DALLAS—At this weeks RFID World conference here, theres no question that Generation 2, the UHF (ultra high frequency) air protocol for tags and readers, is garnering major acceptance.
The specification, ratified by standards forming body EPCglobal Inc. in 2004, is being adopted on a wide scale by customers and hardware manufacturers.
Early RFID adopters like DHL, Michelin, Tandy Brands and Daisy Brand are on board with Gen 2, either currently using products or in the process to upgrading.
Hardware vendors are also embracing the spec. To date, two major RFID chip manufacturers have built Gen 2 into their products, as have about a dozen different reader manufacturers.
Those numbers become exponential, given the multistage process of putting together RFID tags. The two chip manufacturers products are in use by about 30 or 40 tag vendors, according to Sue Hutchinson, director of industry adoption at EPCglobal and a facilitator of the Hardware Action Group, which put together the Gen 2 spec.
However, the real star quality with Gen 2 seems to be its ability to become a global standard (with the help of the International Standard Organization) versus any real leap in functionality.
“[Gen 2] is mandated by Wal-Mart but not because of any advantage,” said Jim McMasters, senior vice president of IT at Tandy Brands, based in Arlington, Texas. “Its not worth the fanfare. Its more about continued good relations with our customer [Wal-Mart].”
The issue, according to McMasters, is that there is no real increase in capabilities in moving from Gen 1 to Gen 2, “though others might feel differently,” he said.
Daniel Mullen, president of the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility, a trade association that represents reader, tag and bar code manufacturers, as well as industry customers like Michelin and DHL, is a believer in the Gen 2 standard. But he agrees that the functionally upgrades are no great shakes.
“There are some improvements to deal with multiple tags in the field, and some guidance on its use in the supply chain, though thats not part of the spec itself,” said Mullen, who is based in Warrendale, Pa.
“[Gen 2] is pretty consistent with the past; not so much has changed from the past.”
According to Mullen and others, the importance of the standards is its ability to drive user adoptability through standardization. To the end, Mullen has been working with EPCglobal to advocate that Gen 2 is in step with ISOs tag and reader standard.
“Its not a standard if there are two different documents,” said Mullen.
Gen 2s functionality is designed to be “light years ahead of Gen 1,” with better read rate performance, better write performance, a lower incidence of so-called ghost reads and more overall security, according to EPCs Hutchinson.
Is There a Generation
“What we ended up with is a single UHF standard that could be used under any regulatory environment around the globe, showing five to 10 times a read rate performance over Gen 1 standard,” said Hutchinson, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
“It has much improved capability in areas like dense reader performance where more than one UHF readers in close proximity.”
What Gen 2 accomplished at the same time is bringing together four disparate standards that qualified as Gen 1 specifications: two from the Auto-ID Center and two from ISO: 18000-6 Part A and 18000-6 Part B—sort of.
The Auto-ID Center officially closed its doors in 2003, when it transferred its technology to EPCglobal.
“Those standards are still in products out there, being sold against Gen 1, but the bulk is Gen 2,” said Hutchinson.
At the same time, ISO is working with EPC to bring together its UHF specifications with EPCs. Once a final ratification step is complete, the Gen 2 specification will become part of the ISOs 18000-6 Part C specification.
That means the two standards will eventually become technically identical—an event that will go a long way in making Gen 2 a truly global specification, according to industry analysts.
“The key is [the industry] needs a globally harmonized standard in the world, and EPC is very U.S.-focused,” said Michael Liard, RFID Practice Director with IT research firm Venture Development Corp.
“Thats why it needs to be ISO [compliant]. But when that happens is anybodys guess.”
That global recognition is important to companies like DHL, an early adopter of RFID that is begging for standards.
“DHL is a global company—were absolutely gigantic,” said Bob Berg, senior business systems manager and RFID Manager for DHL Americas. “We have to have a system that works across all regions, all countries. We have to make sure the companies we work with have standards … we take a lot of shipments. Gen 2 is helping with that.”
After about 25 or 30 pilot programs, DHL is seriously considering implementing an RFID infrastructure—and handing out thousands of tags to its biggest customers, primarily suppliers.
What it doesnt want to do, according to Berg, is tag goods twice—a fear that could play out if theres no international standard to adhere to.
But like Tandy Brands McMasters, Berg isnt convinced that Gen 2 is any great functionality leap over its predecessor.
“The read rates are good and the equipment works fairly well, but its not exactly plug and play,” said Berg. “The real value is standardization. We have to have a standard. Wal-Mart, the Department of Defense, they want Gen 2. Thats fine with us.”