EPCglobal: Users to get RFID progress update

Corporate users facing mandates to adopt radio frequency identification technology will get a chance at this week's EPCglobal U.S. Fall Conference in Baltimore to gauge how much progress vendors, service providers, consultants and standards bodies have made.

IBM, for instance, announced plans to invest US$250 million over the next five years in a new business unit, called Sensor and Actuator Solutions, that will support products and services related to sensor technology, including RFID tags. Another major player, Hewlett-Packard, said Tuesday that it is partnering with BearingPoint on services targeted at the retail industry.

And numerous other vendors, including OatSystems, Manhattan Associates and Sun Microsystems, are launching new versions of software products to handle the huge volume of data expected to be generated by RFID systems.

Meanwhile, nonprofit organization EPCglobal, based in Lawrenceville, N.J., plans to stage a public demonstration of RFID technology and its EPCglobal Network -- from reading tags at a product manufacturing facility to the shipment of goods to a distribution center.

RFID pioneers such as Wal-Mart Stores, Procter & Gamble, Gillette, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Tibco Software will participate, according to EPCglobal spokesman Jack Grasso.

Users concerned about the lack of standards and standards-based products will get an update on the progress of the new Generation 2 tag. Grasso said EPCglobal hopes to finalize the new tag standard in the fourth quarter. And the organization plans this week to announce a third-party certification lab that is being tasked with certifying that hardware complies with its standards.

Samsys Technologies disclosed that it used Baltimore-based MET Laboratories last month to test the interoperability of its UHF Class 0 readers with Matrics tags, and its Class 1 reader with tags from Alien Technology and STMicroelectronics.

Scores of vendors continue to scramble to get a piece of the RFID pie. A spokeswoman for EPCglobal said that more than 100 exhibitors are expected on the conference show floor, trying to gain the attention of the more than 1,150 preregistered attendees. The conference is expected to be one of the largest events so far to cater to the burgeoning RFID marketplace.

IBM, in addition to launching its Sensor and Actuator Solutions business unit, also announced that it expects its WebSphere-based RFID middleware to be released in the fourth quarter.

IBM has been involved in the RFID market for some time now, said Christine Overby, an analyst at Forrester Research, noting that it's important for the company to put structure behind some of its early RFID work through the formalization of the Sensor and Actuator organization. She said the partner ecosystem that the company envisions, as well as the expansion of RFID beyond standard retail scenarios, sets IBM's offerings apart.

HP hopes to see a payoff from its early investments in RFID technology. The company has been involved in RFID pilot projects as it works to meet the January 2005 deadline Wal-Mart issued for its top 100 suppliers to tag pallets and cases shipped to its Dallas/Fort Worth-area distribution centers. In HP's case, the shipments are typically large items such as printers, giving the vendor experience in item-level tagging that few have accumulated at this early stage.

HP said its partnership with McLean, BearingPoint is aimed at the retail industry. HP will focus on the infrastructure and hardware; BearingPoint will concentrate on business process consulting and systems integration to show how RFID can be leveraged throughout the supply chain, from manufacturing facilities to store shelves, said John Cummings, managing director of BearingPoint's supply chain practice.

"HP is uniquely qualified because they are at the item level already," he said.

Overby said the partner coordination that major vendors are promoting is important to customers, many of whom want just "one throat to choke" as they venture down the RFID path. "Clients are interested in seeing (a major vendor) take responsibility for the total outcome because of the risk," she said.

Also Tuesday, HP and OatSystems planned to announce RFID/IS, which combines their respective technologies to offer customers an RFID framework, system management, consulting and integration services in a single offering. OatSystems is also launching the 4.0 edition of its Foundation Suite, which includes three new products to help integrate data captured from RFID devices into enterprise applications.

One of the new products, OatLogic, is an integrated rules-based engine to configure and manage RFID business processes across devices such as readers and printers, and business applications such as warehouse management and ERP systems. OatXpress templates are aimed at helping users integrate RFID into pallet building, shipping, receiving and other common processes. OatAxiom is intended to help users manage RFID data captured from internal locations and data provided by trading partners.

OatSystems noted that U.K.-based retailer Tesco, an early adopter of RFID technology, has chosen to standardize on its suite across the company.

Jeff Woods, an analyst at Gartner, said OatSystems has the most sophisticated middleware to handle the data generated by RFID technology. He said he views the OatSystems suite more as a development framework that allows companies to build the management of the RFID data into the application.

"People buying OatSystems are buying it for strategic use and strategic applications, which existing (business) applications could never support," Woods said.

Rival Manhattan Associates Inc. plans to announce its EPC Manager middleware, which allows users to take data from the readers and incorporate it into their business processes. The Atlanta-based company quietly released an initial version of the product a few months ago, but it's now putting out a version improved through customer feedback, according to Greg Gilbert, director of RFID solutions.

Another would-be RFID player, Sun Microsystems Inc., plans to formalize a partner program around RFID and a new software tool kit that allows its partners to build common interfaces to the Java System RFID Event Manager and Information Server products released in July, according to Vijay Sarathy, group marketing manager for RFID solutions at Sun.

Sarathy said Sun also plans to unveil a retail compliance program service that will let customers use its Dallas-area RFID test center. That center simulates Wal-Mart's receiving environment to make sure tagged items can be read in a high-speed production environment.

Sun also is working with SIS Technologies and SSA Global Technologies on a an RFID warehouse management offering.