Interoperability Is Possible

By Mark Roberti

The GS1 US RFID Apparel Demo, staged at RFID Journal LIVE! 2011, showed that it is relatively easy to share data with supply chain partners.

It has been more than a decade since Gillette, Procter & Gamble and the Uniform Code Council (now GS1) put their support behind the Auto-ID Center at MIT, to make it possible to track goods through the global supply chain using radio frequency identification technologies. The aim was not just to read RFID tags and capture data automatically. From the very beginning, this group had the audacious goal of enabling businesses to be able to share supply chain data, in order to reduce waste, improve replenishment, lower consumer costs and increase customer satisfaction.

Now, that vision is finally being realized. GS1 has created a suite of Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards that allow for the collection and sharing of RFID data. These standards cover everything from the information on the tags to software that can indicate whether a tag has been read during shipping, receiving or some other process. The EPC Information Services (EPCIS) standards can be employed to share EPC data between software applications, both internally and externally.

To date, relatively few companies have embraced these standards. But that might be about to change. At RFID Journal LIVE! 2011, held last month in Orlando, Fla., we worked with GS1 US to demonstrate how goods could be tagged at the source and then be tracked to a distribution center and on to a store—and how the RFID data collected at each point could be verified quickly and shared with supply chain partners.

Ken Traub, the principal of Ken Traub Consulting, created software for the GS1 US RFID Apparel Demo, based on the EPCIS specification. Seven RFID vendors also participated in the demonstration. Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions was the primary technology firm that provided equipment for each station. In addition, portals from Impinj and readers provided by Zebra Technologies were used at each station.

Argo Wireless provided a tagging and verification solution for the manufacturing station (see Argo Wireless Creates Item-Level Solution for Small Businesses). Tagsys RFID demonstrated its new Fashion Item Tracking System, which includes hardware and software for tracking unique items (see Tagsys Offers End-to-End Solution for Apparel Industry).

At the retail-store station, Avery Dennison worked with Tyco Retail Solutions to create a complete in-store system for tracking inventory entering the back of a store and then being replenished. Seeonic showed off its shelf-analytics system that captures information about what is sold, as well as current inventory levels. And Motorola provided the handheld readers used at the store station.

All of these disparate systems fed data into the application that Traub created to monitor the movements of goods. Attendees watching the demo could see data being captured and shared in real time.

A systems integrator watching the data asked a vendor if it had gotten into the hall a week early to set up the complex demonstration. The vendor laughed, replying, "We had 21 hours." Just 21 hours to set up a complex demo with seven vendors utilizing more than a dozen RFID applications, and it all worked smoothly and effectively—that's pretty impressive, and suggests that RFID is reaching a point at which it can truly scale across an organization and its supply chain partners.

We videotaped the demonstration, and the recordings are linked below. I encourage you to watch them, even if your company doesn't sell or supply apparel:

GS1 Apparel Supply Chain Demo

Manufacturing Station

Distribution Station

Retail Store Station

The goods being tracked could easily have been airplane parts, chemicals, pharmaceuticals or any other products. The ability to capture and share information has the potential to bring previously impossible efficiencies to the global supply chain.

It took a decade, but the future is finally here.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.