I often am asked whether radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is a good option for IT hardware asset tracking. My answer: It depends. Using RFID for data center asset tracking can work well. But if you’re using RFID for the end user, there’s a lot of reasons why good old barcodes may work better.
RFID for the IT asset management market is growing. It’s estimated to become nearly a $13 billion industry by 2022, up 12% from 2019, according to IDTechEx. RFID can be a dream technology for IT asset management:
- It tracks without a direct line of sight to the reader.
- It’s automatic, not requiring human intervention.
- It’s far faster to collect data.
- RFID tags hold more data.
RFID asset tracking can improve productivity and accuracy while reducing labor requirements.
Making RFID work
Yet RFID is far from perfect:
- Getting consistently good read rates takes a lot of testing.
- RFID signals can be blocked easily.
- RFID tags can be read inadvertently.
- Updates can overwhelm backend systems and cause confusion.
- Storing data in RFID tags leads to data duplication errors and difficulty in normalizing data.
We’ve had particular difficulty getting RFID to work for laptops. Stacking laptops in a stockroom can block the RFID tags on the lids of laptops underneath. RFID tags that fit on the side bezel don’t read very well. They stick out, inviting end users to pick them off or to be knocked off inadvertently.
On the other hand, in the data center, hang tags work very well, enabling rapid data center asset audits. The real-estate of racked assets, with a hang tag option for all-vent devices, makes RFID a practical solution.
Types of RFID
There are active and passive RFID systems.
Active tags use an embedded battery to continuously transmit a signal to track over long distances, and data can be delivered in real time. An active system is used with larger applications, such as industrial containers or railcars, and active tags are more expensive than passive tags. Newer active technologies, including Bluetooth Low Energy and Wifi-RFID tags, are making their way to the market to further expand active RFID adoption.
Passive RFID tags are powered by an RFID reader’s signal. They have no battery and are significantly less expensive and more durable. The data is updated when the tag passes a reader.
Passive RFID works well in supply chains. Passive RFID tags are automatically scanned as they pass through scanner-equipped doorways, conveyor belts, rolling carts, shelf readers, and more. Passive RFID tags can also be scanned by field technicians using hand-held devices.
The material, size, shape and type of the passive RFID tag affect “read” performance. The larger the tag, the farther away it can be read, as an example. The cost can range from less than $1 to $50 each. Automatic readers can cost thousands of dollars per doorway while handheld readers run from a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000.
Too often, RFID technology projects fail because the specific use cases didn’t warrant the specific RFID technology chosen for the use case.
Upside of barcode
Because RFID tags can be bulky — as large as a brick in some cases — it’s not ideal for end user equipment. Laptop users, for example, could inadvertently remove or damage an RFID tag.
Barcodes are small yet still accurate, and they can (and should) be certified to ISO standards. They are used in many industries from retail to manufacturing to medical.
Choices for scanners include handheld, in-counter and omni-directional. Industrial-grade, rugged barcode readers are durable in harsh conditions. The price can be as low as $20 for the most budget-minded type of scanner. With an app, a smartphone or tablet can be used to scan a barcode.
Barcodes can be customized to include specific inventory and pricing data and printed, all for mere pennies. They work well for receiving, stockroom inventories, check-in/check-out, audit and disposal activities.
Hybrid barcode and RFID tags
In any case where humans will handle assets, I recommend “hybrid” tags that are pre-printed/encoded with matching barcode and RFID values. This approach provides the most flexibility, enabling users to scan assets with any available device. You can switch between an RFID device and a smartphone camera to track the asset in different environments.
Eight questions for evaluating RFID
- What’s the volume of transactions I expect throughout a multiple-year period?
- How many different types of assets do I need to track?
- Is there a convenient space to apply an RFID tag to the asset?
- Is the cost of human involvement in asset tracking more or less than the investment in expensive RFID infrastructure?
- How accurate do I need my data to be? Is knowing an asset is in a stockroom good enough? Or do I need to know the precise shelf location?
- How real-time do I need my data? RFID can deliver on that, but determine whether that benefit is worth the cost.
- How will I configure and manage my RFID reading devices? What if they go down? How do I know they’re reporting accurately?
- How much budget? Barcode technology is significantly less expensive than RFID.
RFID and barcode asset tracking in one application
AssetTrack for ServiceNow allows companies to connect both barcode and RFID devices to your asset tracking processes, enabling the best of both worlds through the use of hybrid tags. It is pre-configured for hardware lifecycle management, and enables simple, inexpensive deployment of barcode and RFID infrastructure.
We have a number of clients that use RFID and barcode technology together to provide full lifecycle coverage of their ServiceNow hardware assets.
If you’re introducing or significantly enhancing IT asset management processes and are weighing barcode or RFID technology, check out our free hardware asset tagging guide.