Imagine a world where every single manufactured item is tagged with a tiny RFID chip that holds various bits of information about that item. And as each item moves along a supply chain—pharmaceutical, aerospace, consumer goods, automotive, livestock or even human identification—information is gathered, stored and accessed at various points in a mixture of systems.
The goal is to be able to know where everything—or anything—is at any given time. The challenge, however, is determining how such a scenario would play out: what the actual network would look like once companies up and down the supply chain collaboratively start inputting and exchanging information among trading partners and their partners partners.
In a joint project, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and SAP are looking to see if proposed network architectures can fully sustain radio-frequency identification tags on items being used in a collaborative fashion by players up and down a supply chain to help track products from manufacturing to the consumer.
EPCglobal, the RFID standard-setting body, is going about the task of creating an Electronic Product Code to number the worlds goods. It has created standards to enable RFID data exchange and has proposed a network architecture, called the EPC Network, for enabling all the objects in the world to be linked via the Internet. At the same time, other groups—academic institutions and software companies, for instance—have floated potential, and competing, network architectures that could accommodate the global exchange of RFID data.
But before a network architecture can be agreed upon, some basic questions need to be answered: How much network traffic would be created in such a scenario where every physical item transmits data? What type of architecture is necessary to support a scalable network? What type of security would be necessary to validate queries? And what kinds of resources will be needed to handle all this traffic?
These are just some of the questions being tackled by MITs Auto-ID Labs—the successor to the Auto-ID Center, which was split in 2003 into Auto-ID Labs and EPCglobal—and SAP Labs in a joint project called Utilizing Distributed EPC Data with Enterprise Applications. The project, now in its early stages, looks to simulate a supply chain involving manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers moving millions of products a day. The aim: to determine whether several proposed architectures can handle predicted network traffic and, perhaps, to influence the outcome of evolving standards themselves.
On MITs side, heading the EPC data project is John Williams, a specialist in simulation and large-scale data modeling who has been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to simulate different networks, such as the Internet, telephone networks and water-supply systems, where communication has broken down at one time or another.
Williams has some clear ideas about how RFID data can be used to facilitate communication among companies and about the challenges that lie ahead.
“The idea would be to know where everything is at any time. One of the things—the main challenge—is that in a year, maybe a trillion products are manufactured, so to try and keep track of trillions of things, we havent built systems of that scale yet,” said Williams, Auto-ID Labs director and principal investigator for the project, in Cambridge, Mass. “The largest [network] is the Internet, then the telephone network, but this [RFID-enabled network] is more demanding than that. One thing I am concerned with is, How do you build a system so you can go to a central place and make inquiries about [an item]? There are several issues once we make this infrastructure: We need to be able to make things secure and scalable.”
To keep the project within acceptable boundaries, Williams and SAP Labs are focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, which is in the midst of state and federal legislation mandating an electronic pedigree for every drug manufactured and sent to retailers via wholesalers and distributors. About 1.5 million drugs pass through the pharmaceutical supply chain daily. The idea with ePedigree is to protect patients from counterfeit drugs by tracking them from inception through distribution.
Currently, a number of states have passed ePedigree mandates, and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to implement one. While neither the states nor the federal government have mandated RFID specifically as a track-and-trace mechanism, Cardinal Health Systems, one of the worlds largest pharmaceutical manufacturers in a triumvirate of top-tier suppliers, has standardized on RFID in its California distribution center—a signal to the industry that RFID will be the standard technology for ePedigree.
The confluence of events in the pharmaceutical industry has led to a perfect-use-case scenario for the joint EPC data project.
“ePedigree is an interesting example because it affects multiple people in a supply chain at once—manufacturer, retailer, wholesaler. Everyone has to worry about the problem, as opposed to other [situations] which would be attributable to one aspect of the supply chain,” said Krish Mantripragada, director of RFID, SCM (supply chain management) and solution management at SAP Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif. “The project is looking at a much bigger problem, but ePedigree keeps the project grounded.”
In addition to offering best practices for RFID implementations and the pharmaceutical industry, SAP Labs is contributing an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to Auto-ID Labs. Running at MIT, in Cambridge, the software incorporates SAP data and business processes. Actual customer input will come in the projects later stages.
“Basically our question is, How do we connect an ERP system to the concept of EPCglobal?” said Paul Hofmann, director of external relations at SAP Labs. “The [tagged items] amount to a huge amount of data, and the question is, How do you identify it [and] bring it together, and which system can you ask a meaningful question of? Now there is no system you can ask a question to that concerns more than one company.”
For the simulation, the teams have taken a two-pronged approach, asking both concrete questions that speak to SAPs line of business—RFID and supply chain applications—and more visionary questions about an Internet-based world, or the “Internet of Things,” as Auto-ID Labs describes the coming electronic age. Concrete questions explore the basics of supply chain automation. The research, or visionary, questions are more philosophical in nature—how best to connect companies and identify people in an RFID-supported supply chain—given there arent any EPC-based networks in operation.
The Auto-ID Labs simulator can replicate as many as 100,000 facilities, with 10 million items traveling through the combined facilities on a given day.
