Understanding the Basics of EPCglobal

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Print this article Print


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Companies interested in the standardization of RFID attend a pre-conference event to learn what EPCglobal is all about.

LOS ANGELES—About 200 people left home a day early to attended a pre-conference event held here in the western wing of the LA Convention Center on Oct. 11 with one goal in mind: figure out what EPCglobal is all about.

Questions from audience members were so basic that attendees likely could have gone to the FAQ section of EPCglobal's Web site for answers.

Is EPCglobal's content available to non-subscribers? (About 65 to 70 percent of it is.) How much does it cost to join EPCglobal? (Fees are on a sliding scale based on a company's revenue.) Does EPCglobal have a presence in Asia? (It will work on a country-by-country basis to establish relationships.)

EPCglobal is essentially a standard-setting organization whose mission is to "reduce the risks and costs of implementing RFID through a portfolio of high-value subscriber offerings," according to the manual handed out at the door of EPC Essentials event.

The organization itself is really a joint venture between GS1 (formerly known as EAN International) and GS1 US (formerly known as the Uniform Council Code).

The GS organizations are in a good position to try and standardize around RFID globally, since GS1 created the ubiquitous UPC bar code system.

The goal of EPCglobal is pretty big: to achieve world-wide adoption and standardization of its EPC (Electronic Product Code) technology that provides a unique identifier to items—be they individual, cases or pallets of goods—that can be read by an RFID tag and reader.

The resulting information is transferred, via the Internet, to the EPCglobal Network, a directory service where all that tag data is sussed out and routed to the appropriate parties for full automation along the supply chain—theoretically a repeating loop from supplier to manufacturer to retailer to consumer.

The EPCglobal community includes a dozen major industries—retail, consumer goods, food and beverage, healthcare and life sciences, electronics and high tech, logistics and transportation—in 51 different industry segments.

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It has 3,000 participants from over 800 companies, and 441 users. A little more than 350 hardware and software vendors also participate in the organization, standardizing their hardware and software products on EPCglobal specifications.

To date, EPCglobal has ratified five standards: The EPC Tag Data Standard that identifies specific encoding schemas; a Tag Data Translation Standard that contains details of the structure and elements of machine-readable mark-up files and how it might be used in translation or validation software; an Application Level Event standard that specifies an interface where clients can obtain EPC data from different sources; and an Object Naming Service standard that specifies how the Domain Name Server System is used to locate automatic metadata and services associated with a given EPC number.

But EPCglobal is probably best known for the ratification in 2004 of its Class 1 Generation 2 UHF Air Interface Protocol, better known as Gen 2, that addresses the logistical requirements for passive tags and readers and enables pallet, case and item tagging.

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Gen 2 has been adopted by a number of leading tag and reader manufacturers. Over 200,000 certified tags have been shipped to date, according to EPCglobal.

More importantly, the Gen 2 standard was adopted in July by the ISO—a key win for EPCglobal given that a tap from ISO leads the way to a globally accepted standard.

A step up from its predecessor Gen 1, Gen 2 provides not only the capability to read and write to tags but also to rewrite to tags, a feature that should help drive down the overall cost of tags.

It also provides the ability to lock data and to kill or disable a tag prior to consumer checkout—a feature that could help ease some of the consumer privacy fears around RFID.

But Gen 2 is not the end of the standards line for EPCglobal, or the bulk of its work. In addition to inter-enterprise standards development, EPCglobal working groups are pounding out specifications for hardware and software interoperability.

At the same time, the organization is devoting its time to help influence public policy around RFID, and to help companies understand and get on board with RFID.

EPCglobal has a developed a boatload of content around helping companies determine both a business case and return on investment for RFID—an ongoing mission that has yet to be validated on any large scale.

While big companies like Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever are clearly leaders in adopting RFID, there doesn't seem to be a lot of user adoption outside of mandate compliance.

To help, EPCglobal provides a whole host of subscriber tools, particularly around financial planning. A virtual library of white papers is available on such topics as KPI (key performance indicators) guidelines, current and future state assessments, business case planning, and industry issues and drivers.

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EPCglobal also provides an RFID cost tutorial to help unearth any of those hidden costs with an RFID implementation.

There is also an EPCglobal Adoption Framework to help companies investigate, experiment, test, pilot and deploy RFID. It is developed by the EPCglobal community, not by the organization itself, as is much of the work at the organization.

In its current nascent state, EPCglobal has honed in on five areas of focus: Supply chain management (inventory tracking, returns); asset management (maintenance logging, spare parts tracking); being a part of process management (assembly automation, component production); health and safety (patient safety, warranty and expiration); regulatory issues (FDA anti-counterfeiting Act, state and federal legislation); and access control (animal tracking, electronic article surveillance, credential validation).

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