A Practical Approach at EPC Connection

By Mark Roberti

Attendees at EPCglobal's fourth annual conference and exhibition were focused on practical applications for EPC technologies that can deliver benefits today.


Journalists often get detached from their subject matter. When I was the managing editor of news at CMP’s InformationWeek magazine, I rarely attended conferences (travel budgets were limited), and I had little or no interaction with readers. Our reporters conducted phone interviews, but they didn’t get much opportunity to travel or hear what was on the minds of the people they wrote for.

One of the nice things about hosting face-to-face events, in addition to producing a magazine and a Web site, is that RFID Journal reporters and editors get to interact with the vendors and end users we write for on a regular basis. Such events provide an opportunity to gauge the temperature of this industry (and it can change dramatically, based on such vagaries as the Wall Street Journal‘s spin on how many distribution centers Wal-Mart has RFID-enabled, for instance) and to hear from RFID early adopters and fast followers, and even those in a wait-and-see mode. We get to hear which applications end users are excited about, the obstacles they face and how and where they are moving forward. End users also get to share this information with one another and with vendors.

EPC Connection 2007, EPCglobal‘s fourth annual conference and exhibition, was held last week in Chicago. This year, we co-produced the event with EPCglobal. More than 1,000 people attended, including many Fortune 500 companies (view a list of some of the companies represented at the show).

So what was the mood of the end-user community? I would say it was “business-like”—and let me explain that. In the early days of RFID, there was a sense of excitement at events, a pervasive feeling that everyone was part of a new and exciting technology that would revolutionize the supply chain (we were in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” stage of Gartner’s hype cycle for a new technology).

Then, 18 months to two years ago, early adopters realized RFID adoption was going to be a lot harder than they’d thought. Tags didn’t function properly, read rates were low and costs were high. We slid into the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

This year, we began to climb up the “Slope of Enlightenment.” This is the stage of the hype cycle where, in Gartner’s words, businesses “experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.”

We saw this trend begin in late April, at RFID Journal LIVE! 2007, where attendees were focused on specific applications. Many were looking to use RFID within their four walls, to track, for example, reusable assets and work-in-process.

Because EPC Connection is focused solely on Electronic Product Code (EPC) technologies, which are all about achieving benefits across the entire supply chain, there was a greater interest in cross-supply-chain applications. No pie-in-the-sky talk about transforming the supply chain, but a lot of discussion about how partners can work together to use the data EPC tags can generate.

Carolyn Walton, Wal-Mart’s VP of information technology, stated it best when, during a keynote panel, she said her company was focused on deploying RFID in a way that drives business processes and business benefits. She revealed three new RFID initiatives: tagging by 700 Sam’s Club suppliers, a study of the impact of tagging all cases of product in a specific category (Wal-Mart chose low-value air fresheners for the test) and an effort to work with suppliers to track more promotional items bound for highly trafficked areas in its stores (see Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club Push RFID Further Along).

Other end users I spoke to were launching, or had already launched, RFID projects of a more limited scope. That is, they weren’t looking to boil the ocean by focusing on an industry-wide rollout. Instead, they were working with a single partner that ships a lot of parts or raw materials to them, and sharing information to improve the replenishment process.

Even in the media and entertainment sector, where key players launched an ambitious pilot to tag and track individual DVDs, the focus was on benefits (see Wal-Mart, Best Buy Spearhead DVD-Tagging Pilot). We had a great panel with Best Buy, Handleman, Technicolor and Wal-Mart explaining how they planned and launched the pilot. The partners took a very practical approach, with clearly defined work streams to ensure all players in the supply chain—manufacturers, distributors, merchandisers and retailers—would achieve business benefits.

This more practical, business-like approach is healthy and will help foster adoption. Paul Freeman, director of the EPC/RFID program at Best Buy, talks about driving implementations rather than driving adoption, because successful implementations will lead to greater adoption. I heard from a lot of end users who had launched small implementations that might not seem terribly ambitious when compared with the early talk of transforming the supply chain. But these projects will likely grow and lead to widespread adoption in the years ahead.

We know that end users want real solutions today, so we supplemented the content in the educational tracks—which highlighted case studies by companies such as John Deere, Shaw Industries and Megatrux—with practical education on the exhibit hall floor. We also ran an EPCIS demo that was extremely well received and made the practical benefits of this standard clearer to many attendees.

Moreover, we had the University of Arkansas’ RFID Research Center conduct practical demonstrations, including how to read tags as you stack cases on pallets and create advance shipping notices. And Alien Technology worked with partners and customers to demonstrate real-world, ready-to-deploy applications.

So where is RFID adoption today? How far up the Slope of Enlightenment have we climbed? It’s difficult to say. Based on what I heard at EPC Connection, adoption is not going to soar next year. Still, I have no doubt that more projects will be launched and existing projects will be expanded. It will be a better year for most vendors, and a year of steady progress for end users looking for practical benefits from RFID.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.