This is not a contest between technologies. Barcodes, two-dimensional (2D) symbols and RFID smart labels may compliment each other in everyday use. We already see examples of linear and 2D symbols being used for different purposes on the same label.
So its much less a matter of choosing one or the other but rather identifying which applications might benefit from which technology.
Tracking means different things to different people with different IT systems. Before we can discuss the future, we have to understand the present. How do you and your customers want to track a parcel using a carrier tracking number, UCC/EAN SSCC-18, P.O. Number / Line Number or something else?
But what are our options today? Primarily, we can track and trace parcels through the carriers tracking number. Some carriers allow you to use the UCC/EANs SSCC-18 code and symbol which is often required by customers.
Bram Johnson, senior vice president of Marketing for RPS, stated during the Carriers Roundtable that tracking by carrier tracking number or even by the customers purchase order number wont be adequate in the near future. Shippers have access to the carriers tracking number but when a customer calls to inquire about the status of a shipment, thats not the number they look up in the database. They may look up a customer number and then identify the particular shipment. Or they may look up a transaction number (if the customer has it). Or they may have other data fields they use to key into specific transactions.
Customers more and more are taking advantage of the Web to check the status of shipments themselves. But for them to do this, they need to know the carriers tracking number, which the shipper would have to e-mail to them (unless the customer is shopping at an e-tail store that has integrated shipping software that provides the tracking number). But if there are multiple packages in an order, the customer doesnt know which parcel holds which item and, therefore, which tracking number is associated with it.
He suggests that we may want to be able to track by item detail or even item serial number in the future. And that future isnt very far away.
Is this a likely scenario for your company? For your customers? Is the current situation adequate? Or do you need much more information? The answers to those questions will significantly determine the future of tracking.
Barcodes and 2D Symbols
As much as we might complain about the lack of detail in parcel tracking, it should be recognized that the level of tracking we enjoy today is a relatively new phenomenon.
Federal Express kicked the whole industry into high gear by implementing barcodes on air bills primarily for routing and sortation, but the opportunity to track was built in. Others quickly saw the benefits and jumped on board. Today, FedEx, RPS, UPS, USPS and almost everyone else who wants to track parcels use linear barcodes. Why? Because barcodes are inexpensive, accurate, very easy to print, they work, and they offer real benefits to the carrier in routing and sortation.
One key reason barcodes are used so widely today is that they can be easily produced by the shipper, as needed, with relatively inexpensive thermal or thermal transfer label printers as well as office laser and ink jet printers. Even small shippers, such as home-based businesses, can take advantage of free printing software to create air bills with barcode information. The ability of the shipper to produce the labels is a significant advantage over the carrier having to preprint and distribute labels although thats still done. We will certainly see in the near future the demise of many of the preprinted barcode air bills (much of it spurred by UPS online demand).
In addition barcodes are inexpensive (i.e., disposable), relatively durable (when printed properly), offer fast and accurate data entry and can be read at high belt speeds for sortation and tracking purposes.
Two-dimensional symbols, whether stacked barcodes like PDF 417 or matrix symbols like MaxiCode, figure 1, offer significantly more data capacity than even a series of linear barcode symbols and in a fraction of the space. MaxiCode, though the data fields are highly structured and somewhat limited, still offers shippers ample room to include alternate tracking numbers and other data pertinent to the purchasing transaction. UPS uses the MaxiCode symbol both to collect data on the parcel and to route and track it.
PDF 417, figure 2, has much fewer restrictions and is currently being used to convey additional data and even full packing lists either in traditional barcode format (that is, with Data or Application Identifiers) or in EDI format (complete with ANSI X12 envelope and identifiers).
2D Symbol Benefits
Two-dimensional symbols share the benefits and most of the limitations of linear barcodes but with additional data capacity. It also employs sophisticated data reconstruction algorithms which allow data to be retrieved even if the symbol is damaged or is of marginal print quality.
