Raising the Bar (Code)
On October 26, Sanjay Sarma’s center folded. Which was good news. It meant his group had finished its task of standardizing the next-generation bar code. The MIT professor corralled a group of 100 companies–including Gillette and Wal-Mart–around a common vision: the “smart tag.” That’s a chip that can tell not only whether an item has been bought, but where it has been, and even how it was handled.
From Sajay’s original entry:
Tell us what you do and the specific challenge you faced.
Could you imagine a world where your groceries would automatically talk to the store through their bar-codes. so when they ran out of your favorite shaving blades, the store could automatically restock it. Sanjay, as Founder of Auto-ID, architected a technology that would make that a reality. This technology is called the EPC (Electronic Product Code)and is revolutionalizing supply-chains everywhere. Auto-ID is a consortium of 100 companies and 6 Universities, which is creating the next generation bar-code system. The biggest challenge was laying out a path to reality from the vision of Auto-ID. It involved the coordination of key inventions to be made, the technology to be mastered, the organizations to cooperate and finally, the people to buy it. The challenge lay in pushing the limits of possibility to make what people actually want to be possible. Auto-ID has successfully been able to meet most of these goals.
What was your moment of truth?
Professor Sanjay Sarma’s breakthrough came, together with his co-founder David Brock, in early 1998, when they had the realization that with the right technology they could put tags on everything. This idea put a number on the tag and put the data on a network. The tag communicated with the network using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. The challenge was to make the tag cheap and involved both generating volume and standards through the consortium and inventing new ways of making the system cheaper. He recruited a team and sponsors and that’s how the Auto-ID Center began taking its shape.
What were the results?
In a few years, the bar code may be replaced by networks capable of following products from factory to warehouse to supermarket shelves, potentially saving billions of dollars annually. The top retailers and consumer product goods companies in the world, including Walmart, Gillette, P&G, as well as the DOD have announced plans to deploy RFID technology and follow EPC Global standards. With the help of dozens of companies and five other universitie, Auto-ID has cobbled together a network that hinges on all pallets, cases, and individual items–whether packs of razor blades or bottles of shampoo–carrying their own RFID tag. The Auto-ID Center is now transitioning into Auto ID labs, and the Uniform Code Council has set up a new nonprofit fully owned subsidiary called EPC Global, which is taking over all the standard. By obtaining broad corporate sponsorship, developing standards, and pioneering research for the reduction of tag costs, Auto-ID’s RFID-powered EPCs are now poised for deployment.
What’s your parting tip?
Sanjay Sarma always says, “you have to believe and then make it happen.”