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Focus: RFID and Automated Identification and Data Collection (AIDC)

Feature Article from Our RFID and AIDC Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's OnTarget e-Magazine

Sept. 8, 2011

 
RFID and AIDC News: New Life for the Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) in the End?

 

Somewhat Forgotten as RFID in Consumer Goods to Retail Floundered, the Standards for RFID Data Management Seeing a Comeback, Especially Overseas; US Retailers Just Starting to Get Interested

 

SCDigest Editorial Staff

 

In 2007, the EPCglobal organization, an arm of GS1, released its first standard for the electronic product code information services (EPCIS), with the goal of making RFID data widely available, understandable, and actionable across supply chains.

In some respects, the EPCIS concept has not gained the traction initially expected, as the collapse of the original WalMart RFID program took the wind out of the EPCIS sales at last in the US, but there are signs EPCIS is becoming relevant again, interestingly more so globally than in the US at present, with particular interest in food safety and pharmaceuticals applications.

SCDigest Says:

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Frew believes there will be more interest in EPCIS as item-level apparel tagging in retail starts moving from a store-floor focus at present back upstream into the supply chain, where the information sharing and analytics may become more valuable.

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What is an EPCIS? Though the concept dates back a decade ago to work at MIT, today EPCIS is a standard from EPCglobal/GS1 that defines interfaces enabling RFID events to be captured and queried as they occur in the supply chain. The query interface, implemented using an xml-based "web services" approach, can enable business applications to "consume" and share data within a given company or across companies in a supply chain network.

EPCglobal itself says that EPCIS provides a standard for enabling the "What, Where, When, and Why of events occurring in any supply chain" to be exchanged, safely and securely, via the EPCIS standard. That could include such information as the time, location, disposition and business step of each event that occurs during the life of an item in the supply chain. Without such a standard, every company would likely define different data models and "semantics" for RFID reads as products move throughout the supply chain.

Defining such standards can be useful even for companies developing "closed loop" systems that do not envision sharing much RFID data outside their own enterprise, to save time and effort creating those definitions, to support leveraging of RFID internally, and to develop a platform that could more easily enable data sharing in the future.


The main components of the EPCIS data model include the EPC number of the product/good, the time of the read, the business step or process involved, the "disposition" (which can be considered the status of the item immediately after the current step), the read point and business location, the specific business transaction, and the "action." The action has to do with whether this event should be added to the previous history, data specific to "parent-child" relationships (e.g., tagged cartons on a tagged pallet), or whether this is the last event in a given item's life cycle.

This base data model is designed to be extended by industries and end users without revising the specification itself. Extensions that have been used include expiration date, batch number, and temperature, but there are many other possibilities.

The standard also then defines a web services interface as to how this data can be sent and accepted by various software applications - how the data is to be formatted to pass from one application to another.

Each RFID read therefore becomes an EPCIS "event" that captures these core data elements and adds them to a database using these definitions and communications standards.

So, for example, the event of receiving an RFID tagged pallet in a distribution center might cause some data to be generated by the RFID reader (time, location) that would be combined with data in the WMS relative to the transaction and disposition. That WMS data could then communicated to a visibility, analytic database, or other application using the EPCIS communication standards, and the underlying database of that application would in turn comply with EPCIS standards.


In summary, the EPCIS standard can be said to provides guidelines that:


1. Define how a conversation about EPC Information begins by providing mechanisms for authentication and authorization.


2. Define the types of conversations between systems that can take place (Where is this tag? Where has this tag been? What cases are contained on this pallet? etc.)


3. Provide a software neutral mechanism to get this done in the form of XML-based Web Services.

After a few years of not a whole lot of action, the last couple of years have seen the beginnings of some real deployments, according to consultant Ken Traub, an expert on RFID generally and EPCIS specifically.


"EPCIS is indeed live and well, and is seeing increased adoption," Traub told us this week.

He says there is a lot of activity in food safety initiatives around the world using EPCIS, and specifically cites an example in Thailand, where in a pilot program started this year consumers can scan a barcode on a food product using in-store system, and the display will communicate not only basic product information but data about each batch, including which farm it came from, where it was processed and its current location and temperature.

Traub says there are similar efforts currently underway in Vietnam, Norway, and other countries, all using EPCIS as the standards foundation. The interesting thing is that these appear to be cross-company deployments of the EPCIS standard.

(RFID and AIDC Story Continued Below)


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"There are also efforts starting with US food companies as well, though these are not as far along,' Traub says.

EPCIS is also at the center of the work currently underway by US pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to meet upcoming drug pedigree legislation. Many expect EPCIS to replace the earlier "Drug Pedigree Messaging Standard" (DPMS), which is considered more cumbersome than EPCIS.

For US Retailers, EPCIS is a Ways Off, but Still Kept in Mind

The current high level of activity in item-level apparel at such retail chains as WalMart, JC Penney and Macy's has not as yet driven much direct action on EPCIS, according to Dean Frew, CEO of Xterprise, a provider of RFID-based solutions.
"It is out there, but it is more of a future application requirement than curent focus," says Frew. "No retailers are asking for it yet, but the standard - where, when, what - is definitely relevant."


"The concept of database in the sky that knows and managed everything is not relevant" however, Frew adds, referring to some of the early EPC concepts in which there would be universal service, perhaps run by EPCglobal, that would house and broker all this EPC data across a value chain."That was made up at MIT with people that did not have a clue as to what systems customers already have and how they are not wanting to go on a wholesale enterprise system refresh."

 

Potential Use of EPCIS in the Supply Chain

 

Source: Ken Traub

 

"What is relevant is the data model for locations, items, transactions, and other elements," Frew adds.

Frew also believes there will be more interest in EPCIS as item-level apparel tagging in retail starts moving from a store-floor focus at present back upstream into the supply chain, where the information sharing and analytics may become more valuable.
The bottom line seems to be that the EPCIS concept is evolving in ways different than the original ideas may have envisioned, but that the standards themselves still provide a great place to start both to develop systems for a given company's supply chain, and in some cases as true cross company industry initiatives.

What are your thoughts on EPCIS? How do you see it evolving? Is EPCIS going to be used in your company? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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