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The Network Effect

EPCglobal standards for sharing RFID data securely over the Internet are now set. Several companies have tested them in real-world pilots, but most companies are just starting to realize their value.
By John Edwards
Oct 01, 2007—Worldwide, scores of companies and organizations are committing themselves to pilots that use EPCglobal network and data-sharing standards, kicking the infrastructure's virtual tires and assessing its practicality for use in a variety of real-world situations. "Networks are open and ready for business," says Jeff Barnett, intelligent supply-chain services manager for VeriSign, the Mountain View, Calif., company responsible for much of the networks' connective infrastructure. "They are there for companies to use now."

Under development for nearly a decade, the Internet of Things—which combines RFID technology, the Internet and EPCglobal standards—allows businesses to track goods through virtually every aspect of the global supply chain. Companies and organizations engaged in EPC pilot projects are pioneers in what promises to become the universal identification standard for a wide range of industries.

"EPCglobal standards are an important component of RFID standards, because they have the potential to be the most widely used form of RFID," says Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, an RFID and smart-packaging consulting firm located in Cambridge, England. "While niche standards have appeared before for applications such as animal tracking, EPCglobal is creating global standards to help ID everything in the world."

The ultimate goal in the adoption of EPCglobal standards is to take RFID beyond the confines of a single organization and create value for the entire supply chain, says Gay Whitney, standards director for EPCglobal, the Brussels-based nonprofit organization leading the commercialization of EPC technology. "The EPCglobal standards development organization," she says, "provides a collaborative platform for focusing resources, cooperative progress and collective decision-making."

Playing a pivotal role in the initial formation of EPCglobal was GS1, headquartered in Brussels. The organization is responsible for the development of the GS1 System, a series of standards designed to improve supply-chain management. EPCglobal is a strategic RFID initiative for GS1, a venture it runs jointly with its U.S. affiliate, GS1 U.S. "We have been engaging RFID for about 10 years," says Henri Barthel, GS1's director of global partnerships and projects.

With the support of GS1 and GS1 U.S., EPCglobal has made significant strides over the past couple of years toward organizing and codifying the EPC technology specifications. Key EPCglobal standards such as Application Level Events (ALE), Object Name Service (ONS) and EPC Information Service (EPCIS) are already ratified. With these and other standards for underlying hardware and software, vendors are at last able to build systems that allow businesses to share data about EPC-tagged items as they move along the supply chain.

"We now have 11 ratified standards available," says Whitney. "Everything from the tag to the reader to the collecting of data to the exchanging of data—we have that full suite of standards."

Still, even with network standards falling into place and results from full-fledged trials pouring in, the adoption of EPC technology faces challenges that threaten to impede its progress. One potential hindrance is the development of Discovery Services, which will allow companies to find and share data securely (see box on opposite page). "Although the EPCglobal network has come a long way in the last two years, there are still many issues that have to be tackled before it can become widespread," says Das. "It becomes very complex when you have thousands of retail stores talking to thousands of distribution centers."
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