If you want standards, go to the body that has one of the best track records at developing them. Thirty years ago the Uniform Code Council (UCC) created standards around the barcode for consumer products. Now, it’s beginning to have the same impact on RFID standards through EPCglobal.
Created just last year (September, 2003), EPCglobal, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, is an alliance of companies around the world, many of whom are working to meet the RFID mandates of large retailers.
Jack Grasso, senior director of public relations for UCC, one of EPCglobal’s parents, said the organization’s mission is “to develop world-wide standards for the use of RFID, to promote its adoption globally, to develop the EPC Global Network, to provide education, and to support members in their deployment of the technology.” EPCglobal, explained Mr. Grasso, is a “joint venture between us (UCC) and EAN International, the global complement to UCC.”
EAN International, located in Brussels, was founded in 1974 when manufacturers and distributors of 12 European countries formed an ad-hoc council to develop a uniform and standard numbering system for Europe, similar to the UPC system in the U.S. As a result, a UPC compatible system called “European Article Numbering” was created.
Beginnings at MIT
The EPC has its genesis in the Auto-ID Center, housed at the tech savvy Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.
“In 1999, the Auto-ID Center began research on how to take RFID technology and make it practical to apply to the global supply chain,” said Mr. Grasso. “When it came time for the Auto-ID Center to make this technology available to the commercial marketplace, they turned to the UCC, which was one of the original financial investors in their research. The reason they chose UCC was because of our 30 years’ experience with the Universal Product Code. We had a legacy of developing standards and managing the system and our not-for-profit neutral status made it natural for us to manage that process of deploying the (RFID) technology in the commercial market.”
With EPCglobal’s creation last September, it “became the owner of all the intellectual property, patents, and licenses that were developed at Auto-ID,” said Mr. Grasso. The Auto-ID Center at MIT center is still alive and well, but operating under a new name, Auto-ID Labs, which is continuing its research into RFID technology.
EPCglobal’s subscribers include some of the major manufacturers in the world, including Procter & Gamble, Gillette, Hewlett Packard, and Johnson & Johnson. “We’re up to about 200 members world-wide,” said Mr. Grasso. To become a subscriber, a company joins one of the consortium’s three sections: the Software, Hardware or Business Action Group, or, in EPCglobal parlance, SAG, HAG, or BAG. Subscription costs are based on the company’s revenue and the number of products using RFID. The consortium has developed its first round of standards available on the EPCglobal web site.
“These standards have been developed and companies are implementing those right now,” said Mr. Grasso. Those standards involve the type of tag that needs to be used (passive); covers class zero and class one and also includes the air interface protocol and read rates, “so that everybody is reading the same way. There is no competitive advantage for companies using proprietary technology because we depend so deeply on collaborative commerce.”
There are currently two major issues in RFID deployment: Cost of the tag, which, said Mr. Grasso, will drop as the volume goes up, and public policy.
“One of the first things that EPCglobal did was to codify and publish a set of principles about consumer privacy,” he said. In fact EPCglobal subscribers, besides agreeing to EPCglobal’s standards, must also adopt “our privacy guidelines as well.”
Most of the privacy issues aren’t applicable yet. But that’s not stopping lawmakers from proceeding.
“Widespread item tagging is a long way away, maybe five or ten years,” said Mr. Grasso. “What is already there is that some items which arrive on the loading dock of a distribution center, because of their nature, are consumer items.” Computer printers are but one example. Each printer in a box has an RFID tag on it, he said.
But overall, RFID technology “still needs to be proven. It’s very sensitive to metal and moisture and distances. We’re using this (RFID) to create information about products, not people; that’s not the goal, never has been.”
Nevertheless, EPCglobal’s public outreach has had to extend to legislatures, such as California and Massachusetts, “to provide education about our position on privacy. I met with Senator (Barbara) Bowen (California) back in November.”
Senator Bowen’s bill regulating RFID, which has already passed the senate, is probably the closest to actually becoming law. It would require businesses to meet certain requirements before applying RFID tags to consumer items. One stipulation in the bill–that RFID tags would have to be disabled before leaving the store–was struck from the amended version that passed the Senate.
Because of this need for education among the consuming public and with such organizations as CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering), EPCglobal has established a 15-member public policy steering committee that includes all the major trade associations involved with the supply chain.
“The messages out there need to be balanced with some factual reality relative to what the technology can do and what the industry is doing to provide a consumer benefit,” said Mr. Grasso. The committee has found research indicating that consumers are extremely interested in learning more about this new technology. Years ago, the Universal Product Code had to wade through some of the same issues before it gained consumer acceptance.
CASPIAN and other civil liberties groups fear that RFID has the potential to invade a consumer’s privacy.
“We have to take these concerns seriously. If we don’t do this in a responsible way (educating and providing clear information to consumers) it will be very difficult to bring these benefits to consumers,” said Mr. Grasso.
Mr. Grasso likens RFID to a baseball team. “We’re in the first phase of batting practice right now. We might even be back in the Abner Doubleday (baseball’s inventor) days figuring out if 90-feet between the bases is sufficient,” he said.
What’s next for EPCglobal? “We’ve embarked on the second generation of standards which we’ll be announcing at the end of the year,” said Mr. Grasso. “We’ll be talking about UHF frequency. But I hasten to point out that we are encouraging people to begin implementing the current standards. They will help in them being able to transition towards a more robust implementation.” The next set of standards, he added, “will be compatible with the current standards, so their investment is protected.”