RFID interoperability still an issue

Interoperability issues were high on the agenda of an industry conference on RFID trends held in Singapore last week.

Interoperability issues were high on the agenda of an industry conference on RFID trends held in Singapore last week.

Industry experts at the RFID Connect Asia conference discussed the potential of the recently-released EPCglobal Class 1 Gen 2 standard established by more than 60 industry players, including Asia Smart Tag, Pepsi-Cola Company, STMicroelectronics and Tesco.

Based on ultra-high frequency (UHF), the Gen 2 standard ensures that RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and readers work globally. The standard was released in December last year and has been submitted for ISO certification.

According to the experts, the absence of a global standard for RFID deployment has resulted in interoperability issues and technology that is still too expensive to acquire.

Tan Jin Soon, executive director of EPCglobal Singapore, explained in his opening address that the new specification will enable products from different makers to interoperate and, in turn, ensure high levels of data accuracy. Users today may face issues of accuracy while scanning an RFID tag using a reader that is manufactured by a different vendor, he said.

The royalty-free standard will also allow tags to be read seamlessly across different countries, as long they fall between the 860-930 MHz UHF band, Tan said. Without a global standard, nations currently assign varying frequency bands for the use of RFID. This can result in problems while reading tags that originate from a foreign country, he added.

EPCglobal recently concluded a series of tests to determine if there is any data degradation when tags running on different frequencies are read. Results from the study will be released later this year, Tan said.

The Gen 2 protocol will also facilitate the retrieval of details about a tagged product via the Internet, resolving the problem of having to squeeze data into an RFID tag's limited 96-bits storage capacity.

"You'll only need to store the product's 13-digits serial number on the tag," he explained. A reader scans the tag and sends the serial number to the back-end system. The system then automatically accesses the Internet to retrieve more details on the product, such as its expiry date and place of manufacture.

Tan is optimistic the Gen 2 standard will be widely adopted by the industry which is an important factor in further driving down the cost of RFID deployment.

Lessons learnt
Wal-Mart and Hewlett-Packard, two early adopters of the technology, gave conference attendees some useful tips.

Tim Wilkinson, managing principal of RFID solutions practice, consulting and integration, HP Asia-Pacific and Japan, highlighted the choice of software as one important consideration.

"You need to decide which middleware is most suitable for your company," Wilkinson noted. "You will want it to integrate well with your back-end system, and you don't want to buy from middleware vendors that are unable to provide the necessary support when you experience problems."

HP uses RFID on over 40 products within the company and across 26 sites worldwide.

Simon Langford, chief RFID strategist at Wal-Mart, noted the importance of understanding how the data collected from RFID tags can be used to improve operational efficiencies. "Information is the key," he said.

One of the most vocal advocates of the technology, Wal-Mart went live with its RFID deployment in January this year, along with eight of its biggest suppliers. Today, Wal-Mart is able to identify potential inefficiencies in restocking store shelves. It found that on a busy Saturday, for instance, only one out of 12 out-of-stock items gets replenished.

With the ability to provide such visibility in the backroom, RFID has helped Wal-Mart improve its work processes and ability to better serve its customers, Langford added.--By Eileen Yu, CNETAsia