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The Tower of RFID Babble

Standards bodies need to communicate with one another to ensure that end users don’t have to deal with different standards for different applications.
By Mark Roberti
Tags: Standards
Mar 06, 2006Radio frequency identification is catching on all over the place. Companies in a wide variety of industries are finding ways to use it to improve their operations. That's the good news. The bad news is that there is a growing danger that standards bodies in different industries will adopt conflicting standards for air-interface protocols and data structures. Worse, it's possible that different groups within the same industry could adopt incompatible standards. We're in danger of creating a tower of RFID babble.

Here are just some of the groups currently working on RFID standards:

EPCglobal is promoting the Electronic Product Code as a single method for tracking goods in the global supply chain, regardless of industry. EPCglobal would like to see all industries use a single air-interface protocol, which means everyone could use the same tags and interrogators, and a single numbering system—which means people could share data with business partners, regardless of their industry.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits and challenges of adopting a single numbering scheme across industries (see A Clarion Call for One RFID Standard). A single air-interface protocol, or at least compatible air-interface standards, is even more important. Without it, companies would need to put different types of RFID tags on their products, depending on whom they are shipping to, and they would need to buy more sophisticated interrogators that could read any tag, regardless of protocol.

Tire manufacturers were among the first to discover the potential problem. Companies such as Michelin sell to retailers, carmakers, airplane manufacturers and the military. When the AIAG first adopted an RFID standard for tracking tires, it was incompatible with the UHF EPC system being adopted by Wal-Mart and others. This forced the AIAG to rethink things, and it decided to go with EPC as the standard for tagging tires.

In the airline industry, you could have different groups introducing standards for different applications. IATA could introduce one standard for tracking parts and baggage, but there could be other standards for tracking shipments in the supply chain, tires that go on planes, passports, loyalty cards and so on. Companies might need to invest in three or four different interrogators—or more expensive multi-frequency, multi-protocol interrogators—to read all the tags in their operations.

The problem will get even worse as RFID technology proliferates. Let's say the world's postal service providers decide to adopt one standard for the reusable transport containers they use, and Federal Express, DHL and other courier companies adopt a different standard. And IATA adopts yet another standard for unit load devices and airline baggage. You could wind up with airlines needing to read four or five different types of tags on items going into the belly of a plane, and each type of interrogator would require its own integration with back-end systems.

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