Electronic Product Code

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Primer: Electronic product codes could usher in a new era of smart labels that know where they've been and where they're going.

What is it?

The next generation of the Universal Product Code (UPC) system.

PDF DownloadWhat's new about it?

While a UPC symbol registers a product's make or model, an electronic product code (ePC) assigns a number to each individual item—differentiating the 102nd can of soup in a shipment from the 1,042nd. Each label can also lead to a wealth of information about that product—from when the soup was canned to its exact location within the global supply chain. The ePC also supports vastly more identifiers than any of the other systems in use: It can enumerate 16 million types of Campbell's soup, for example, and more than a trillion cans of each type.

Who came up with it?

M.I.T. scientists David Brock and Sanjay Sarma and their colleagues proposed a unique numbering scheme for a network-based identification system in 1998. In October 1999, with funding from Procter & Gamble, they opened the M.I.T. Auto-ID Center, an industry-supported research group that focuses on developing what they call an "intelligent infrastructure" for supply chains.

How does it work?

Rather like the Internet. An ePC contains 96 bits of identification data, including a 40-bit serial number. Instead of encoding catalog-type information directly within these bits, an ePC acts—like a URL—as a reference to a document. That document exists on a network; an Object Name Service resolves the numeric ePC to the document's location, just as the Internet's Domain Name Service resolves a human-readable URL to a numeric IP address. The document is written in a new eXtensible Markup Language called Product Markup Language.

Completing the picture is an electronic tag, or smart tag, containing the ePC. The current proposal uses the radio frequency (RF) system, which enables automatic scanning. Manual inputs of bar code will no longer be necessary, and tracking products anywhere in the supply chain process becomes feasible.

Who's supporting it?

Several dozen retailers and suppliers, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Wal-Mart, have signed on to sponsor the Auto-ID Center's research.

One of the founding sponsors, the Uniform Code Council (UCC), is the standards body that created the original UPC scheme. In August, the UCC merged with RosettaNet, a nonprofit organization focused on implementing standards for online supply chain transactions. These joined forces will focus on promoting a single XML-based architecture for online commerce.

When will it be ready for prime time?

Expect the pilots to continue over the next several years. Researchers launched initial field tests in October 2001, when a Wal-Mart distribution center tracked pallets of ePC-rigged products across a limited supply chain. Upcoming phases of pilot testing will track cases of merchandise with embedded ePCs, followed by identifying and tracking goods by unit.

What will happen to UPCs and other identifiers?

Nothing just yet. Given the wide utilization of the UPC bar code technology in many industries, the Auto-ID Center anticipates that UPC codes will remain in use as a legacy system for a number of years, with gradual replacement.

What are the drawbacks?

Cost is still a major barrier. The Auto-ID Center is striving to reduce the per-chip cost to pennies—or less—to make ePC's deployment viable even for low-cost grocery items. Another major challenge consists of simply managing the vast amounts of data generated in tracking billions of individual products—a problem that standard protocols would surely help with.

Background Reading

To learn about products that know where they've been, turn to the Auto-ID Center's Web site at www.autoidcenter.org.

This article was originally published on 2002-09-05
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