“Each facility is a state machine that runs through its own multithread,” said Williams, who is simulating the flow of goods and purchase orders up and down the supply chain. “Our goal is to simulate the pharmaceutical supply chain. Having formed that, we believe we can get enough information to simulate other verticals, [such as] auto and aerospace.”
To do the simulation, Williams has built a model of a generic facility—a manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler or retailer—and then multiplied the generic model to simulate 100,000 facilities. Each facility has two inputs: purchase orders and physical goods. Purchase orders flow from retailer to manufacturer, and physical goods flow from manufacturer to retailer, with distributors and wholesalers getting in the mix at different points of the process. The simulation environment changes the amount of purchase orders and physical goods flowing between facilities at any given time to determine network capabilities. “I can take all the POs for Viagra from all the CVS stores [and aggregate them] so that a wholesaler will say, Today, I have orders for 5,000 cases of Viagra, and then send that PO up to a distributor,” he said. “So what we have is a state machine. The systems have certain states they can be in that are well-defined and change depending on input—POs coming in or goods coming in. Thats what were simulating.”
SAP Labs and Auto-ID Labs are working toward a better understanding of which architectural models might work to facilitate global communications about tagged items, as well as an understanding of how those findings can influence not only the companys product strategy but also the RFID industry itself.
“We have firsthand insight into this new technology, and we will understand better how to develop innovative products for our customers,” Hofmann said. “We will understand better what the market needs, the real problems, and what type of technology we have to develop and buy to realize this solution.” At the same time, SAP and MIT presenting a joint “profound concept” for collaboration and data exchange over the Internet will carry weight with the RFID industry in general, Hofmann said.
Via ePedigree, the EPCglobal data project is simulating several architectural models—thin registries and thick registries—for both single and distributed networks. But outside the pharmaceutical industry, several competing network architectures are in play. The most widely described architecture is the EPC Network, which was developed to ensure global interoperability of tag data as products move along the supply chain.
The EPC Network consists of three major components: EPC Discovery Services, essentially an electronic chain of custody for EPC tags; EPC Information Services, the interpreter communicating between a database and applications; and an Object Name Service, which identifies the location of the server hosting the appropriate information needed by an application.
The EPC Network, proposed by EPCglobal, is essentially a central repository. There is also a hybrid model that assumes all data is local to various enterprises, and intelligence discovery mechanisms are used to search for relevant data.
Then there are document models, on-demand models and registry models to consider.
“This [Auto-ID Labs and SAP Labs project] is the first scientific analysis where we look at a couple of different architectures—those that have been proposed and are floating around in academia and industry,” said SAPs Mantripragada.
Given that the yearlong project is in its early stages, researchers at Auto-ID Labs and SAP Labs are reluctant to release initial results regarding architectural models. But Tao Lin, senior research scientist and EPCglobal data project manager with SAP Labs, said there are some widely understood findings about the proposed architectures.
“[In] some of the architectures proposed by EPC or by other organizations, we found some assumptions in the beginning werent really correct. For example, having all the data at the source—say, at a manufacturer—is not very efficient,” said Lin. “What we want to develop is a simulator to find out whether the architectures that have proposed by EPCglobal and industries actually can be scalable in this potential Internet of Things we are talking about. We hope that the proposed architecture can work well with the future applications. However, as EPC/RFID can potentially change IT infrastructure, we have to avoid any potential risks.”
Lin said the project findings will also impact SAPs product strategy.
A larger implication of the study is that because the whole concept of RFID-tagged goods throughout the world is so new, people havent thought through the bigger issues yet. Much of the academic and industry work has been related to the physical layer and processes around RFID, with little attention paid to data management inherent in RFID, Lin said.
Part of the data management problem, said Lin: In addition to the sheer magnitude of data that will be generated from RFID tags, the data can be stored anywhere. “Were talking about thousands, even millions of data storage systems—SAP systems, Oracle systems, mom-and-pop data systems—holding RFID/EPC data,” said Lin. “The data could have a contribution to a query. So now were dealing with a problem that we have not dealt with before: Business transactions will be based data that could be stored in millions of storage places. RFID and EPC data is one contribution to business process automation.”
No one knows if todays infrastructure can actually support the data storage, Lin said. There is, however, Google. What Google brings to the table for the EPC data project is the concept of storing data in memory rather than in a database to enable extremely fast queries. MITs Williams is taking that approach to heart, researching how to distribute large in-memory caching capabilities across systems, enabling data to be accessible very quickly. Williams, along with SAP Labs, is looking at developing systems very much like Googles, with resident in-memory that is scalable.
“The big challenge is streaming data. How do you process lots of real-time data? Thats the challenge RFID is bringing. Some of the challenges were looking at are security, scalability and extensibility of the network—how to handle real-time streaming data, and how do you track that,” said Williams.
“It will have to be [designed using] distributed systems, for sure—very close to the way the Internet works now. At the top level, each country hosts a top-level server, and then these top-level servers interface with each other. Thats the way its going to have to work. We cant just take [the data] and apply it to a network; its going to take a lot more sophistication than that.”
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