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Linking RFID with Web services

Because Web services make it easier for business partners to electronically share real-time data and conduct transactions, the marriage of RFID and Web services promises to be a productive union.
By Bob Violino
Oct 04, 2003—By Bob Violino

Oct. 6, 2003 - Like radio frequency identification, Web services have gotten a lot of press. Both technologies, however, have only just begun to prove their business value. Ironically, these two highly promoted technologies might achieve their full potential only when they are married to each other. Experts believe that together they could play an integral role in managing information in future supply chains. Even today, companies that provide supply chain and RFID products are exploring ways that Web services can help maximize the value of information generated from RFID systems.

Web services are middleware based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is used primarily for business-to-business e-commerce applications. Typically, Web services are bits of reusable code that allow two or more Web-based applications to communicate with each other. The code can be used with older applications or to build new ones. Web services can let Web-based applications from two different companies share data, or let one company perform operations, such as calculations and database searches, on another company’s computer remotely over the Internet. Rather than granting a business partner direct access to its databases, a company can employ a Web service that allows others to access a restricted part of its data or perform only specified operations or queries.

Currently, all companies find it cumbersome to share information and conduct automated transactions with suppliers. Many companies still place or take orders by phone and fax instead of electronically by computer. Electronic data interchange (EDI) is common among large companies, but it's expensive and inflexible. For instance, when there's a problem with an EDI transaction, people still have to get on the phone to solve it. So, as companies automate the tracking of goods in the supply chain, these slower forms of conducting business will likely become a major bottleneck.

Web services, however, promise to simplify the electronic exchange of information. They can do this because they provide a single application program interface (API) that allows other applications on remote computers—even if those applications are written in different languages or on different operating systems—to exchange data. The data is exchanged in an XML format, usually transported using Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and often transmitted over the Internet.

One of the expected applications of Web services is that they will make it easier for business partners to share real-time data about goods and conduct transactions electronically. So if a supplier ships 12 pallets of goods to a retail distribution center, the RFID tags on the pallets could be scanned automatically as they leave the supplier's loading dock. When the truck door is closed and sealed with an RFID bolt seal, scanning the bolt seal could trigger the supplier's internal system to send the retailer an advance shipping notice (ASN) automatically.

On the other end, the retailer's internal system would receive the ASN and, thanks to Web services technology, be able to read it regardless of format used by the supplier's internal system. The retailer could then use the ASN to verify the accuracy of the shipment once it arrives and is unloaded from the truck. When the retailer scans the RFID tags on the 12 pallets arriving at the DC, the information can be compared with the information in the ASN. If the information matches up, the retailer's internal system could automatically confirm that the shipment arrived, and the supplier's system could then generate and transmit an electronic invoice. The retailer can receive the invoice and start the payment process. If the information on the tags and the ASN don't match up, the Web services interface could request that the supplier's internal system confirm the shipment. People would need to get involved only if the problem couldn't be resolved by these software agents.
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