic. An RFID tag consists of an electronic circuit which stores data, and an antenna which communicates the data via radio waves. A RFID reader interrogates the tags to obtain the information stored. When the reader broadcasts radio waves, all the tags within range will communicate. Software is required to control the reader and to collect and filter the information.
While they all work on this same broad principle, there is a range of different types of RFID system available.
Tags can be either ‘active’ or ‘passive’ for example. Active tags contain an onboard battery to drive the internal circuitry and to generate radio waves, able to broadcast even in the absence of a RFID reader. Passive tags are powered using the energy of the radio wave transmitted by the reader and do not have their own power supply. Also, tags can be read-only or read-write. Read-only tags are much cheaper to produce and therefore used in most current applications. Read-write tags are useful when information needs to be updated.
The hype about RFID started from those very earliest retail pilots in the early 2000s. Those working in sectors already transformed by the barcode, with retailers to the fore, could immediately see the potential. Manufacturers such as IBM invested heavily in promoting and emphasising this potential, interoperability challenges were resolved the introduction of the GS1 EPC standard in 2004, and from there a great many pilot projects were launched.
As is so often the case with new technology, Gartner’s hype cycle helps illustrates how things have panned out since then.
That early surge of expectation was already peaking as the financial crash of 2008 kicked in. Costly RFID projects with uncertain benefits were rapidly abandoned or suspended as retailers turned their attention to the short-term demands of the harshest economic climate in a generation. The RFID sector inevitably plunged into its own ‘trough of disillusionment’.
Despite these setbacks, and continuing challenges around chip supply and raw material shortages, by any measure we are now well past this trough and firmly onto the ‘plateau of productivity’.
According to IDTechEx, the global RFID market will be worth US$14 billion in 2023, up from US$12.8 billion in 2022. This comprises RFID labels, cards, fobs, and any other form factors, as well as tags, readers, and software/services for both passive and active RFID.
Retail continues to be at the forefront of innovation in the field – it is already the largest application sector in terms of tag numbers, with retail clothing alone set to require nearly 24 billion RFID labels this year. Further growth is inevitable – this represents only about 30% of the total global market for apparel, and retailers such as Walmark and Marks & Spencer are also committed to tagging retail items other than clothing.
Beyond retail, the technology has rapidly gained a foothold in applications as diverse as access control, air baggage, passports, vehicle immobilizers, books, medical devices, asset management and control, and ticketing. A legal requirement to tag livestock makes this a hugely important RFID market and, of course, today we all carry RFID technology in the form of the contactless payment cards and mobile phones that work through an RFID subtype, Near Field Communication (NFC).
We will return to the RFID innovations being made by market leaders like Zebra Technologies in a second article.
At heart, barcodes and RFID do many of the same things. They both allow the user to store data, read it using fixed or mobile scanners, and hence allow you to track objects through a range of environments. But, in addition to the underlying technology they use to achieve this, there are some fundamental differences. Deciding which is better depends entirely on requirements and budget.
Despite the tumbling price of RFID tags in recent years, barcode remains a significantly cheaper technology.
But RFID tags store more information and, because RFID can read multiple tags at once, the speed advantage is obvious when scanning for multiple items. A batch of products that might take a human a couple of minutes to record manually can be scanned from barcodes in 20 or 30 seconds; but it is likely that RFID could pick them up in a second or less.
The following table summarises some of the key factors that need to be assessed in every application.
Fifty years ago the barcode triggered a paradigm shift in data handling; one that reshaped the way companies, sectors and entire economies work. And, from speeding up checkout lines to tracking life-saving medical supplies, it continues to play a vital role in many aspects of our professional and private lives.
The barcode’s versatility, cheapness and convenience means that it is all but certain to endure for the for foreseeable future.
However, despite the inevitably setbacks and delays characterised by the Gartner hype curve, RFID technology has clearly now found its way into a period of sustained and increasing growth.
Manufacturers and end-users at the vanguard of this growth are not just looking to replace barcodes though. Instead, they are finding a huge array of innovative and exciting ways to leverage the many advantages of RFID technology – in turn creating additional value which more than outweighs any underlying cost difference between these two very similar, and yet very different, technologies.
It is those innovations in RFID to which we will shortly turn our attention in a second article.