Tesco, Wal-Mart, Kraft, Nestle and a raft of other companies have launched the EPCglobal standard, designed to speed up the development of RFID.
If successful, the EPCglobal standard will allow any retailer or supplier to read any compliant tag. Each item will have a single, unique tag.
Proponents of RFID argue that this will greatly increase the benefits that the technology can bring to its suppliers.
Standardised tags would allow a retailer to read information from all its suppliers with a single, standardised set of tag readers and a single back-end data infrastructure.
‘Standards are essential. EPCglobal is going to be a part of that,’ said Tesco UK IT director Colin Cobain.
Likewise, suppliers can ship their goods with a single set of tags built into their products at the point of manufacture, reducing the cost of fixing tags into their products.
Standardised RFID tags could also form the basis of integrated supply chain applications, where tag readers could track a product at every stage from manufacture to sale.
A uniformed approach will increase the volumes manufacturers produce, driving the costs for the end user down.
Tesco has had some success running RFID-based projects within its own business, such as a project to monitor stocks of DVDs. However, integrated applications offer greater benefits that could be even more vital for suppliers.
‘The business case for RFID for the manufacturer in isolation looks weak, to say the least,’ Nestle group director of supply chain Chris Tyas said at the launch of EPCglobal. ‘The case looks weaker still if it is adopted by only one or two retailers.’
Simple though this may sound in principle, getting the world’s retailers to agree is no easy task, and there is no established standard or even an established name. The technology is known as radio barcodes, EOI, EPC or Auto-ID, depending on who you ask.
Possibly the biggest threat to a standardised RFID infrastructure comes from outside the retail industry. Telecommunications regulators have specified different power ratings and frequencies for the radio interface in Europe, the US and Asia. This could lead to three different standards.
However, with Tesco and Wal-Mart on board, the case for EPCglobal looks strong.
‘There is a strong chance that EPCglobal will have a very important impact,’ says Elsa Lion, an analyst at technology research company Ovum. ‘It is likely to establish a standard in the way tags are deployed.’
However, many previous technologies have seen their potential wasted by standards wars and poor interoperability. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, Tyas said: ‘Gentlemen, we must all hang together or we will most assuredly all hang separately.’