A multiverse of EPCIS - How to enhance product traceability in hyperconnected supply chains
Written by By Tom Vieweger, RFID Business Expert at Nedap
Written by By Tom Vieweger, RFID Business Expert at Nedap
We live in an interconnected, globalized world with long, complex supply chains. Did you know that around 150 billion fashion articles are produced yearly and that a typical fashion item and its components have traveled around 20,000 miles or 32.000 kilometers before arriving in a store? Keeping a pulse on products traveling through supply chains is becoming increasingly important in this context.
With the rise of emerging technologies like Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS), businesses have a powerful tool to track and trace unique products across various supply chain stages. At the same time, while currently, many suppliers, brands, and retailers already operate their own EPCIS, it will become crucial to establish a system where multiple EPCIS repositories can coexist and seamlessly link with each other. This blog post explores how this can be achieved, enabling robust product tracking and transparency.
Already back in 1999, the auto identification center ("Auto-ID Center") at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was set up to develop the Electronic Product Code (EPC). Its goal was to enable the creation of applications that share supply chain event data within and across enterprises. The Auto-ID Center wanted an RFID system based on open standards to track products and materials from one partner to another. In 2003 the Auto-ID Center passed on the responsibility of developing an open standard to EPCglobal, an organization set up as a joint venture by two standards organizations, GS1 International and GS1 US. Now, nearly 25 years later, this standard is well-established in the industry.
Why has there been the desire to create a standard like EPCIS? To enable global, seamless traceability! Based on the ISO 9001:2015 standard definition, traceability refers to the ability to trace an object's history, application, or location. EPCIS is a standard that enables organizations to share information about products' physical movement and status through the supply chain from initial production to consumer purchase. EPCIS events communicate the What (the object involved), Where (the location and read-point), When (the date and time), and Why (the business step) of an event.
It needs a foundation to enable data sharing in highly complex supply chains. Good news: most of today's RFID implementations record traceability data as 'event data' following the EPCIS standard. And, of course, getting as many supply chain traceability insights as possible seems tempting; however, product traceability data is often commercially sensitive, and different players seek to keep it confidential to protect their competitive advantage. Still, the unwillingness of companies to share operational data with other parties has proved a barrier to their adoption. It must be clear that linking EPCIS repositories and sharing its data can result in win-win-win situations since it offers several benefits to the supply chain ecosystem:
The long-term vision is to have traceability and transparency throughout the entire life-cycle of a productSherry Fazal, Senior manager of global ESG and sustainability solutions at Tapestry in Vogue Business
EPCIS repositories serve as centralized databases that store event-based information related to the movement and status of products within the supply chain. While creating a repository that holds all product flow intelligence is intriguing, it is unrealistic that there would be one big "world EPCIS instance." It is simply too complex to establish one centralized system. Instead, in a supply chain ecosystem involving multiple stakeholders such as manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and logistics providers, it is common for each entity to maintain its own EPCIS repository. However, these repositories must coexist and share information seamlessly to achieve end-to-end traceability.
Such linked (or better: "coexisting") repositories lay the foundation for a traceable supply chain. Establishing connections between them further enhances end-to-end visibility. The EPCIS events should be queried internally or by external applications. However, the partner company must have been granted appropriate access rights. To succeed, each organization must ensure that its EPCIS repositories are interoperable with the systems of other organizations across their supply chains. Here are vital considerations for ensuring their coexistence:
While there are plenty of benefits, as described above, some questions still need to be answered. Traceability is a multi-party challenge. Challenges are the lack of industry alignment on requirements, data and data accuracy, willingness to share data, and lack of alignment on systems and processes to trace products. For example, how can traceability data be shared with a priori unknown parties if the request is justified while respecting data ownership and maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive information, including the data owner's identity?
It's incredible to think of the journey our clothes can take even before they reach us. However, in this age of concern for our environment and a thirst for transparency of how things are made, there is an opportunity for all in the garment supply chain to examine where things are made, not just the finished garment but all the components that go into it. EPCIS plays an important role here! With everyone in the supply chain "speaking" EPCIS, it becomes easy to solve the traceability problem and provide additional rewarding information to customers and other stakeholders, such as product availability, recalls, shelf life, diversion, authenticity, and more.
In our hyperconnected world, we can expect that supply chain partners own and operate their own dedicated EPCIS repositories. These can be linked to easily share data. The coexistence and linking of multiple EPCIS repositories pave the way for a highly traceable and transparent supply chain ecosystem. Businesses can seamlessly track and trace unique products throughout their journey by establishing standardized formats, harmonizing data, and leveraging synchronization mechanisms. The integration of emerging technologies like blockchain further enhances data integrity and trust. Embracing these practices strengthens supply chain operations, fosters consumer confidence, and enables rapid response to evolving market demands.