Director, policy and research, e.centre, Andrew Osborne, paves the way for one of tomorrow's technologies – radio frequency identification

Whoever invented the portable radio probably didn’t expect this. Everything that is bought and sold will communicate over the radio waves. Everything will carry the circuitry to declare its own identity to anyone that wants to tune in. Admittedly, the content of these transmissions will not threaten Radio 4 [or even Radio 1] but this form of radio could have equally far-reaching effects.

But will RFID really become so pervasive? Will there come a day when everything is tagged? Perhaps, but that day won’t be tomorrow so, in the meantime, we need to take practical steps to implement RFID where it is justified now while paving the way for widespread use in the future. That is the job of EAN International.

The huge interest now being shown in RFID and the vision of a world where everything is tagged are the result of groundbreaking research conducted at the Auto ID Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This has been supported by other Auto ID Centres around the world, especially one in Cambridge University in the UK. The result of this work is the Electronic Product Code Network.

Unique identity number

The system starts with simple low cost radio frequency tags that carry a serial number and are attached to the object to be identified. In this way everything has its own unique identity number.

These tags communicate with readers that are located wherever they are needed and are connected to the Internet.

Information about the objects is held in a standard way in databases that are also connected to the network and the EPC serial number is the key that enables the information to be retrieved. The relevant database for the query or application is found by using a standard directory service.

All this would enable an unprecedented level of automation in the supply chain, which could provide a much greater degree of control while driving out cost.

MIT has succeeded in attracting sponsorship from almost 100 companies and has advanced many parts of the technical specifications. Field trials have been conducted, providing valuable knowledge and experience to guide development of the standards.

MIT does not purport to be an industry body and it needed an organisation to take responsibility for making the vision a practical reality.

That body is EAN International working in a co-management arrangement with the Uniform Code Council.

There could be no better choice. EAN and UCC have over 25 years of experience in standards for automatic identification and electronic communications in the supply chain. In that time they have established a global infrastructure to support implementations based on 99 national associations that together account for more than a million member companies.

Most importantly, the EAN.UCC system provides robust global standards that are recognised and respected, used around the world and maintained by an open and thorough standards development process.

It is taken for granted that in open trade companies do business with many others.

There is a complex web of trading relationships, which means that a change in business practice by one company always affects many others. A sudden switch from bar codes to RFID just won’t happen in that environment.

The adoption of RF tags will not be economically justifiable for all types of goods at all packaging levels at the same time. Early adopters will be in returnable containers and high value items. Low cost, low margin consumer units will not switch until the cost of tags and the cost of applying them to packs or products is much lower than today.

Migration path

One day everything that is traded will be carried in an RF tag and identified by an EPC number. Until then tags and bar codes will co-exist, just as EPC serial numbers and EAN.UCC data standards will co-exist.

EAN is in a unique position to manage this co-existence and has already designed ways to derive EPCs from EAN numbers and vice versa.

It will ensure that the data carried by tags is consistent with data in bar codes. This lays a practical migration path from current applications to an EPC future.

Initial implementations of the EPC standards will use the Ultra High Frequency [UHF] part of the radio spectrum. This is because UHF

• meets business requirements for logistics applications, especially in terms of the reading range that can be achieved

• offers the best trade-off between physical size of the tag, energy transfer, immunity to metal and moisture, requirement for separation between multiple tags and read-range

• provides the best chance for global harmonisation of regulations

• is the most versatile part of the radio spectrum

• is a proven technology

To harmonise frequency regulations EAN International has a concerted programme of lobbying local regulatory bodies in different parts of the world.

The difficulty is that different geographic regions allocate parts of the spectrum to different uses. Frequencies and emission levels are controlled nationally by domestic radio administrations. There is a divergence between the regulations at UHF in Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific.

EAN has proposed a change to European regulations that would allow RFID with a bandwidth and at a power level well suited to logistics applications. RFID at UHF is already used in Europe but this change would enable European companies to use RFID as effectively as companies in America already can.

The prospects are good. After technical and political lobbying and backing from the European Commission, with EAN stressing the real advantages for supply chain management, the relevant European committee is progressing towards changing the recommendations by the second quarter of 2004.

This work to harmonise regulations is part of the effort to achieve a common approach world-wide. In all aspects of RFID and the EPC network in general, standards are vital.

There must be the certainty that companies’ customers [and their customers too] will be able to read, accurately and efficiently, the tags that have been applied at the source of the goods.

Working reality

This must be achieved even when the manufacturer of the goods has no prior knowledge either of the geographical destination of the goods or of the applications for which organisations further down the supply chain will use the data on the tag.

With the robust standards and the immense experience of supporting practical use of automatic identification that EAN International and UCC can bring to bear, the EPC Network is able to become working reality.

The real reason it will happen is that it can deliver enormous benefits to business. It will not become all encompassing suddenly but to ignore it would be foolhardy.