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EPC's Tipping Point

RFID adoption is growing more slowly than many had forecast, leaving some to wonder when Electronic Product Code technology will fulfill the vision of a world where goods are tracked and traced through the global supply chain.
By John Edwards
Oct 01, 2008—A tipping point is the moment of critical mass—the instant when a slow, reversible change becomes irreversible, often with dramatic consequences.

It's often mentioned in many parts of the RFID industry that Electronic Product Code technology and its accompanying set of standards may be heading toward a tipping point—signifying either a rapid breakthrough into the business mainstream or, alternatively, a quick drop into the great technology dustbin. The big question now looming above RFID vendors, adopters and potential adopters—not to mention EPC commercializer EPCglobal and its parent, supply-chain standards organization GS1—is whether EPC is indeed approaching critical mass. And, if so, when will the inevitable moment arrive, and which path will EPC follow?

The stakes are high for everyone involved. Broader adoption of EPC and its related standards collection promises to lead to better data sharing within and across industries, creating less operational confusion, greater efficiencies, enhanced visibility, more customer satisfaction and lower technology costs. Early adopters would see their investment in RFID pay off, and potential adopters would know it was time to get off the sidelines or risk being at a competitive disadvantage. For EPCglobal, a tipping point would set the organization on a course toward becoming, perhaps, the RFID industry's top administrative authority.

When RFID Journal looked at the EPC market last year, there was widespread consensus that the technology had finally reached a high level of maturity, as evinced by multiple pilots conducted worldwide. Twelve months later, we're seeing solidifying universal and industry-specific standards, innovative support projects, and a batch of new and expanded pilots. But the answer as to when EPC will tip toward the business mainstream—few believe the technology isn't on a track toward eventual widespread adoption—depends on whom one speaks with, even within EPCglobal.

Chris Adcock, president of Brussels-based EPCglobal, brushes aside the notion that EPC is relentlessly moving toward a single breakout moment. He sees progress coming in stages. "Is there some magical tipping point that's going to occur in the future?" he asks. "I'm not sure there is, but I think there will be a number of forces that drive companies to consider a range of technologies, of which this will be one."

David Lyon, EPCglobal business manager for GS1 UK in London, says EPCglobal is pushing EPC ahead by building a sophisticated business and technical support platform. "What's changing is that we're realizing our goals from when we started some five years ago," he says. Pointing to EPCglobal's work in creating the Gen 2 tag and reader protocol, Lyon says progress is moving steadily forward. "We have one tag that can be read by many readers in many countries that is low-cost and high-performing," he says. "With the accompanying data exchange between partners giving that [tag] the increased visibility in the supply chain that we've been after, we're realizing our goals."

Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, a Boston-based RFID and smart-packaging consulting firm, believes EPC's ultimate destiny is assured. "It's going to become, probably, the biggest standard used in terms of numbers of tags," he says. "It's just taking off a bit slower than lots of people, particularly at EPCglobal, had hoped."
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