CHICAGO -- At the EPC Symposium here last week, Mike Di Yeso, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Uniform Code Council, set the wheels in motion to develop global standards for the EPC (electronic product code) and asked for industrywide participation.
Speaking at the widely anticipated event, held at McCormick Place here, Di Yeso said it would take between 12 and 18 months to fully establish standards and certification for the EPC, and invited users of the technology -- retailers, manufacturers and technology vendors -- to participate in an Implementation Task Force that would drive development of the standards.
The standards will be based on specifications outlined in Version 1.0 of the EPC Network, which was officially released at the event, though it won't be posted on the Internet (at www.autoidcenter.org) until the end of the month.
"We need users to come to the [Task Force] and lay out their requirements so we can shape the specifications to meet those requirements," said Di Yeso, in a morning presentation last week to an audience drawn from around the world.
Di Yeso also announced the creation of EPCglobal, a joint venture managed by UCC, Lawrenceville, N.J., and EAN International, Brussels, which will oversee standards development and commercial adoption of the EPC. EPCglobal, initially called AutoID Inc., will get under way at the end of October, when the Auto-ID Center, Cambridge, Mass., developer of the EPC, will cease operations. At that time, Auto-ID Labs will begin operation to continue the research and development activities of the Center.
Di Yeso said a decision had not yet been made on whether EPCglobal would be based in Lawrenceville or Cambridge.
The EPC has drawn interest from business and media for its potential as a high-powered successor to the bar code that gives computers a way to interact with physical objects. Consisting of 96 bits of product information, the EPC is contained on a microchip held by a tag. The tag, attached to a product, also holds a tiny antenna that communicates the information in the EPC to a reader via radio frequency (RF). The reader hands off the information, via the Internet, to computers. The complete system is known as the EPC Network.
While the Auto-ID Center's vision is to have an RFID tag on every item, observers expect the initial application will be to use tags on pallets and cases, enabling them to be tracked without human intervention throughout the supply chain. Wal-Mart is requiring its top 100 suppliers to put tags on their pallets and cases by January 2005.
Di Yeso said that EPCglobal, like UCC, will be a subscriber organization with fees "a little higher than UCC's" and will oversee EPC data, as UCC oversees the UPC.
EPCglobal has begun issuing the "manager block number" element of the EPC to subscribers, the equivalent of the company prefix in the UPC, he said. EPCglobal will also manage the range of numbers within the EPC that companies can assign to products (object numbers, equivalent to stockkeeping units in the UPC), as well as the serial numbers that companies will assign to unique items.
Di Yeso said that EPCglobal plans to launch what is called the "Object Naming Service" (ONS) "in the near future." Similar to the Internet's Domain Name Service, ONS is an automated networking service that will match each EPC to information held on a computer about the item.
EPCglobal will also be engaged in a certification program for technology vendors of EPC equipment such as tags and readers so that the equipment will be "interoperable" and all work together.
UCC, which has licensed the EPC technology, has reviewed around 500 patents and sees a "manageable path on intellectual property," said Di Yeso, adding, "no technology will bar the implementation of the EPC."
He said that EPCglobal, in addition to developing and managing EPC standards, will also serve in an educational capacity and as "an implementation partner" to companies.
Di Yeso said the Implementation Task Force represented "your opportunity to get involved." Users of the EPC technology will be able to coordinate with chip and reader manufacturers to make sure "they provide the right products in the right quantities."
Di Yeso predicted that EPC pilots would take place over the next 12 to 18 months based on the initial Version 1.0 specifications as formal standards are developed. Pilots would focus on pallets, cases and cartons and selected items, he said, adding that "pervasive tagging" would not take place for at least five years.
"It's early, but not that early," Di Yeso said. "The ROIs are there. If you're not committed, you're behind." He urged companies to get "senior management support, and figure out where the opportunities are and work with your trading partners."
One IT executive attending the EPC Symposium from a major supermarket chain said he was impressed with how the EPC technology had moved from just a vision to "closer to a solution." However, the executive said he was disappointed that standards had not yet been established for the technology. The lack of standards "drives up the cost" of readers that can read different tags. He said his company will be doing EPC pilots.