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Executive Editor

RFID standards shake out

Jun 21, 20046 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsRFID

Wireless technology seen taking on bigger role in supply chains.

A slew of chip and transponder manufacturers are working to iron out the details of a new standard that will determine how radio frequency identification gear communicates in a supply-chain setting.

A slew of chip and transponder manufacturers are working to iron out the details of a new standard that will determine how radio frequency identification gear communicates in a supply-chain setting.

Standards development is key to RFID’s adoption in supply-chain applications, analysts say. When standards become more solid, product development will speed up, which will drive down equipment costs, said Lyle Ginsburg, managing partner at Accenture, at a recent event hosted by IDC.

In supply-chain applications, each RFID tag carries an electronic product code (EPC), a unique identifier that can be associated with operational data such as an item’s origination or the date of its production. EPCglobal is a nonprofit organization created by the Uniform Code Council and EAN International to commercialize EPC technology.

Developing standards is a key charter of EPCglobal – and a potentially contentious one. Different working groups within the organization are fleshing out proposals for specifications ranging from RFID tags to middleware and data formats.

These days, all eyes are on the activities of the EPCglobal working group responsible for recommending the Generation 2 (Gen 2) EPC protocol for the UHF band.

RFID operates in multiple frequency ranges, including low (125 KHz), high (13.56 MHz) and UHF (868 MHz to 954 MHz). The second-generation UHF standard is getting a lot of attention because UHF is considered most suitable for warehouse environments, where many early adopters of RFID in the supply chain are focusing their efforts, says Christopher Boone, a program manager at IDC.

Spurring development of the second-generation UHF air-interface protocol is the need for multinational capabilities, flexible information storage and compliance with industry standards, Boone says.

UHF Class 0 and Class 1 chips are North American-based, and the developers didn’t take into account whether the chips could work in other countries, where frequency availability differs, Boone says. Gen 2 chips will work in other countries, he says.

Additionally, early RFID chip development focused on designing small, inexpensive, read-only chips that can store a limited amount of information, such as a single EPC code, Boone says. That means every time a device reads an RFID tag, it has to send the EPC to operational systems to correlate the ID with item information.

Today, users are looking for more chip space – up to 256 bits – and the ability to add their own data to a readable and writable chip. That way a company could add customized data, such as its own item-numbering convention, to an RFID tag. Accessing that information later might not require a database lookup or any contact with an external system, which could improve performance.

“Users want to be able to put additional information on a tag as it goes through different events along the supply chain and localize that information so they don’t always have to go back up to the network to get it,” Boone says.

On the compliance front, this issue is compatibility with the international standard ISO18000-6A.While the original tag specifications were not ISO-compliant, the current Gen 2 proposals will be able to provide compatibility with key ISO standards, said Bernie Hogan, CTO of EPCglobal, at the IDC event.

So far, the Gen 2 working group has narrowed down multiple tag proposals to two options. Along the way, vendors have been forging alliances with like-minded competitors. As a result, longtime RFID players Intermec, Philips Semiconductors and Texas Instruments are the heavyweights backing one proposal, and supply-chain-focused newcomers Matrics and Alien Technology are the headliners behind the competing proposal.

Matrics and Alien have gained market leadership by default – UHF Class 0 chips are based on Matrics technology, and UHF Class 1 chips are based on Alien’s.

All tests so far have used tags from Matrics or Alien, said Erik Michielsen, a principal analyst at ABI Research. But once the Gen 2 protocol is ratified, “those chips will be phased out and replaced with Gen 2 chips. So all the advantages those companies have will become decreasingly significant by the end of this year,” Michielsen said in a statement.

The backers of the winning proposal will be in an enviable position, because they will be able to set up their design and fabrication capabilities more quickly than the others, Michielsen said. “If [Texas Instruments] and Philips win, they’ll have their designs and will be ready to have their fabs built, and they can immediately start producing hundreds of millions of these chips,” he said.

Meanwhile, the backers of the losing standards could suffer delays of a month or two, especially if they outsource fabrication, Michielsen said.

The teams still are trying to settle on one proposal. But if the working group doesn’t reach a consensus soon, EPCglobal will bring in an independent team to make the decision, Hogan said. The current timetable calls for the working group to publish a draft of the next-generation EPC tag design during the summer and EPCglobal to ratify a draft standard in early October.

Boone says he expects to see Gen 2-compliant tags and readers by year-end.

Standards play

The first round of RFID standards addresses numbering, middleware, data formats and directory architecture — in addition to the multiple air interface-specific standards in development.
Tag Data Specification 1.1

Description: Defines specific encoding schemes for serialized versions of Uniform Code Council-based indentifiers, such as global trade item number, serial shipping container code and global location number.

Status: EPCglobal board-ratified specification.
Reader Protocol 1.0

Description: Defines the communications messaging and protocol between tag readers and EPC-compliant software applications.

Status: First public working draft available; updated September 2003.
Savant Specification 1.0

Description: Defines the services Savant performs for application requests within the EPCglobal Network. Savant is middleware that sits between tag readers and enterprise applications.

Status: First public working draft available; updated September 2003.
Physical Markup Language Core Specification 1.0

Description: Establishes a common vocabulary to be used within the EPCglobal Network and a standardized format for data captured by readers.

Status: Auto-ID Center Recommendation as of September 2003.
Object Name Service (ONS) Specification 1.0

Description: Defines how the ONS is used to locate metadata and services associated with a given EPC.

Status: First public working draft available; updated August 2003.