Barcode and 2D Symbol Limitations
The basic limitation to barcodes (as well as 2D symbols) is that they must be seen to be read. This means that they require handling to face the barcode or scanning tunnels for five- to six-side reading to ensure the symbol is seen.
print quality is usually out of the control of carrier
poor print quality leads to unreadable symbols
barcodes are susceptible to damage
they do not read 100% in actual application
can be wrinkled, obscured by tape, strapping, etc. rendering them unreadable
data cannot be corrected/changed/updated
new label(s) must be printed if any data changes
Linear and 2D symbols, being optical, share some of the same limitations. For carriers, non-readable labels slow parcel handling. Theyre also expensive to read in terms of personnel or scanning tunnel technology. And in some systems, a requirement to read multiple barcode fields (for alternate tracking number) slows parcel handling. For shippers and consignees, linear barcodes dont contain enough data to cross-reference to your database for tracking purposes. Customers cant track parcels unless you send them the tracking number.
It should be noted some limitations are carrier IT system limitations and not technology limitations. 2D symbols can contain sufficient data for both shipper and consignee tracking numbers but inconsistent data content and different shipper/consignee needs add enormous complexity to the problem.
Barcode and 2D Summary
In short, barcodes work pretty well. Most carriers have made significant capital investments in barcode technology and, without a major inducement to change, feel that the limitations arent that significant. Many, in fact, will more likely use Web-based technology to provide the alternate tracking cross-reference to shippers and consignees.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) has long been viewed as the most significant alternative to barcode technology. It has made major incursions into manufacturing and transportation for identifying and tracking of items during harsh manufacturing processes as well as for vehicle identification of over-the-road trucks, trailers, intermodal containers and railroad rolling stock. Recent advancements in the technology, however, have reduced the size and cost of RFID tags from over $100 in many cases to about 50�. The new generation of printing and reading equipment is also smaller, lighter and much more cost-effective for labels than was previously available.
So-called smart labels have an inexpensive RFID chip embedded in a self-adhesive paper label (other form factors would also be possible). The label would typically have at least one barcode on it and the RFID chip would be encoded at the same time the barcode and human-readable information is printed on the label.
A lot of attention is being focused on smart labels because of their potential to carry complete electronic manifests and packing lists as well as a full range of other information, some of which can be used for tracking.
RFID Smart Label Benefits
There are a number of arguments in favor of using smart labels, including:
extended data capacity
ability to provide alternate tracking number(s)
speed and accuracy of reading
they are inexpensive to read (reduced cost of labor and inexpensive reading tunnels)
line-of-sight not required (can be inside packaging)
the read/write capability: provides potential for dynamic routing/sortation verification
can mimic barcode labels or EDI input
support continued use of barcodes for existing applications
multiple tags can be read at the same time (over-
HazMat shipments can be automatically identified to
With all the advantages, there are still some limitations with smart labels:
are still a rapidly evolving technology
are not yet covered by recognized standards (these are being developed but are not entirely in place)
require special labels and printer/encoder
require significant capital reinvestment by carriers in
reading multiple labels in the same "capture window" is not beneficial during sortation
There are some additional considerations for smart labels.
smart labels may be an expensive way to address alternate tracking numbers other solutions, such as Web-based programs, could be just as, if not more, effective
there is not sufficient demand on carriers at this time to pursue either alternate tracking numbers or all the capabilities of smart labels
some companies are just now beginning to get barcodes leaping into smart labels might be too big a step for them
shippers and consignees are not equipped to encode/read smart labels
The lack of standards may or may not be an issue in closed systems such as carrier-based tracking. However, for the shipper and consignee to effectively use smart labels, there must be consensus among the carriers of which version of the technology to use so that one printing and reading solution can be used.
Nonetheless, there are many studies underway, by carriers and shippers alike, to see when and how smart labels will fit into their parcel applications.
What's the future of tracking?
Barcodes, 2D symbols, RFID smart labels? The answer, for the next few years anyway, is an unqualified: yes. Many people are already familiar with the RPS MultiCode label which permits the use of both linear and stacked (2D) barcode symbols. The linear symbol is used for routing and sortation while the 2D symbol contains additional information. In much the same way, linear and 2D symbols are likely to co-exist with smart labels to empower different parts of the distribution process.
Bert Moore is the editor of Parcel Shipping & Distribution magazine and is an independent consultant on Automatic Identification and Data Collection (AIDC) technologies. He created the first public domain draft of MaxiCode for UPS and developed the MultiCode documentation for RPS.