March 2005 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

RFID: Setting the Standards

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Anyone who thinks RFID and all it entails will quietly fade away is going to be terribly disappointed. Any new technology or strategy operates like a dog preparing to lie down—it goes in circles. First we circled around Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense mandates. Now we are circling around establishing standards for the RFID global information network.

For the sake of clarity, let's review the players.

ePC Global Inc., a nonprofit organization, is a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council (UCC).

ePC Global's responsibility is to establish and support the ePC Global Network, which provides the medium over which RFID data is exchanged between users. This means a union between RFID technology, the Internet, and ePC (the number that identifies an item uniquely), with the shared goal of passing information both accurately and cost efficiently throughout the supply chain.

ePC Global is, in turn, a subsidiary of GS1, a global nonprofit organization that develops, creates, and manages EAN-UCC standards jointly.

In addition, ePC Global will have to submit its Generation 2 standard to the big boss—the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Don't think this is all smooth sailing.

Playing the Standards Game

We are now playing the standards game, and it is serious for anyone who expects to use a global supply chain to do business. The idea of more than one RFID standard being used globally is not just disturbing, it could be disastrous.

As a next step, ePC Global announced that testing of the proposed UHF Generation 2 specification is complete, and the results validate the proposed standard's feasibility. This announcement was soon followed by ratification of the royalty-free UHF Generation 2 air interface protocol standard.

The UHF Generation 2 standard will in time be used as the fundamental platform for erecting standards-based products and materials as well as their future developments. The ePC Global standard guarantees the best interoperability and sets up minimum operation expectations for a variety of network components, including hardware.

"Rationalization of the ePC Global standard with ISO is still pending and subject to the outcome of current discussions regarding differences in numbering schemes," says Chantel Polsonetti, vice president, ARC Advisory Group. "ePC Global is positioning the standard as a 'base platform' upon which suppliers will build products that may ultimately infringe on existing intellectual property claims."

Intellectual property claims also concern Tom Miller, president of Intermec Technologies Corporation.

"It is important to remember that the claim of a royalty-free air interface protocol specification does not mean royalty-free UHF RFID products," he explains. "We believe companies that offer UHF RFID products and solutions will still require a license to use Intermec intellectual property."

RFID software and hardware providers and merchandisers are all making their moves, some aggressively, some hesitantly. Here are a few worth noting:

IBM is investing $250 million over the next five years in its Sensor and Actuator business unit, which will support services and products related to sensor technology that includes RFID tags. IBM has also released its new WebSphere-based RFID middleware.

Hewlett Packard, meanwhile, marches to a different drum. It is concentrating on its early investments in RFID technology, specifically a pilot project with Wal-Mart to RFID-tag at the item level for products such as printers. Item tagging presents challenges that are more complex than tagging pallets or cases.

Hewlett Packard has also partnered with BearingPoint Inc., to concentrate on systems integration and business consulting along the supply chain—from manufacturing facilities all the way to store shelves.

Other players such as OatSystems Inc., Sun Microsystems, and Manhattan Associates have their own plans to help users handle the enormous volume of data that RFID systems will generate.

OatSystems, for example, offers a new product called OatLogic, an integrated rules-based engine that is able to manage and configure the business process of bridging RFID with devices such as printers and readers, as well as warehouse management and ERP systems.

When arriving at standards, the parties involved often agree to disagree, and pass the complexity and difficulties on to the users (witness PCs and Macs). This practice is deplorable. Let's hope we can establish a worldwide standard that meets all principal RFID user needs.

Organizing and standardizing the processes of information flow and accuracy, as well as controlling the cost of materials, goods, parts, pallets, and cases worldwide has so far entailed the cooperation of hundreds of enterprises and standards organizations.

Setting RFID standards is a big dog that will eventually get tired of circling and finally lie down.

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