EPCglobal Inc. hopes to finally propel radio-frequency identification from pilot status to wide-scale deployment with a new interoperability specification.
The UHF Generation 2 protocol, released in mid-December, is the first chip and reader protocol that can be used globally, regardless of reader frequency or regional regulations, according to EPC officials and industry analysts.
The spec, developed with input from 60 technology, manufacturing and retail companies, acts as a communication protocol between EPC (Electronic Product Code) tags and readers.
With better encryption technology than its predecessors, Gen 0 and Gen 1, Gen 2 provides enhanced security for data stored on tags and in corresponding databases—potentially lessening concerns for companies worried about RFID data piracy.
Gen 2 goes even further than that, providing more necessary capabilities that were missing in the first two versions, namely the ability to work in such dense reader environments as distribution centers loaded with inventory.
In addition, Gen 2 allows users to read and write multiple times to the same RFID tag. (Gen 0 permitted read-only tags, and Gen 1 let users read data multiple times but write tag data only once.) The combination of better and more ubiquitous tag and reader capabilities is expected to lower the cost of RFID tags—a major impediment to wide-scale adoption.
“Physically, the silicon [with Gen 2] becomes smaller, and thats one of the assets that makes it cheaper,” said Scott Medford, vice president of RFID at Intermec Technologies Corp., an Everett, Wash., RFID hardware and software manufacturer that participated in the specification development. “In comparison to the older generation, its five to 10 times faster than Class 0 and [Class] 1. It has a lot more selectivity, which means that there is less reader-on-reader interference.”
To help customers embrace the technology, EPCglobal will roll out conformance tests for the readers by the end of March.
But some major manufacturers are already moving forward with production. Texas Instruments Inc., which participated in the Gen 2 specification development, announced two weeks ago that it will deliver working samples of UHF Gen 2 products next quarter, with production expected the following quarter.
Gen 2 also serves as a steppingstone to the EPCglobal Network, which will provide companies with a neutral repository with which to share real-time information about inventory as it moves through the supply chain.
Patent claims might interfere
Backed by the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has components of the network already in place for use with its suppliers, the network has potential for wide-scale adoption. “Gen 2 is a great step forward to spur the adoption of the EPCglobal Network,” said Mike Meranda, president of EPCglobal, in Princeton, N.J. Meranda said 80 percent of the core network components have been ratified or will be ratified next quarter.
“Were moving past the build-out of the functional pieces and really putting the network together for people to participate in,” Meranda said.
However, even with the passage of Gen 2, major hurdles still need to be overcome, according to industry observers. The first and potentially biggest issue centers on intellectual property. Of the 60 companies that helped develop the standard, only one company, Intermec, filed with EPCglobal to protect its patent work. However, others are expected to make claims, and that has the potential to slow RFID production, the observers said.
EPCglobal reviewed more than 6,000 patents related to RFID and the Gen 2 standard, according to Meranda.
In a report released Dec. 17, a research company, The Yankee Group, said that it is inevitable that patented technologies will be used in building Gen 2-enabled tags and readers and that the owners of those technologies will expect to be paid for their technology contributions. On this front, Boston-based Yankee said Intermec is in the eye of the storm, though definitely not alone.
Another issue is a difference of opinion between EPCglobal and the International Organization for Standardization about the part of the proposed spec that deals with the numbering systems RFID tags relate to. To speed up acceptance of Gen 2, EPC deferred ISO certification until at least this month.
Finally, there is the Gen 2 upgrades issue, which leaves some manufacturers in the lurch on previously purchased equipment that may not be upgradable to the new standard, as promised. To avoid this pitfall, Meranda said, EPCglobal has always recommended users purchase “agile” equipment.
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