As co-chairs of EPCglobals Electronic Product Code Information Services Working Group, IBM and T3Ci announced July 26 the completion of interoperability testing of a new RFID software standard.
The standard is designed to enable the exchange and query of RFID data—a capability that does not exist today.
IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., which develops a portfolio of RFID products in its Sensors and Actuators group, and T3Ci, in Mountain View, Calif., which develops RFID analytics software, have each built the standard into prototype software that will eventually be released to the general public.
The EPCIS data sharing standard is basically designed to help those companies along a supply chain—retailers, manufacturers, suppliers—sort through the volumes of raw RFID data they receive from partners and customers.
At the same time, its designed to improve supply chain processes by improving the sharing of RFID data across systems.
In theory, the standard will allow users to query RFID data and use the resulting information to do things like improve product introductions, promotions and distribution of new products.
At the same time, by allowing users to subscribe only to the RFID-based events that they are interested in, the standard is designed to cut down on the overwhelming amount of data that can be transmitted when multiple partners are generating dozens of reads on any number of cases of goods.
Unilever North America, which has been a pioneer with RFID, is piloting the standard using IBMs prototype. The goal: to get a better handle on data.
“Today when our product that has an RFID tag on it passes a reader in our customers supply chain, its logged as an RFID read, logged into an RFID database and we can pull that data out into Excel, or something like that,” said Simon Ellis, Supply Chain Futurist for Unilever.
“Its a fairly manually intensive process today, and not very effective. The guys I have doing this spend too much time extracting data and not enough time analyzing it.”
For the duration of the pilot, which will run through 2006, Unilever will tag a handful of items for some retailers, largely focusing on products that are shipping into the Southeast and Midwest.
It has integrated IBMs prototype software into its existing RFID system, also from IBM.
Again using IBMs prototype software, Unilever developed an AS2 (Applicability Statement 2) pipe to retailers so that the EPC data [from the customers site] will automatically be downloaded every six hours to Unilevers database.
“In the short run this will allow us to be more efficient in how were extracting and reading data,” said Ellis, in Trumbull, Conn..
“In the long run, if this is a scaleable solution when, and if, we get to a point where were tagging every case we sell [today we would have to hire an army of people to do that] we need some sort of a system that automates,” the flow of data.
Ellis pointed out that 90 percent of the time the RFID data generated tells what users expect, and no intervention is necessary. Its only when the data is telling a user something is happening that is different that there might need to be some system interaction.
Kicking Out the Exceptions
“If a person has to intervene on every single EPC read, its not going to work,” he said. “You have to have something thats going to say, kick out exceptions. Thats the kind of thing you want to see in EPCIS.”
That exception functionality will be in a later iteration of the standard, according to Ellis.
The objective of the EPCIS Working Group is to create common interfaces among RFID software, in turn enabling the companies using RFID to exchange RFID data—independent of the applications where the data is created or stored.
To this end, Unilever which manufactures consumer goods products including the Dove, Birds Eye and Hellmans brands, represented by Ellis, participated in a separate EPCglobal working group to define the data that will move back and forth with the EPCIS standard.
For example, the group looked at how to define a receipt, and what that should include, or what kind of information should be sent with an EPC event. It also asked if data is added to an EDI transaction set and EPC data is added to that, what elements should be sent—commission date, departure date, EPC number, serial code?
“We dont want each company to define data elements a little bit differently like with EDI,” said Ellis. “We want to define one set of data elements that everyone can use and transmit back and forth with manufacturers, retailers and suppliers. Thats why were so keen on the pilot.”
Down the road the data elements defined in the working group will hook up with the product attributes defined in the Global Data Synchronization Network which is being developed by EPCglobal. EPCglobals EPCIS standard is currently in the last call working draft and in pilot testing. The standard is expected to be ratified by the fourth quarter 2006.
“Trading partners and industry groups that choose to share RFID information via this new standard will see profound overall efficiency improvements,” said Jonathan Golovin, T3Cis CEO, in Mountain View, Calif.
“This year our solutions will process more than 100 million tag reads and at the end of the year we expect the majority will be exchanged using the EPCIS standard.”
Should the standard prove scalable and is actually adopted, that would be a good thing, according to Ellis, who said the big challenge with RIFD is managing the data.
“If you do a little bit of quick math and say, we now have a unique number on each case—were tagging at the case level, not the item level—and were only tracking out to the sales floor and not any further, the data adds up,” Ellis said.
“But even at the case level, given that any retailer might have six, seven, eight different read points and were selling them millions of cases, the question quickly becomes how do you manage the data?”
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