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The Radio-Free EPC

The widespread use of RFID for tagging individual items is a pipe dream, but a viable alternative exists.
By Ross Stapleton-Gray
Feb 01, 2005—Tagging cases and pallets of consumer products in the supply chain has begun with a bang, now that manufacturers have started to meet the January mandates from Wal-Mart and other retailers. But item-level tagging is another story. While some speculate that it will happen in five to six years, I think a better bet is “never”—given projected costs, the questionable reliability of RF on the retail floor and consumer resistance.

Coloring any discussion of item-level tagging is the issue of cost. It’s prohibitively expensive to tag individual consumer goods now, and even a future, cheaper 5-cent tag would slash into any manufacturer’s bottom line because it would provide little or no return on investment. Another problem is that while tagged cases and pallets may well be easily read and routed in well-controlled production or warehouse environments, it seems less likely that RFID will be manageable on retail floors, where conditions, equipment and people are difficult to control. And most of the post-purchase benefits of item-level tagging may vanish if retailers make it a policy to kill RFID tags at the point of sale to assuage consumer privacy concerns.

Yet as skeptical as I am of achieving item-level tagging, I think item-level serialization is a powerful concept, and that the Electronic Product Code will thrive even if the dream of putting RFID tags on individual items never fully materializes.

To track individual products with item-level serialization, manufacturers could simply label the items with a printed form of a unique EPC. Given that the products already bear a piece of the EPC—the UPC or EAN bar code—all that would be needed is to add a second number to represent the EPC’s unique serial field. (The two parts together would equate to the EPC “Serialized Global Trade Item Number” format.) Or the whole EPC could be printed on the packaging as a string of human-readable digits. Either way, manufacturers could pack RFID-less products into RFID-tagged cases and register the resulting associations—case 1234 contains items 5678 through 5689—in their databases, accessible via the EPCglobal Network.

With such a strategy, RFID-tagged cases and pallets could travel through supply chains all the way down to retail warehouses. When the individual items were unpacked and placed on store shelves, they would bear unique EPCs, rendered as printed bar codes or human-readable numbers. It would remain possible to retrieve their supply-chain history—from manufacturer throughout their routing through intermediaries, all the way down to the last recorded point of contact with the tagged case in which they arrived—because they would be associated as a part of some larger, RFID-tagged collection of items.

Some retailers may want to employ item-level tagging for theft prevention of high-value goods. But they would be free to unilaterally tag products just as they might today with antitheft tags.
Once the mandates for tagging cases and pallets are fully met, manufacturers could turn their attention to transforming their business processes to utilize EPC technology throughout the whole of their enterprises.

Ross Stapleton-Gray, Ph.D., CISSP, is the founder and principal analyst of Stapleton-Gray & Associates, an information technology and policy consulting services company in Berkeley, Calif. To comment on this article, click on the link below.
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