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December 2004

Just When You Thought It was Safe to Use UPC Tags - RFID is Here

The UPC, or Universal Product Code, is the set of printed black bars on all packaging. It is the part of the label that you try to find so the checkout person can scan your purchase into the computer to ring up a price. Service companies have been using this technology in recent years so that when their employees service a unit in the field, the unit is scanned and they know when the service person arrived, who did the work and they have a great way to keep track of inventory. Look around. UPC tags are everywhere.

This is a powerful tool to verify that an employee is at an appointed place and time, or to save time entering information into a computer or cash register (no typos). Just point the scanner and you are done. It’s great, but not perfect, because if the UPC label becomes damaged, dirty or (would you believe?) removed - all clever plans stop. In addition, you have to be able to visually see the label, and the technology that supports scanning; (red laser) is power hungry.

Now we have Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. The big differences in features between UPC and RFID are:

You do not have to be able to see the RFID chip to read it. Remember juggling the package to find the UPC code so it could be scanned? Now the reader just sends out a pulse of radio waves, all the little (and they are little) RFID chips use that energy and send a similar message with an identification code, i.e., serial number or up to 2000 characters of information.

You can be a significant distance away from the item being scanned. Numbers like 20 feet are being used for the range of the cheap RFID chips, and up to 300 feet for ones that cost $1, and you know the price will drop. So as you put items in your shopping cart, the cart reads the tags and keeps a running total on the handlebar. As you leave, the cart is weighed, your credit card is charged and you roll out the door. Have you been to Home Depot or your self-checkout lane in your local grocery store lately?

RFID chips come with different features. For example, they can store information every time they are read, i.e., sounds like a service history that goes with the unit. You know that ominous message, “Works best with genuine parts.” Now the car, printer or refrigerator will know if the part is genuine or not - a little scary. You get the idea - the RFID tool goes far beyond simple identification.

So, is it time to scrape off the UPC tags and to turn the UPC readers into laser tag games? Not yet. If you are starting the UPC journey, stay on track. Over 80% of the cost and effort with UPC codes is associated with organization, identification and changing business practices to take advantage of the business benefits. The only difference will be the TAG on the unit and the reader, a small percentage of the overall effort. When should you start using RFID? If you have an IT or MIS staff, do it tomorrow. If not, wait until you see the technology in your local retail stores. You can then go to OfficeMax or Staples and buy a PDA (personal digital assistant) or cell phone with a built-in RFID reader.


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