The Internet of Things: An Introduction to EPCIS

The EPCNetwork or, as some have called it, the Internet of Things is often overlooked because so many manufacturers are focused on getting RFID/EPC tags on their products. Now is the time to turn your attention to the future. All of the benefits of RFID/EPC that everyone keeps touting become just noise if we do not have a universal means to share them. More than a century ago, pioneering industrialists built railroads to speed communication and transportation; but at first these systems did not connect. When these rail entrepreneurs hammered the famous Golden Spike hooking together the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines, the true power of rail technology was unleashed.

The EPC Network promises to be RFID's Golden Spike. Unless tag data can be transmitted among manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, we have nothing but a promising mess. But some of the heaviest powers behind RFID have thrown their weight behind making EPC's vision of the future a success.

The EPCNetwork consists of two primary standards for communication: the Object Naming Service (ONS) and the Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) and for the sake of clarity and for those of you who are new to the game, let me go over the alphabet soup for just a minute:

  • Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) are stored on RFID tags and identify manufacturer, product, and a specific item serial number.
  • The ONS is a directory of EPCs on tagged products in the global supply chain.
  • The EPCIS refers to a database containing information about those RFID tagged products.
  • The kicker: The combination of the ONS and EPCIS allow you to use the EPC data on an RFID tag to determine that this RFID tag is on a box of widgets manufactured by Acme Corp.

The EPCIS allows authorized parties to lookup a RFID/EPC tagged item (via EPC) and determine where a product was last seen (using a Global Location Number or GLN), and when it was there (by the date/time). It may even provide the business process step, such as "moved to sales floor".

How data exchange works today

I am working with clients who are facing mandates from multiple retailers. That's a challenge enough. But what makes it even more confusing is that each retailer has a different IT requirement for sharing EPC data. The data is pushed from the manufacturer to the retailer. For most companies, this is only a slight modification to the existing method of sharing bar-code information. That is as far as the commonality goes. Beyond this point, data sharing becomes unique to the retailer.

For example, with Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, EPC status information is provided via Retail Link: a Wal-Mart-specific system. Target uses a Target-specific system: Partners Online. Each retailer has its own system. The problem is that the more trading partners a manufacturer has, the more system interfaces they have to contend with. To further complicate the issue, the level of detail required by retailers will become more sophisticated over time and thus the interfaces will become more complex.

Enter the EPC Network

Instead of multiple unique interfaces, only one interface is needed. The manufacturer has its own EPCIS with information describing their RFID/EPC tagged products. The manufacturer updates the EPCIS when a product is tagged, when it leaves their control, when it is returned, or during other important events, such as a product recall. "Authorized parties" can then pull the necessary information from the manufacturer's EPCIS via the EPC Network as required. Such authorized parties are not just the retailer, but may include distributors, 3PLs, or even a consumer looking for specific product information. In the current push model, the information is accurate at the time of the push. In the EPC Network pull model, the data is real-time, and accurate at the time of retrieval.

At the moment, none of the retailers are using the EPC Network as a requirement for their current mandates. Wal-mart will provide suppliers with EPCIS data if they request it. Additionally, Wal-mart and Gillette have demonstrated data exchange using EPCIS. These companies have shown how serialized products may be authenticated with a manufacturer. This capability is extremely interesting for pharmaceutical companies and others that have counterfeiting problems.

How Your Company Should Plan for EPCIS

For companies that plan to introduce RFID/EPC tagged items into the global supply chain, they need to understand the impact and potential of the EPC Network and start planning for it. The Network's standards are already impacting RFID implementations scheduled for this year and beyond. Are you ready?

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