A Bridge Between ISO and EPC

By Richard Rees

The only realistic way to deploy a UHF RFID system in an open supply chain today is to implement ISO 18000-6 and make next-generation EPC technology backwards compatible with it.

Back in 1997, I was one of a small group of people in the automatic data capture industry who advanced the then highly unfashionable view that passive UHF represented the way forward for mass implementation of RFID. How times have changed. Tens of millions of dollars—probably hundreds, if truth be known—have been spent researching RFID in pursuit of the holy grail of total supply chain visibility. And now the world’s largest retailer has said: “Get on with it. Stop messing. We’ll give you a year to put in a global system. Or else.”

Those are my words actually, but you get the idea. It’s a brave new world indeed and perhaps a chilly one as the frigid winds of reality sweep in from Arkansas. Are we prepared for this challenge or are the cupboards dangerously bare?

My belief is that the confusion in the RFID market is such that some of the cupboards are indeed bare, while others are full but neglected. An opinion-forming CEO from a large U.S. company recently stated that EPC was needed because there were 140 different ISO standards for RFID. There is actually only one ISO data carrier standard for supply chain use—the ISO 18000 series. ISO 18000-6 is the data carrier for tags operating in the UHF spectrum.

The other ISO standards deal with RFID systems for dogs, cats, cows, bank cards, travel tickets and so on. Other ISO standards combine the ISO RFID building blocks to create sector application standards.

So here’s the reality:

• EPC and ISO are not in conflict; they do different things. EPC is a complete system to carry, capture, store and access supply-chain data. ISO-18000 is simply a data carrier.

• EPC numbers can be carried in many data carriers. They can be put into a bar code, printed on paper and scanned, or tapped into a PDA. Most importantly, they can be carried by any RFID tag with sufficient memory, including an ISO 18000-compliant RFID tag.

• The ISO standards are specifically written so that one protocol can cover all kinds of tags, including tags that carry a simple license plate, store very complex data, and are read-only, WORM (write once read many) or read-write.

• ISO standards are “ready to go.” The ISO UHF standard 18000-6 is close enough to final approval that companies can create products based on it. As a result, 18000-6 tags are available right now. My company and others are supplying them to the end users.

The current EPC data carriers have done good work for proof of concepts in the United States. They’ve also been tested in Europe and Asia under special short-term licences. But there aren’t EPC products available that can operate under European regulations.

For open systems applications, ISO 18000-6 is currently the only UHF data carrier that meets global regulations, can carry both existing data structures and the proposed EPC data, is available from a variety of vendors and can be purchased today. It’s as simple as that.

But what about EPC protocols?

Recently, I was privileged to convene a meeting of experts from all sides of the RFID community in Edinburgh, Scotland. Their conclusions:

• The Auto-ID Center’s Hardware Action Group (HAG) is developing next-generation protocols that will be compliant with global regulations, but that program can’t deliver commercial product until at least 2006.

• The extra functionality being developed by the HAG would be of most value to item-level identification, which is predicted to start in 2007 or later.

• There is no technical reason why the HAG work could not be backward compatible with 18000-6.

So the road map is clear:

• If you need to put in an UHF RFID system right now—the applications will generally be at pallet or case level—then it makes sense to implement ISO 18000-6 in either A or B form (your integrator should be able to advise which is most appropriate).

• When item-level tagging starts in, say, 2007, you can continue using ISO 18000-6, and/or you can introduce second-generation EPC technologies. Either way, you do not need to disturb your investment in readers, especially if you have installed multi-protocol readers, such as those from SAMSys.

This solution makes it possible to deliver what Wal-Mart and its suppliers need now and will need in the future. And it solves the problem of having two competing RFID systems confusing the market.

Richard Rees is president of Scanology, a European RFID systems provider, and chairman of The British Standards Institution committee for RFID and barcode.