Go Beyond EDI

By Stephen Miles

A distributed EPC Network architecture based on open standards is needed to enable companies to take advantage of EPC data.

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Historically, large companies have used proprietary systems for sharing data with business partners though electronic data interchange (EDI) networks. These systems are often complex and costly to implement. With most RFID pilots today, companies are trying to retrofit legacy EDI systems to accommodate the new level of data that Electronic Product Codes makes possible. That’s a challenge. But the challenge will be even greater as widespread adoption of EPC and more

advanced wireless sensors take off, and manufacturers have to share this data not just with one retailer’s applications, but with hundreds or thousands. So the question is: How can companies share EPC data with numerous business partners in a way that’s cost-effective and delivers real business value?

In practical terms, the answer lies in the proper use of standards. The EPCglobal Network is an Internet-based architecture for sharing EPC data. The specifications for how to standardize communication of EPC and sensor data across the EPC Network have not been completed. For the EPC Network to grow, the applications transport layer—the protocols that enable companies to share application data—must be based on open standards.

Today, Web services, XML (extensible markup language) and SOAP (simple object access protocol) are redefining the way EDI systems are written. These standards offer companies the chance to develop applications that work seamlessly with other systems over the Internet. I host a Web Services WAN Special Interest Group at MIT, a research initiative at the Auto-ID Labs, that’s developing a wide area network architecture based on these standards for the EPCglobal Network. The goal is to work with EPCglobal and research sponsors to create the specifications that will enable companies to share EPC and sensor data across the enterprise and across the supply chain, regardless of the software applications involved.

Taken as a whole, the elements of the EPCglobal Network offer companies the opportunity to reap the benefits of an RFID system integrated with dynamic data for automated decision-making and electronic commerce. Intel is working with our WAN Special Interest Group to demonstrate Web services “information brokers”—software elements that integrate critical, real-time data from readers, sensors and other sources to enable completely automated activity in the supply chain. In a recently implemented electronic procurement system that was the first step in Intel’s RFID enablement, Intel and Shinko Electric Industries used these brokers to reduce human intervention in the ordering process by 50 percent, eliminated costs associated with faxing and eliminated errors in processing transactions.

Companies must be prepared to supplement their legacy EDI point-to-point infrastructure to achieve the longer-term benefits of implementing RFID across the supply chain. And they must work through EPCglobal to create an open, distributed architecture based on global standards.

Stephen Miles is organizer of the Web Services WAN Special Interest Group at the Auto-ID Labs at MIT. Tom Gibbs, director of strategy and planning at Intel, contributed to this article.