Systems Engineer, Symbol Technologies Inc.


The much-hyped “Internet of things” is not gee whiz fiction or years down the road.

It – or something very much like it – exists right now say Maged Girgis and Marc Giroux, industry experts who have spearheaded several high-profile radio frequency identification (RFID) implementations. The duo spoke at the 2006 Annual Canadian Standards conference held in Toronto last week.

They described an environment where billions of discrete and disparate objects have their own unique identifier (much like an IP address) that can be read within microseconds, by an RFID reader anywhere in the world, under any conditions.

A senior systems engineer at Everett, Wash.-based RFID and mobile computing systems manufacturer Intermec Inc., Girgis is also a member of the EPC Global Strategic Advisory Committee. Giroux is a systems engineer with Symbol Technologies Inc., a Holtsville, N.Y. vendor of enterprise mobility systems.

Both Girgis and Giroux consult with global companies interested in implementing EPC/RFID systems.

The two experts related real life examples of how the use of Electronic Product Code (EPC) – code that’s electronically recorded on an RFID tag – has improved supply chain efficiencies quite dramatically. They also discussed new uses of the technology in other areas – such as in tracking and tracing operations.

EPC, intended as an improvement on the UPC barcode system, is fast becoming the standard for global RFID usage. The EPC system is currently managed by EPCglobal Inc., an international association set up to achieve worldwide adoption and standardization of EPC technology. The organization is headquartered in Lawrenceville, N.J. and has offices in several countries. The idea that RFID could lead to identity theft or to uncontrolled release of personal data is a myth.Marc Giroux>Text

According to Girgis and Giroux, new and fascinating applications – previously just hoped for – have been made possible because of recent developments, such as the launch of the new Generation 2 standard for EPC/RFID tags.

What’s the hoopla about Gen 2 all about?

Most importantly, it has to do with the fact that the new specification unleashes the true potential of RFID technology, said Giroux.

Generation gap

The Symbol Technologies engineer outlined some immediate benefits of Gen 2 EPC, as contrasted with the previous Generation 1 iteration.

Gen 2 goodies include:

Worldwide compliance – With the former (Gen 1) standard, he said, chips manufactured in Asia, could not be read in North America because frequencies in the two continents were different. The G2 standard, on the other hand, can be used across the world. This is a critical capability for global companies. “If you buy [an RFID] system today, you want it to work for your business in Canada Mexico, the U.S., China, Africa, New Zealand – worldwide.”

Fewer limitations – A common complaint with G1 RFID was that liquids or metals prevent the operation of chips. Gen 2 chips are free from these restrictions, Giroux said. “At the RFID LIVE conference (held May 1 -3 in Las Vegas) companies were demoing tags submerged in water reading five feet away. We have tags reading off metal 50 feet away.”

Future Stock! – Currently most EPC chips use the 64-bit EPC code that provides identifiers for 32 million discrete items in an object class (a class is a group of similar items – for example, cans of Diet Coke). Gen 2, he said, has modes optimized for better spectrum use. Currently, the move is towards 96-bit EPC. (According to the RFID journal, 96-bit EPC provides unique identifiers for 268 million companies, 16 million object classes, and 68 billion serial numbers (or discrete items) in each class, more than enough to cover all products manufactured worldwide for years to come!

And there’s even life beyond 96.

In the June-July timeframe, Giroux said, we’re going to see 256-bit tags – and even that number will increase exponentially. He cited the example of Boeing, which he says, already has a 64-kilobit tag. “They are going to be able put the entire repair and maintenance of the Boeing Jet engine into an RFID tag – and it will be EPC Gen 2 compliant!”

Unfounded concerns

Giroux spent a good portion of his talk refuting common objections to RFID – specifically, that it is an intrusive technology, and that it may abet unauthorized access to private information.

“The idea that RFID could lead to identity theft or to uncontrolled release of personal data is a myth,” he said. “RFID tags are nothing more than barcodes. A person without access to the database that interprets the barcode cannot access personal information.”

In that sense, he said, an RFID tag is much like a car license plate that’s also linked to a bunch of personal information about the car owner. “But that information is secured. Not everyone can access it. It’s the same with RFID.” He said it’s helpful to think of an RFID tag as a “license plate number tied to a database. Without database access, all you’ve got is a bunch of [meaningless] numbers.”

Far from impinging on consumer rights, he said, visibility and traceability capabilities offered by EPC/RFID technology can be used to protect the consumer. He cited the instance of how RFID is being “effectively” used to prevent the theft of OxyCotin, a synthetic morphine-based pain killer – and “one of the most addictive, black marketed and counterfeited prescription drugs ever.”

In the past, he said, some dishonest distributors used to open OxyCotin bottles shipped to them, remove a couple of capsules from each bottle, and then reseal the bottles. “Basically, they were skimming off the top; the [stolen] pills would be sold for $100 – $200 in the black market, and nobody would know.”

Geroux said OxyCotin manufacturers, Purdue Pharma L.P. in Stamford, Conn. have been able to contain this practice by putting RFID tags on every bottle shipped to the distributor network. These tags enable the company to track the journey of every bottle – where it has been, where it is, and where it’s going. (E-pedigree software from SupplyScape in Cambridge, Mass. tracks the flow of serial and lot numbers and RFID-tag data. Project information is shared through a secure, internal database).

“Now every single [OxyCotin] prescription is also tracked,” Geroux said. “Which doctor has prescribed it, and which pharmacy it’s coming from. You have visibility and traceability.


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