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Will Europe Embrace the EPC?

The Auto-ID Center's goal of creating a global network for tracking goods with RFID tags may hinge on Europe. EPC faces some special challenges in the region, but the technology appears to be gaining ground.
By Bob Violino
Apr 06, 2003—April 7, 2003 - The Auto-ID Center traces its roots back to a chance meeting in 1999 at a smart hotel in Antwerp, Belgium. Kevin Ashton, a Procter & Gamble brand manager in the UK, bumped into Alan Haberman of the Uniform Code Council at an RFID event being held there. Ashton bought Haberman a drink at the bar and told him about his quest to use RFID to track products through the supply chain and make sure they were always on the shelf.

Haberman had played an instrumental role in the development of the Universal Product Code twenty years earlier and was doing research for the UCC on what would replace the bar code. The UCC was prepared to fund research on next generation Auto-ID technology. "You have to meet Sanjay Sarma and David Brock at MIT," Ashton said. "They have the solution for tracking everything with RFID, but they need funding."
The University of St. Gallen will host an Auto-ID Center research lab

Before the year was out, Haberman and the UCC had enlisted Procter & Gamble and The Gillette Company to support the establishment of the Auto-ID Center at MIT. The idea was to create a global network for tracking goods with low-cost RFID tags as they moved from country to country and company to company. And even though none of the three principals at the center are US citizens -- Ashton is British, Sarma is Indian and Brock is Australian -- the center has labored under the perception that it is an American-led initiative.

American companies have certainly embraced the vision. The center counts among its sponsors some of the largest retailers and manufacturers in the country. Even the US Postal Service and the US Department of Defense, which has one of the largest supply chains on earth, are on board.

The picture in Europe, up to now, has been less clear. There are fewer European sponsors behind the center. And some major European companies, such as Marks & Spencer, have done large-scale RFID deployments with non-EPC technology. So the question is, will Europe embrace the EPC?

Recent trends indicate that EPC adoption in Europe might be six months or so behind the US, but that it is inevitable. The center now has four of the top retailers in Europe behind it -- Ahold, Metro, Tesco and most recently Carrefour. This week, the center will open its second European lab at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, to help promote EPC adoption. (The first lab opened in Cambridge, England, in 2001.)

And later this month, Metro, the fifth largest retailer in the world, will open up an Extra Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany. The store will be a high-profile showcase for EPC technology. Major suppliers will tag cases and pallets of goods manufactured in Europe and track them as they move through the supply chain to the store. Metro will also track some individual items in the store, including music CDs.

Along with the pilot of a smart shelf being run by Tesco and Gillette, the Future Store will raise the profile of EPC technology and encourage suppliers and other retailers to learn more about the technology. But make no mistake, EPC adoption faces obstacles in Europe.
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