Developing Industry Standards

By Mark Roberti

Companies in aerospace, oil and gas, and retail apparel are working to create a common way of using RFID to maximize the technology's potential benefits.

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One sign that radio frequency identification is getting closer to mainstream adoption is the growing number of standards efforts under way globally. While RFID technology standards have existed for years, interoperability of tags alone doesn’t foster adoption. It’s essential to develop standardized ways to employ standards—what type of RFID will be used for specific applications, what data is written to the tag, where the tag will be placed and so on.

The first industry to come together to develop standards was the retail consumer packaged goods sector. Retailers and CPG companies agreed to use passive ultrahigh-frequency tags based on the Electronic Product Code standard, but they also wanted to create standards for sharing RFID data.

Illustration: iStockphoto

Walmart and Target got together with Procter & Gamble, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark and other companies to develop a set of XML tags, or qualifiers, that would be used to share data via GS1‘s Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS). The idea was that qualifying data would be associated with RFID tag reads, and this data would be shared via the EPCIS standard. For example, one XML qualifier was for the business process being undertaken. So if an RFID tag was read when a retailer was receiving goods, that data would be shared via EPCIS with the supplier of the goods, as would the store’s Global Location Number and other information.

The CPG industry abandoned RFID after the economic downturn in 2008, but other industries have launched standards efforts. GS1 is curently working with apparel retailers and manufacturers to develop standards. Among the issues being discussed: what data to put on the tag, where to place the tags and how to manage data serialization.

The aerospace industry came together under the Air Transport Association (ATA) to address the use of standards. ATA had already developed a comprehensive set of e-business standards called Spec 2000. It was natural for companies interested in using RFID, including Airbus and Boeing, to work through the ATA to develop RFID standards. In 2009, ATA published an enhancement to Spec 2000 that includes data-capture devices such as RFID transponders (see ATA Approves RFID Data Structures for Spec 2000). Suppliers are now conforming to Spec 2000 standards as they tag parts, such as seats and life vests for Airbus.

Recently, five big energy companies—BP, Petrobras, Shell, Total and Woodside—formed the Global RFID Committee for Oil & Gas to begin developing standards for the industry. The five have agreed on issues to be addressed, and held their first standards meeting in Perth, Australia, on Aug. 14, as part of the RFID in Energy, Mining and Construction event hosted by RFID Journal. The group explored the common use cases for RFID in the energy sector and the types of RFID that might be used in each application. It also looked at some of the complexities in energy that other sectors don’t share, such as operations in harsh environments and the need for intrinsically safe equipment. The group plans to hold regular teleconferences and face-to-face meetings to formulate a set of standards for using RFID across the industry.

There is a nascent movement within the health-care sector to develop standards. One challenge is the array of technologies being used for asset tracking. Some hospitals are using Wi-Fi-based RFID tags. Others are using ZigBee, proprietary active technology or ultrasound systems, which means a tagged asset that travels from one hospital to another with a transferring patient usually cannot be identified at the receiving hospital.

Technology standards are critical to fostering adoption, but industry standards are needed to make RFID interoperable among supply-chain partners and other companies that collaborate. It’s a positive sign that major industries are beginning to realize this and take action.