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Why the Auto-ID Center Matters

This unique partnership between corporations and academia is creating a global standard - the Electronic Product Code - for identifying unique items.
By Mark Roberti
Tags: Standards
Apr 06, 2002April 6, 2002 - A lot of interesting R&D is being done around radio frequency identification (RFID). Companies like Fractal Antenna Systems are coming up with smaller, faster antennas with better range than traditional designs. Plastic Logic is working on a type of RFID technology that doesn't involve silicon chips. And SAMSys in Toronto has already developed an agile reader that can operate in various frequencies.

At the same time, there are companies that already have proven RFID technology on the market. Texas Instruments has been powering the Mobil Speedpass for six years. Transcore is keeping cars moving through tolls around America. And WhereNet is helping companies like Ford and Associated Food Stores track everything from tractor trailers to carburetors.

So why is the Auto-ID Center so important? It's a good question, and one I get asked a lot.

The answer is, the Auto-ID Center is creating a global standard - the Electronic Product Code - for identifying unique items. Today, North America and Europe use different bar coding systems, which means manufacturers have to slap different labels on products, based on region. The Uniform Code Council and EAN International, the two major organization administering bar code standards, both support the Auto-ID Center's Electronic Product Code.

Second, the Auto-ID Center has the support of major manufacturers (Coca-Cola, Gillette, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, to name a few) and major retailers (Wal-Mart and Target in the United States and Tesco in the United Kingdom). This unusual partnership between academia and business is developing the technology infrastructure that will make it possible to read a RFID tag and identify the product anywhere in the world. Instantly.

That's a very big deal. Most technologies emerge over time. Vendors push their own proprietary technology, and eventually standards emerge. In the early days of railroads, many companies used different track gauges, which meant one car couldn't be transferred to another's line. Eventually, all tracks in North America accepted a single standard. But it took decades.

The Auto-ID Center wants to skip the messy part where companies waste millions of dollars investing in technology that doesn't work with technology used by business partners. It's as some of the biggest companies in 1826 went to a major university and said: Look, some guy named John Stevens has just demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey. We think we can use this technology to transport goods. We want you folks to design a locomotive, switches and so on, and come up with standards so any car can ride on any track anywhere in the world.

Building a global infrastructure for identifying products would have been impossible a decade ago. But the Internet already exists and doesn't need to be reinvented. It provides the backbone for a new network. And it has changed things in two important ways. It has forced the world to accept standards for communicating electronically, and it has taught businesses the enormous value of an open, standard network. Because of these two things, the Auto-ID Center is able to build on the standards that already exist and get competitors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi to work together.

There is still a long way to go before the Auto-ID Center can claim any measure of success. The biggest issue, I believe, will not be figuring out how to make the technology work. If we learned anything in the 1990s, it's that there's enough money and entrepreneurial talent in the world to solve even the most vexing engineering problem. The big issue will be winning acceptance for its standard.

Getting all the world's companies to play on the same field seems like an insurmountable task. But here's my prediction: It will happen because Wal-Mart wants it to happen. Wal-Mart is one of the most aggressive members of the Auto-ID Center. It's also the world's largest retailer. When it tells suppliers to start putting RFID tags with Electronic Product Codes on their products, only the most foolhardy won't comply.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this opinion piece or submit your own, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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