RFID, NFC, Barcode, or Bluetooth: What tech is best for tracking?

Introduction

When researching supply chain tracking solutions on your own, chances are, that even after hours of research, you won’t be much further along than when you started. Terms like RFID, NFC, BLE tag, BLE technology, and Bluetooth beacon are abundant. Without a fair understanding of what these terms mean and how they are different, confusion is inevitable.

This article aims to eliminate confusion by:

● Defining supply chain tracking solutions and their uses
● Comparing and contrasting the different technologies
● Preparing you for productive meetings with technology suppliers

Supply Chain Tracking Technologies

Barcode Technology

Barcode technology is likely the easiest to understand. A barcode is the zebra-striped marking you encounter on nearly every product. Technically speaking, this type of barcode is nothing more than a number (e.g. 93456 82744) encoded in the form of lines of varying thickness.

Barcodes are a standard and easy way to uniquely identify a product. They play a vital role in retail by facilitating and standardizing the checkout process. Companies also generate barcodes to identify packages, pallets, shipments, and other handling units.

Barcodes were originally 1-dimensional in the form of various lines of thickness. However, 2-dimensional barcode technology has emerged in the last decade or so, including the widely adopted QR code and the data matrix. The benefit of a 2D barcode is that it can store more information than a 1D barcode by encoding letters and punctuation in addition to numbers.

Figure 1: Barcodes on a shipment label, partially rubbed off from wear and tear.

A barcode’s primary use is to identify an item. The most significant advantage of barcodes is the minimal associated cost. Labels, printers, and barcode readers are essentially all that’s required. The three biggest disadvantages to traditional barcodes include:

● They require manual operation to use a scanner on each item.
● Scanning can be slow and inefficient when items are manually scanned one at a time.
● Barcodes can easily become unreadable if printed labels are folded or smudged.

Figure 2: Mobile boarding passes are presented as QR codes.
Figure 3: A datamatrix is unique to the product and also encodes the expiry date.

RFID Technology

An RFID (Radio and Frequency Identification) tag is essentially a small chip that contains a short message that can include numbers or text. The message is wirelessly communicated to an RFID reader. RFID readers send an energy beam into the space where the RFID chip is present.

Retailers often use RFID tags, particularly in the apparel industry. They set off an alarm when a customer leaves the store if the cashier forgot to deactivate the RFID tag on a piece of clothing. As a result, this technology has significantly increased supply chain efficiency.

Figure 4: An RFID tag will trigger an alarm in the proximity of the reader built into the security gate.
Figure 5: Security gates sound alarms when RFID tags are near.

RFID is an alternative to barcodes because it serves the same purpose: to uniquely identify a product. RFID was invented to overcome some of the limitations barcodes present. In contrast to the manual operation and inefficiency of barcodes, RFID offers a few key benefits:

● The distance between the RFID reader and the RFID tag can extend yards or meters.
● The RFID reader does not have to be aimed directly at the RFID tag.
● RFID readers can read multiple RFID tags at once.
● RFID tags can be made more mechanically robust than barcodes.

RFID-enabled supply chain technology still has its disadvantages, though. For example, RFID tags are more expensive than barcodes printed on paper labels. RFID readers are also significantly more costly than barcode scanners.

One crucial problem that RFID doesn’t completely solve is proximity. RFID tags still need to be in relatively close proximity to RFID readers. Therefore, scanning for full coverage over a warehouse is not technically nor economically feasible.

Figure 6: RFID tags can be integrated into product labels.

NFC Technology

NFC (Near-field Communication) is a technology similar to RFID that many of us use without even knowing. It enables the handy tap-to-pay function. NFC technology is built into modern smartphones to communicate with payment terminals over very short distances (5 cm or 2 inches).

They are conceptually very similar, but the difference between RFID and NFC lies in the distances at which they can function. NFC has a very short range, which is an advantage in making communications more difficult to “eavesdrop” on. But this short range means it’s not an ideal solution for identification in supply chains. Instead, it is used more in reading the status of devices and in configuring devices.

Figure 7: NFC key card brought up close to NFC reader for access control

Bluetooth, BLE, BLE tag, Bluetooth beacon, and iBeacon Technology

Bluetooth is the short-range wireless technology we all know from our wireless earphones, wireless speakers, and car kits.

BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy and is simply an extremely low power mode of operation for Bluetooth. Therefore, everything classified as BLE is also Bluetooth but not vice-versa.

