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Leveraging the Internet of Things

With standards for exchanging information over the EPCglobal Network being finalized, the vision of using RFID to track goods in the supply chain is about to become a reality. And it will change business as we know it.
By Bob Violino
Dec 01, 2005—When the Auto-ID Center, a nonprofit research organization, was developing Electronic Product Code technologies, it envisioned using radio frequency identification to create an "Internet of Things"—a network that would allow companies to track goods through the global supply chain and run many business applications simultaneously. Companies would be able to go out to the Internet and, with the right access privileges, get information about specific products and act on it or share it electronically with supply chain partners.

Major companies around the world—including Gillette, Metro, Tesco, Unilever, Visy Industries, Yuen Foong Yu Paper Manufacturing and Wal-Mart—embraced this vision. To that end, manufacturers, logistics providers and retailers have spent the past couple of years learning how to deploy EPC technologies in plants, warehouses, distribution centers and stores. Now, they're ready to derive benefits from tagged products flowing through their supply chains, and the network needed to facilitate tracking and data sharing is taking shape.

Forget hard-charging tagging mandates and big-bang supply chain rollouts. Europe is taking a different road to RFID adoption, and some say the real ROI is at the item level.

For the past 12 months, groups, subgroups and standing committees working under the aegis of EPCglobal, the nonprofit organization set up to commercialize EPC technologies, have been finalizing the data formats, software interfaces and communication protocols that will breathe life into the EPCglobal Network—the infrastructure that will allow companies around the world to track goods in the global supply chain and find information about products associated with EPCs. The network could become a cost-effective medium for companies to share EPC information securely and for running applications that could streamline intercompany business processes, saving supply chain partners time and money.

The long-term vision for the EPCglobal Network is that it will be part of the existing Internet infrastructure—that is, it will use Internet protocols and have servers connected to the broader Internet infrastructure. The network's physical layer consists of EPC tags, interrogators (also called readers) and the "air-interface" protocol that enables tags and interrogators to communicate.

Companies will use middleware—software that resides between interrogators and enterprise applications—to collect, filter and store EPC data in databases on local network servers for use with their own enterprise applications. This process will be facilitated by middleware interface specification standards, created by EPCglobal, called Application-Level Events (ALE).

EPCglobal is also developing standards for something called EPC Information Services (EPCIS), an interface specification for accessing EPC-related information. Companies will be able to use applications with the EPCIS interface to securely share information with external data sources (such as hosted electronic catalogs) and with external EPCISs—their own or their partners'—using both applicability statement 2 (AS2), an existing Internet electronic data interchange (EDI) system, and Web services, a standardized set of interfaces that allow application-to-application communication over the Web.

What if a company wants information about specific EPCs and doesn't know where the data resides? EPCglobal is developing standards for applications—dubbed the EPC Discovery Services—that will query numerous EPCISs in the supply chain. The EPC Discovery Services will use standardized protocols and authentication technologies to verify and respond to requests from potentially dozens of EPCISs (see "Securing Data on the EPCglobal Network" subhead).

These standardized interfaces and protocols will enable companies to use EPCISs to share information with many trading partners in the same way. Software vendors will be able to develop applications—such as track and trace, management of new product introductions, promotions management and electronic proof-of-delivery—that provide business value (see "It's All About Applications" subhead).

The EPCglobal Network will also have consumer uses. As currently specified, the Object Name Service (ONS) points users to manufacturers' Web sites, where information associated with particular EPCs can be made available over the Internet, just as the Domain Name Service points computers to servers hosting Web sites. For instance, a customer in an electronics store might read an EPC tag on a product with an interrogator built into her cell phone and download warranty information.
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