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EPCglobal to Compare Item-Level Solutions

Standards organization EPCglobal will host an event at the end of March to evaluate various RFID technologies for their application in item-level tagging. The "technology demonstration" will contribute significantly to the base of industry knowledge about the most appropriate item-level tagging technologies.
Feb 27, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

February 27, 2006—Standards organization EPCglobal will host an event at the end of March to evaluate various RFID technologies for their application in item-level tagging. The "technology demonstration" will contribute significantly to the base of industry knowledge about the most appropriate item-level tagging technologies. RFID Update spoke with EPCglobal director of product management Sue Hutchinson about the upcoming event.

"There are very different challenges at the item level than at the case and pallet level," said Hutchinson. These challenges have lead to industry-wide disagreements about which type of RFID technology will perform best for item-level tagging: ultra high frequency (UHF) or high frequency (HF). As item-level adoption has gained momentum faster than most had expected, the disagreements have become more acute and their resolution more pressing. To date, most of the evidence supporting one technology or the other is anecdotal and lacking in rigorous comparative analysis. "We've never actually seen all of this technology demonstrated, apples-to-apples, same use cases, all in one place," Hutchinson said. The EPCglobal event is meant to serve as just that sort of definitive demo. "We're hoping what this demonstration does is clarify with fact an approach or several approaches for what works at the item level."

The event will feature seven use cases -- six for reading, one for writing -- that collectively represent the gamut of item-level tagging applications. They range from garments on a moving metal rack, to goods in a stable shelf environment, to a mix of different products randomly tossed together in a tote bag. Vendors are invited to demonstrate their proposed technology solution for as many of the use cases as they choose. So, for example, Vendor X, who advocates UHF technology for a particular item-level application, will demonstrate its solution alongside Vendor Y, who advocates HF. These side-by-side demonstrations will offer a clear, objective view of which technologies are superior for which applications. Note that Hutchinson was wary of characterizing the event as simply UHF versus HF, since such a characterization presumes that one or the other is the appropriate choice. "We may see some things in the low frequency (LF) range," she offered. "We may even see some things in the microwave range."

It is this neutral, unbiased objectivity that Hutchinson emphasized. "We are trying to remain frequency agnostic and technology neutral until it happens. We're trying to keep an open mind and not presuppose what the answer's going to be," she said. "We may see one solution, we may see many." She was also keen to note that the event is not a "bake-off", as many in the industry have taken to calling it. A bake-off suggests a contest for which there will be a winner; by contrast, EPCglobal is couching the event as an educational exercise for the industry's benefit. "There will be a set of [item-level technology] recommendations that gets fed back into the hardware action group, who will use it as the basis of their work going forward," she said.

Despite EPCglobal's eagerness to prevent a contest feel to the event, the fact that many refer to it as a bake-off suggests that they nonetheless see it as a competition. Indeed, if a particular technology outshines the rest, it will be advocated in EPCglobal's official recommendations and deemed by the industry to have "won". But a clear-cut outcome such as that is far from certain. What is certain is that those vendors heavily invested in one item-level tagging approach or the other are anxiously anticipating the event. After all, their potential customers -- the end-users who are interested in tagging items -- are likely to make purchasing decisions based on what the event reveals.

It will be held over the course of a few days in late March. The final location has yet to be decided, but it will likely be somewhere on the west coast. Hutchinson expects ten to twenty technology providers will participate.
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