As of nine months ago, radio frequency identification mandates from Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense had thrown the consumer-goods industry into a tizzy. The behemoths had insisted that all their suppliers begin affixing tiny RFID tags, which communicate product information wirelessly and without requiring line-of-sight technology, on individual items shipped to them by January 2005. Standards, technology and business issues were making this an ultra-challenging goal.
The deadline has now arrived, and Wal-Mart has scaled back its expectations appreciably. Just its 100 largest suppliers are expected to comply, but only at the case and pallet level and only at two distribution centers. The Defense Department has similarly eased its requirements.
But there are other issues afoot.
The “Gen2” specification of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Global Network – an RFID system that includes, in part, an EPC number and an EPC reader – was ratified by EPCglobal, a joint venture of EAN International and the Uniform Code Council, in mid-December. EPCglobal intends to submit the specification to the International Standards Organization (ISO) as a global standard later this month.
However, says Craig Harmon, chairman of the RFID Experts Group, there is some language in the spec that keeps it from being used in an open way across industries. The wording that a certain field in the header “may be used” to encode an application family identifier (AFI) must change to “shall be used” in order for the specification to be used internationally, Harmon says.
Otherwise, he says, suitcases with EPC codes traveling down a conveyor belt at the airport might not be differentiated from EPC codes on razor blades inside the bags. The same would be true for differentiating items in the book, medical/pharmaceuticals and other industries from consumer goods.
“We need a way to distinguish the use of the tags,” he says.
Harmon implied that the reason for the wording is that EPCglobal currently takes per-year, per-subscriber (company) membership fees based on revenue and on how many EPC codes the member company will be using. If the EPCglobal Network technology becomes an open ISO standard with the AFI field a requirement, EPCglobal, in effect, has no more technology contributions to make and no more business model, he indicated.
An EPCglobal spokesman said the organization intends to submit Gen2 to ISO but no definitive resolution has been reached about the proposed wording change, which is “on the table.”
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Network World, 12/13/04
Network World Wireless in the Enterprise Newsletter, 03/08/04
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