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The ABCs of the EPCglobal Network

The network is critical to fulfilling the promise of using low-cost RFID tags to track goods in the global supply chain. We explain what it is, how it works and where its development stands today.
By Bob Violino
Jul 12, 2004—The EPCglobal Network is expected to help companies and organizations increase efficiency and accuracy through near-perfect supply chain visibility. It provides a means of sharing data in real time—via the Internet—about virtually any product equipped with an RFID tag that contains an Electronic Product Code (EPC). Initially developed by the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the EPCglobal Network (also known as the EPC Network) consists of several major elements, each at various stages
of development. Here’s a look at how it works, what components are available now and what still needs to be done.

The EPC numbering scheme. Like the bar-coded numbers of a Universal Product Code (UPC), an EPC identifies a product and its manufacturer. But an EPC also includes a serial number that uniquely identifies the item to which the RFID tag is attached. The EPC has a header, which tells an RFID reader whether the tag is a 64-bit or a 96-bit EPC, and three sets of data, which identify the manufacturer, the product and the item’s unique serial number. By separating the EPC data into partitions, RFID readers can search for items with a particular manufacturer code or product code.

EPCglobal, the organization formed by the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and EAN International to take over the development of EPC technology from the Auto-ID Center in November 2003, is developing commercial standards for the network. EPCglobal says its goal is not to replace existing international bar code standards, which the UCC and EAN International also oversee, but to create a migration path for enterprises to move from the current UPC bar code system to the new EPC RFID system. The EPC numbering scheme is now complete, says Sue Hutchinson, product manager at EPCglobal US, in Lawrenceville, N.J. She adds that this element of the network can be used by organizations today for RFID deployments.

The EPC middleware. This is the software that enables data exchange between an RFID reader—or network of readers—and business systems, such as enterprise resource planning applications. The Auto-ID Center developed a software technology called Savant to deal with the management and movement of the enormous volumes of EPC data that will be gathered from RFID tags and readers.

A Savant differs from most enterprise middleware in that it uses a distributed architecture and is organized in a hierarchy that manages the flow of data. Savants will run in stores, distribution centers, factories and other locations, gathering, storing and managing data, and interacting with other Savants in other locations. Some Savants will also be capable of monitoring data, correcting errors in data coming from readers and making decisions on where data needs to be sent.
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