RFID and EDI – Untapped Opportunity


Are we going to create another stovepipe? Or can we all just get along?


I recently saw a note from AIAG about the RAN — that is the RFID Automotive Network. Although not news to me, it got me thinking again about a thought I have had for a few years.

RFID providers, since their inception, have striven to ensure that RFID ‘is not just about the tag’ but about the business data it can provide. RFID literally adds the dimensionality to the otherwise flat digital universe of business data.

Huge benefits emerged from understanding the location, the condition, and the actual movement of a physical item in space. But behind this was the so-called internet of things, a series of ‘storage tanks’ of data. When first conceived, there was a big idea of an EPCIS1 database as the ultimate source of all things. But that type of endeavor requires funding and agreement. Naturally, the reaction (as in the genome project’s, “Who owns my genes?”) was “Who owns my data? It is my data and while it may be shared with my trading partners, I’m not going to pay yet another third party for the rights to my own data.” Obviously, the big EPCIS data store in the sky didn’t fly, but the concept, architecturally, had legs and could at least walk, initially.

But what is flying is a whole new world of business-communications applications in the cloud that are being built to accommodate inter-enterprise RFID and traceability data between trading partners. And there are a lot of them.

And more power to the entrepreneurial spirit that these players have understood: that RFID’s future would be enabled by the data. So they built the solutions. Great examples abound: for example, Intelleflex in cold chain, analyzing temperature data as food or pharmaceuticals move through their chain of custody, ensuring ‘fresh and effective and safe products for consumers.’ Or TAGSYS, that has end-to-end tracking for retailers; Intelligent InSites, with a focus on any and all assets in the hospital setting; or Acsis, Inc. and TraceLink that track serialized pharmaceutical from the packing line through to the retailers. At the core is inter-enterprise data sharing.

So I wonder why the EDI players have not gotten on board with this most obvious marriage: RFID + EDI. Ironically, most EDI players have the data model to house this. The EDI and barcode data have been harmonized for a very long time and EDI providers mostly have capabilities to print the appropriate barcode at each stage of the process. And again, the obvious marriage of barcode to an RFID tag.

Figure 1 is a simplified example of what I mean. I borrowed an example from the GS1 presentation and highlighted a few of the data fields. Within the ASN (Advance Ship Notification) are the codes required for the serialized RFID tag.

Source: ChainLink Research

Another example we frequently see from retailers is like this excerpt from the Macy’s supplier compliance instructions:

“Macy’s utilizes electronic data technology and therefore, it is imperative that all EDI856 and corresponding UCC128 data, including physical labels are timely and accurate. Macy’s requires a consolidated VICS EDI856 with carton and U.P.C./GTIN/EAN level information for every shipment sent to a Macy’s distribution center or directly to a store.”

EDI providers obviously can provide source tagging and the COOL labeling required for food. And the SKU is important these days even for consumers, who, in the mobile world, scan for pricing and mobile payment options.2 Now here is where again, in practice, the EDI data, barcode labels, and tags can all converge. I don’t intend for this article to be about the many facets and variation of labels, but rather the grand design of trading-partner communications.

Paradigm Shift in Real-time Data Sharing

In reality, it’s more than just the data model. By design, each approach toward data sharing is unique. EDI, also by design, followed a transaction batch paradigm, although today that has changed with HTTP/AS2 and the internet leverage of EDI standards data.

By design (and I will come back to whether that also means in practice) RFID’s visionaries foresaw item scanning and data sharing in real-time — a visibility paradigm. The data from scanned items could be stored in the cloud and be shared many-to-many. Multiple users could subscribe to this data and everyone could see it simultaneously. EDI, conversely, is a one-to-one system. As shipments move through the chain, they spawn new data and transactions. And even if an EDI transaction is then posted in the cloud, it is fundamentally a one-up-one-down communication for the recipient and sender.

With some RFID uses such as cold chain, the visionary idea of cloud multi-party data access makes sense. The whole chain of custody (the product history) is important to multiple parties in the chain. Timing counts.

However, in practice most data sharing for RFID resembles the EDI paradigm — one-up, one-down. For example in the auto industry where JIT is de rigueur, the ASN rapidly moves to the customer and is rapidly followed by the goods. And we are seeing more and more kanbans with RFID read/write tags attached to them.

Where Have All the EDI Players Gone?

Or more aptly put — when will they come back? There were some burned fingers a few years ago from the stops and starts with Walmart, in retail, and California’s epedigree mandates. Some investments were made in preparation, and then it was all quiet on the Walmart front. But that is behind us now. With the FDA requiring Unique Device Identifiers (UDI) for all medical devices, epedigree rolling out this year for pharmaceuticals, and more retailers and automotive manufacturers using item-level tagging (all of which are inter-enterprise use cases in which EDI is mandated) it’s time to get over it. The RAN example above in the European auto market is telling of this thought process, “promising to work with Odette” (the EDI standards group for European auto makers like Mercedes and BMW). But it seems like much of the entrepreneurial flame is on the RFID side. (And EDI players could use a little of that.) No doubt there are cool things happening in the EDI/MFT market (read MFT Market Heats Up).

One example I was excited to hear about was DiCentral’s DiOMS product — an order inventory management system designed for mid-size firms to track serial numbers and products through the supply chain. DiCentral’s customers using this today are Automotive and Aerospace manufacturers. DiCentral also has a host of healthcare companies as customers, and I assume, forthwith, some customers will begin to leverage this capability.TIBCO, for the large enterprise, also has an RFID traceability solution that they developed during the first wave of RFID interest. With the resurgence of interest they may get more users ‘onboard.’

The point here is this: You can get B2B in one system. Both RFID and EDI could learn from each other’s approach and provide a holistic cloud database leveraging the common data and providing the inter-enterprise network sharing so required in today’s supply chains.

Can We Support Another Stovepipe between Trading Partners?

That is the billion dollar question we are often asked. It’s a complex answer. The revenue opportunity is there and the process of item-level data for inter-enterprise use cases is flourishing and is actually a key enabler to so many of the dramatic developments in healthcare, retail and other industries. So there is a growing market.

Who will reap the rewards of that growth? That is a question you will need to ask yourself.


B2B Integration research
GS1 RFID and Bar-coding


1 Electric Product Code Information Services — Return to article text above
2 In practice, both RFID data and EDI kind of get bogged down in the world of middleware and system-to-system ‘transfers’ so mostly neither data is real-time. — Return to article text above

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