A Bluetooth beacon, a BLE beacon tag, and a BLE tag all refer to the same thing: a device that uses BLE to send out short messages such as numbers, a string of text, or a web address. One way to picture it is a loudspeaker that blurts out the same short message every second, except that the beacons don’t use audio transmission but rather radio signals.

Other Bluetooth devices, such as smartphones or dedicated beacon receivers, receive these messages.

As you may have guessed, an iBeacon is a BLE beacon that follows Apple’s design specifications. Many BLE beacons support the Apple iBeacon format, but there are other formats as well, such as Eddystone.

When BLE tags are used in supply chains, they usually serve the same purpose as a barcode or an RFID tag: to uniquely identify the product to which it’s attached. BLE technology solves some of the problems of the RFID tag:

● The BLE tag range is typically 20m (60ft), which is 4 to 20 times larger than RFID.
● BLE beacon receivers are usually less expensive than RFID readers.
● The more extended range of BLE beacon receivers means fewer receivers are required.

It’s still important to note that BLE beacons still have their disadvantages:

● BLE is more expensive than RFID.
● BLE stops working if a few hundred BLE beacons are in the same space. The underlying reason for this is that Bluetooth was designed as a consumer-applications technology, where relatively few devices contend for airtime.
● It is nearly impossible to achieve 100% coverage of a warehouse using Bluetooth or BLE beacons. The more objects between the BLE beacon and the beacon receiver, the lower the chance of a good connection.

Wirepas Technology

Wirepas is the industrial version of Bluetooth. Wirepas tags are slightly more expensive than other options, but they can easily support tens of thousands of devices in close proximity. In addition, Wirepas tags solve the connectivity problem because they don’t need a direct connection to the receiver. Instead, their messages can hop from one tag to another in a series to get to the final destination.

RedLore’s solutions for loss mitigation and efficiency improvement in supply chains embed Wirepas technology, overcoming the limitations of barcodes, Bluetooth BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), and barcodes.

Comparing Technologies

It’s easy to get lost in the letter soup of tracker technologies. Here are a few quick side-by-side comparisons of the different options.

RFID vs. NFC

Are RFID and NFC the same thing? They’re two different technologies, but they’re certainly very similar. The difference between RFID and NFC is twofold.

1. An RFID tag can be read over a few meters or yards, whereas NFC is readable only up to about 5 cm or 2 inches.
2. RFID requires an expensive reader, while NFC readers are cheap. RFID is often used for product identification, but NFC is used for product status reading and configuration, payment and access control.

RFID and NFC vs. barcode

All three of these technologies can help identify a product, a package, or just about anything. To read a barcode requires a relatively cheap barcode scanner at a distance of a few feet. RFID readers can read from a further distance and do not require a direct aim at the tag, but they’re much more expensive. NFC has a smaller range of 5 cm or 2 inches, but the NFC readers are cheaper.

BLE tag and Bluetooth iBeacon vs. RFID

The terms BLE tags and Bluetooth beacons can be used interchangeably, and a Bluetooth iBeacon is just Apple’s version of the same thing. Compared to an RFID, a BLE tag is readable from much farther distances, requiring fewer readers. The number of BLE tags that can be handled in the same space is in the low hundreds, whereas it’s virtually unlimited for RFID tags.

In short, a BLE tag is an RFID-alternative technology. This makes BLE beacons RFID-alternative technologies similar to RFID but with extra advantages. Wirepas marries the best of a BLE tag’s range and RFID’s greater tag capacity.

GPS vs. RFID tag

These are really very different technologies. A GPS (Global Positioning System) device receives — without transmitting anything — information from satellites that allows it to calculate its location on earth. An RFID tag will send out a short message, usually an identification number, when an RFID reader activates it.

Why RedLore?

RedLore specializes in advanced solutions for mitigating supply chain losses, with a mission to strengthen your supply chain through insights patented IoT and Machine Learning technology provides. The solutions give manufacturers, logistics providers and their customers direct control and insight by offering an end-to-end touchless monitoring experience that accurately tracks key events

RedLore’s products embed patented Machine Learning algorithms that not only generate alarms when telemetry data is off but also offer insights into the circumstances leading up to the alarms. In addition, RedLore’s algorithms are distributive in nature, meaning that devices combine their knowledge to generate insights a single device couldn’t develop on its own.

Figure 7: RedLore Smart Sensors can be used in an extensive range of applications thanks to the wide variety of built-in sensors.