EPCglobal sets up RFID product code management system

FRAMINGHAM (01/16/2004) - The RFID food chain has started to turn its attention from tags and readers to data management, as industry groups, vendors and users focus on systems and processes designed to derive value from billions of tags used to identify items in the supply chain ranging from tomato soup to toothpaste.

Earlier this week, EPCglobal, an RFID standards-setting body based in Lawrenceville, N.J., selected VeriSign Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., to maintain electronic product codes, which will provide unique identifiers for the goods found on retail and grocery store shelves. VeriSign will operate the EPCglobal Network and an object naming service (ONS) for EPCglobal, whose members include major consumer packaged goods manufacturers and retailers.

Brian Matthews, vice president for directory services at VeriSign, said the EPCglobal Network and the ONS will work much like the Internet Domain Name System VeriSign now operates. That structure can accommodate growth as more retailers incorporate RFID tags into their supply chains.

Although Wal-Mart Stores Inc., an EPCglobal member, doesn't initially plan to tap into either the Web-service-based EPCglobal Network or the ONS when it starts using RFID tags next January, Simon Langford, the company's manager of RFID strategy, said the retailer eventually expects to do so. He didn't provide a time frame.

Kara Romanow, an analyst at AMR Research Inc. in Boston, said data management is essential if Wal-Mart's suppliers are to gain any value from their investment in RFID. RFID tags -- scanned every time they pass a reader at the door of a distribution center, warehouse or store loading dock -- will generate "enormous amounts of data" that needs to be managed and integrated into back-end ERP systems, Romanow said.

Raymond Blanchard, director of business development for Auto-ID at SAP AG in Walldorff, Germany, said the EPCglobal Network and ONS would provide Wal-Mart and its suppliers with easier to manage data than the flat files used in Wal-Mart's RetailLink extranet or EDI systems that use XML files.

Blanchard said SAP has integrated RFID data management into its software, including SAP Event Management, a component of the company's supply chain management software, and demonstrated its use successfully in a pilot at Metro AG, a Dusseldorf, Germany-based operator of grocery stores and hypermarkets that are much like Wal-Mart's stores.

Blanchard said that at its simplest level, the SAP Auto-ID infrastructure helps support pick, pack and ship operations, capturing data from the tag at each stage, with each event viewable over a Web browser in the same way an individual would use a tracking number to view the location of a package on the United Parcel Service Inc. Web site.

The new SAP RFID tools will also allow manufacturers to reconcile deliveries with purchase orders and provide them with the real-time signals needed to better manage inventory, Blanchard said. He said he doesn't believe Wal-Mart suppliers will be overwhelmed by data, as most of it is short-lived.

Except for products subject to recall or government regulation -- such as meat and pharmaceuticals -- RFID data needs to be stored only a matter of weeks, Blanchard said.

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