Going bilingual with multipurpose readers: the need for coexistence and the complementary nature of bar code and RFID will be more evident as the technology evolves. This will guarantee a place for multipurpose readers in supply chain

Going bilingual with multipurpose readers: the need for coexistence and the complementary nature of bar code and RFID will be more evident as the technology evolves. This will guarantee a place for multipurpose readers in supply chain operations

Tom Kevan

After 30 years of bar codes and with the onslaught of radio frequency identification (RFID), businesses have to find a way to become bilingual. To meet this need, automatic data collection (ADC) vendors have come up with hybrid handheld devices that can read both technologies. Although most of these devices are still in the development stage, next year should see commercial offerings from many leading vendors.

“There aren’t a whole lot of offerings right now,” says Jack Brandon, senior business manager for scanner products at Socket Communications Inc. “We are all scrambling to get them out there and make them work.”

“Right now, manufacturers are trying to take available readers and package them as best they can inside the handheld,” says Kai Figwer, director of systems integration at mobile computer manufacturer LXE Inc.

Going Commercial

The multipurpose readers on or about to enter the market take the form of add-ons that work with other components as handheld devices. And many manufacturers are capitalizing on their experience in the ADC field to provide users with tools that will help them as the bar code/RFID combination defines its place in the supply chain.

Socket Communications’ scanners plug into a variety of mobile devices, primarily Pocket PCs, laptops, and pen tablets, and support a range of interfaces, such as PCMCIA cards, Compact Flash cards, and secure digital I/O cards. All of the company’s devices will be supported by a software package called Socket Scan, which works with both bar codes and RFID tags.

“We are in the development phase of these products,” says Brandon. “They are not commercially available yet.” He expects availability by the end of the calendar year.

Symbol Technologies Inc. is also about to enter the market. Although it does not yet have a multipurpose reader that incorporates RFID on the market, it’s working on a prototype. “At some point in the next year, we should have our own production model of that prototype,” says Gil Bautista, director of Symbol’s warehouse mobility solutions. The saleable product will be based on the gun version of Symbol’s MC9000-G rugged handheld computer, and it will incorporate an RFID interrogator with an imager or one-dimensional laser scanner.

By contrast, LXE already has a foot in the multipurpose market. It works with customers on a project-by-project basis to produce custom devices. “We have implemented active tag readers in a multipurpose reader, as well as a high- frequency device,” says Figwer. “Our UHF-based reader reads both standard-range bar codes and UHF Class 0 and Class 1 protocols.” LXE will move from providing custom devices to off-the-shelf readers “as the industry settles down on standards,” says Figwer.

Intermec Technologies Corp. already has an off-the-shelf device on the market. Model IP3 is an RFID sled that attaches to the Intermec 700 handheld computer. The sled holds an RFID module that includes a power supply. All the functionality is controlled through the handheld computer, which also has different radio configurations that can provide wireless connectivity. The computer has built-in bar code scan engines.

The Shape of Things to Come

Application function will dictate form in the multipurpose reader market. Future devices will support a variety of bar code symbologies, RFID frequencies, read ranges, and speeds.

In addition, Bartos of Intermec sees the evolution tending toward ease of use and the ability to switch back and forth to perform RFID read, write, and filter functions.

And as with everything else, the size of these devices will continue to shrink. “I see them becoming smaller in size, much lighter, and much less expensive,” says Bartos.

“Over time, you will see a reduction in the size of the reader module and reader circuitry,” says Figwer of LXE. “We started out with 802.1 1b, and it was a PCMCIA card. Now you are getting to the point where people are making chips that can actually go on the CPU board. The same thing can happen [with multipurpose devices] following that kind of adoption curve.”

Finally, connectivity will be a major consideration. This will mean the implementation of wireless links that bridge the gap between the user and the enterprise network.

Why Both?

All this is well and good, but is there a real need for both bar code and RFID readers? Why would companies want to maintain two parallel technologies that perform the same ADC functions?

“It really boils down to a return-on-investment decision for the user,” says Tracy Hillstrom, Intermec product manager for data capture. “There are going to be areas where, no matter what you do, RFID tags and equipment are going to be more expensive than bar code. The older technology is coming down in price, and it’s moving to a commodity status. And as long as that happens, it is always going to be less expensive.”

For some vertical industries, the investment in both bar code and RFID becomes a question of economic survival. For example, wholesalers have been predominantly small- and medium-sized businesses. Often they can’t justify the cost of maintaining two full-blown ADC systems because they’re riding on razor-thin margins. Unless companies pervasively use a technology across the supply chain, they are going to come across pockets where companies are not using RFID, and they’re still leveraging bar coding and scanners. So for many companies, the cost of doing business will be bilingual operations.

Those companies that do use RFID will still have to handle exceptions. “There will be instances where the RFID tag is not going to function,” says Bartos of Intermec. “It may have been zapped with high amounts of static electricity, or it may have been damaged by a forklift. Having a bar code label on top of that gives you the ability to handle exceptions. And having a dual-mode reader makes it easier.”

RFID’s physical limitations also strengthen the case for dual-mode readers. These are particularly relevant in such applications as warehouse operations. “In the warehouse, we are scanning bar codes from 45 feet away,” says Hillstrom. “And today, with passive RFID technology, you don’t necessarily have that capability yet.”

Finally, multipurpose readers can be a good way to introduce RFID. “Companies are responding to mandates, which have to be responded to in the near term,” says Bartos. “They see these readers as a way to minimize their cost of getting started with compliance. They don’t necessarily have all their business case in place for putting in a full RFID system in their warehouse. Using these smaller units that can do bar coding and RFID gives them a chance to start using handhelds to comply while they work out the rest of their business model.”

Company Information

Intermec Technologies Corp.

Everett, Wash.



LXE Inc.

Norcross, Ga.




Communications Inc.

Newark, Calif.



Symbol Technologies Inc.

Holtsville, N.Y.



Extra! Extra!

For further reading on this and related topics, see these articles, available at www.frontlinetoday.com/082004links:

“Home Depot to Deploy Thousands of Wireless Scanners”

November 2003

“Mobile Computer Manufacturers Give RFID a Look”

September 2003

“New Options in Data Collection”

April 2003

COPYRIGHT 2004 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group