An Undertaking of EPC Proportions

It is great to have identification tags on everything. But unless those tags communicate to workers, supervisors, or managers, they are purely decorative and costly. This is the rationale behind the emergence of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Network and both its industry support and its network and code standardization.

First, let’s be clear as to what constitutes EPC and where it came from. EPC is the brain-child of M.I.T.’s industry-supported Auto-ID Center, and was proposed in 1998 by M.I.T. scientists David Brock and Sanjay Sarma, whose work is directed at creating an intelligent infrastructure for the ever-evolving supply chain. This work entailed the collaboration of five leading university labs around the world. A noble task.

The Electronic Product Code they conceived contains 96 bits of identification data, and those 96 bits contain a 40-bit serial number. The information is not coded directly within the bits, but as a reference to a document, much like an Internet URL.

The document lives on a network, where an object name service matches the EPC’s numeric to the document’s location. This is similar to the Internet’s domain name service, which matches a numeric IP address to a URL readable by humans.

This document is written in a Product Markup Language. Of course the network makes use of the RFID tag, which contains the EPC and is automatically readable at a distance, giving this technology a new robustness.

Support Mechanisms

The Internet got its initial boost from a consortium of universities and was first used as a way for colleagues to share scientific information. But that is not the development picture for EPC and its networking.

Several support mechanisms are in place and developing right now. The Uniform Code Council (UCC), a standards body, and RosettaNet are combining forces to set standards and offer an XML architecture for online commercial supply chain transactions. Implementation partners UCC and EAN International will develop global standards and administer them. The non-profit collaboration between EAN and UCC represents 100 member organizations with more than one million members in 100-plus countries.

A second force acting as EPC sponsors includes Wal-Mart (no surprise there), along with Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, and Kraft Foods. Not one slouch among them.

Building an EPC Network

In addition, EPCglobal, an international organization, is building a network where every consumer item will have a tag and an Electronic Product Code attached or imbedded. This network will depend upon servers maintained by the manufacturer and will, in time, allow them to track the tagged item throughout the supply chain.

The EPC will identify the particular item in the supply chain using the RFID tags—with their combination of silicon chip and antenna—as the carrier.

The developers of EPCglobal join with others in pointing out that this new technology will supplement bar codes, and work side by side with them for years to come.

How does a company or a manufacturer get started implementing the EPCglobal Network? EPCglobal suggests three basic steps:

  1. Form an EPC team in the enterprise at the senior level.
  2. Subscribe to EPCglobal and take advantage of the opportunity the EPCglobal Network provides for trading partners to collaborate in new ways.
  3. Begin sharing implementation plans with trading partners so that they can adapt accordingly.

Naturally EPCglobal encourages early adoption because they believe that those who join the standards- making process can wrest a significant advantage. Subscription costs are measured against an enterprise’s overall sales volume.

One of EPCglobal’s working parts is an implementation task force made up of EPCglobal subscribers who will focus their attention on developing protocols for the code standardization process, and enhancing the system’s commercialization. The task force is a ready example of EPCglobal’s intention to be a neutral force that is user-driven and reflects the consensus of the subscriber base.

It will be interesting to watch the development of EPCglobal because there is so much behind it and so much to do. The pressure from organizations such as Wal-Mart will increase as they bring RFID technology onstream.

Understanding EPC

It would be prudent to at least understand your company’s position or strategy in regard to this big change in the control and visibility of supply chain processes. It is hard to believe EPC will go away because there is too much advantage in the ease of handling and eventual profits it promises.

If adopted, EPC will have to be understood at the executive, supervisory, and worker level. There is no room for partial understanding, any more than there is any excuse for not realizing that this is a technology in process, and that the costs associated with EPC and RFID are in flux and may so remain for the near future.

The right question to ask is: why shouldn’t we adopt RFID technology?

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