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Unilever Expects Big Gains From Its RFID Data-Sharing Trial

The consumer products firm is applying Gen 2 EPC tags to thousands of cases of goods, and using a system based on EPCglobal's draft EPCIS standard to access tag data with retailers automatically.
By Beth Bacheldor
Aug 04, 2006Next week, executives at Unilever United States will sit down and review the results of a new RFID pilot it has been running since mid-July. The pilot is testing how well the proposed EPCglobal Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) standard works. If all goes well—and Unilever executives expect it will—the consumer packaged goods company will then be able to start eliminating some time-consuming and manual processes, while reaping the rewards of the proposed standard.

The EPCIS, currently a working draft standard, serves as a communication mechanism between applications and data repositories so companies can effectively exchange and query data from within their own RFID processes and with partners. Unilever's pilot follows a recently completed test of the draft EPCIS standard. This involved a prototype EPCIS-compliant data repository from IBM and a data analysis application from T3Ci that included support for the draft standard (see Unilever Launches Trial Using EPCIS Protocol). IBM and T3Ci, a Mountain View, Calif., maker of RFID analytical applications, are co-chairs of the EPCglobal EPCIS Working Group, which is overseeing the standard's development.

Simon Ellis
Unilever's pilot is leveraging IBM's prototype EPCIS-compliant repository and a hosted T3Ci data analysis application, according to Simon Ellis, supply chain futurist and RFID lead at Unilever United States. So far, the pilot has proven a success, and Ellis says EPCIS will make it easier for companies like Unilever to perform sophisticated analyses of RFID information. "It allows us to spend more time analyzing the data, and less time digging it out of the various places the data resides," he says.

Companies like Unilever believe RFID can bring value by increasing visibility into the supply chain. For example, RFID-tagged promotional displays can provide Unilever with better insight as to how well promotional displays work in retail stores. RFID data related to those displays, however, is collected at the retail sites and isn't necessarily within Unilever's control. When retailers give Unilever access to promotional display data, the supplier is better able to make sure promotional displays are being used optimally. To perform even more granular analysis, Unilever can correlate a particular promotion's placement with sales data.

For now, companies that want to share RFID information have to extract it manually. Individual retailers have given suppliers access to password-protected portals (Web sites) where a supplier can log on, find RFID data related to products it supplied to a specific retailer and manually download that information into its databases. Suppliers must go through an equally laborious process so retailers can view suppliers' RFID data. "We have to manually extract it from our system and them e-mail it to the retailers," says Ellis. Having to spend so much time locating and extracting the data cuts into the time Unilever employees could spend actually analyzing the data and, thus, deriving real business value from RFID implementations.

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