The Language of Business

By Ian Robertson

Companies should leverage standards to achieve supply-chain visibility.

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The main goal of companies deploying RFID systems in their supply chains is to achieve visibility of shipments. Often, the aim is to share data with partners to achieve “joint visibility”—that is, both the supplier and its retail or manufacturing partner can track the movement of goods or parts through the supply chain and optimize operations based on this information.

The Electronic Product Code standards were developed for precisely this purpose. They include an air-interface protocol that enables tags and readers to communicate, a standard for the format of data on the tag and other standards that allow companies to share information. Collectively, the data-sharing standards are called the EPC Information Services. But EPCIS is not actually a service. Rather, it is a set of protocols that differ slightly for different industries.

There are several other GS1 standards that can be leveraged to achieve supply-chain visibility. The Serialized Global Trade Item Number (SGTIN), used mainly by the retail and consumer packaged goods industries, identifies the item being shipped.

The Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) identifies pallets and other logistics containers. Customers often require that their own identification format be used on pallets so they can identify the pallets upon receipt, which is a nightmare for suppliers who must use multiple formats. An SSCC enables both supplier and customer to uniquely identify the pallet without multiple formats. This can also simplify systems design.

The Global Returnable Asset Identifier (GRAI) is useful for industries that ship goods in returnable transport items (RTIs) owned by the supplier. The GRAI indicates what type of asset is being transported and the supplier to whom it should be returned. Since the GRAI is serialized, each RFID-tagged RTI can be tracked through the supply chain and the data shared via EPCIS. Both trading partners can know where the asset has been, when it arrived and when it left. The supplier can use this information to determine cost, based on the amount of time the asset was with the customer, and to monitor when cleaning and/or maintenance is required.

The Global Individual Asset Identifier (GIAI) is designed for assets rented on a long-term basis. The GIAI identifies the asset owner through a company prefix, the type of asset and a serial number.

So how do you know where an asset has been? The Global Location Number (GLN) identifies a specific facility, storage site or trading partner. When a tag is read, software systems can be set up to share, through the EPCIS, not just the time the tag was read but also the location.

This alphabet soup establishes standards for identifying items, containers, pallets and locations, enabling these things to be tracked systematically and efficiently. In many ways, they are the language businesses speak to one another.

Ian Robertson is CEO and president of Supply Chain RFID Consulting, a Texas-based firm providing services to companies that want to understand how to use and implement RFID internally and with partners. Send your supply-chain questions to