EPCIS 2.0 – The Web language for supply chain data interoperability

The GS1 EPCIS 2.0 standard was released for public community review today, the last step before formal ratification of the standard. The time is right for EPCIS 2.0 as it provides a Web compatible universal language for supply chains, a critical building block for data interoperability in a world where supply chain transparency is demanded by consumer goods brands and consumers alike.

Today is a big day for the digitization of supply chains. With the publishing of this blog, the EPCIS (Electronic Product Code Information Service) open standard version 2.0 is being released for public community review. Public community review is one of the last steps before formal ratification of the standard and the first time the standard is available for public view outside of the GS1 standard working group. Supply chains have long been waiting for this standard. Here’s why…

Why does the world need the EPCIS standard?

Supply chain transparency is more important than ever: a competitive differentiator, critical for future business growth. Recent events like the COVID-19 crisis and growing concerns around climate change have exacerbated the need for supply chains to become more efficient and transparent. Transparency requires end-to-end visibility of products throughout the product lifecycle. Only with visibility can brands:

optimize supply chains, regain control of distribution channels, develop the agility and resilience needed to handle changing and unexpected disruptions and meet growing demand for omnichannel and direct-to-consumer interactions. With EPCIS 2.0, brands now have the visibility and real-time supply chain data to substantiate and demonstrate sustainability, and social and environmental credentials.

Although companies have invested heavily in traceability, most still struggle with blind spots in the supply chain — a lack of visibility that causes great inefficiencies locally and globally. Until now, unlocking transparency proved difficult because data couldn’t easily be shared across fragmented supply chains.

What does this look like? Data is spread across different silos within the supply chain, inside and outside the enterprise, which effectively talk different languages, and use different (proprietary) data formats, identifiers and taxonomies. In other words, data has historically been hard to capture, integrate and share. Not only are traditional  processes difficult to integrate and expensive to build and maintain but most companies change supply chain logistics partners every few years — exacerbating the challenge.

These inefficiencies led to the creation of the EPCIS standard: a standard to capture supply chain events in an open and interoperable manner. The EPCIS 1.0 standard was released in 2007 and I had the opportunity to participate in its roll out at Sun Microsystems (now Oracle) and later at SAP.

What’s the EPCIS standard in a nutshell?

The EPCIS standard is a common language to capture events related to the supply chain. In particular it captures the context of an event, covering the following angles:

  • What: What items were part of the event? e.g., a box of cereal is identified with an EPC (Electronic Product Code) in an RFID tag or via a GS1 Digital Link (new in 2.0)
  • When: When did this event take place?
  • Where: Where did the event take place? e.g., on production line 1 (aka bizLocation) via reader 124 at gate 43 (aka a readPoint)
  • Why: Capturing the business context: why did this event happen? e.g., during inspection (aka bizStep)
  • How (new in 2.0): What was the environmental context of the event? e.g., the temperature of the item was 5 degrees celsius (aka sensorReport)

The EPCIS standard allows events to be captured  via what’s called a capture interface while also allowing them to be queried via a standard query API. Furthermore, the EPCIS standard offers a subscription mechanism that pushes specific events, as they happen, to interested parties.

It is worth mentioning that the standard does not only cover the APIs and data models of an EPCIS repository but it also captures the semantics of the events. A specific part of the standard called CBV (Comprehensive Business Vocabulary) specifies all the terms and their meanings. This is for instance, where you can find a standardized way of describing an “inspection” step in a supply chain. This level of detail pushes interoperability across the supply chain to the extreme, allowing different parties to use exactly the same vocabulary when talking about supply chain events.

What was wrong with EPCIS 1.0/1.1/1.2?

While the EPCIS 1.0 standard was a good first step in tackling the significant challenge of data interoperability in the supply chain, it faced a number of obstacles. First, it came out ahead of its time. Back in 2007, transparency, as strange as this may sound, was a taboo subject in the supply chain world. As a result, the need and/or demand for interoperability was limited. Consumer pressure to demonstrate sustainability, and social and environmental impact credentials wasn’t as high as it is today. Also, product digital identities, beyond the good old class-level GTIN in a 1D barcode, weren’t that wide-spread. EPCIS 1.0 was designed for technologies belonging to the world of mainframes (e.g., SOAP services, XML, etc.), making it ill-suited when the Web took over as the biggest information platform of all time. Through my experiences working with the EPCIS 1.0 standard, I quickly learned that with the advent of the Web and the influx of new related technologies, adoption of the standard would be hindered. A new version of EPCIS was needed. And in 2010,  we started describing what we believed was a necessary evolution of the EPCIS standard (see Giving RFID a REST and Simplify RFID).

Fast forward to 2017, I was invited to a GS1 brainstorming session to discuss the future of the EPCIS standard. Out of that brainstorm, a working group was formed to define the standard, and today EPCIS 2.0 is moving to community review.

What’s new in EPCIS 2.0?

The EPCIS 2.0 release will be a major one, bringing a lot of new concepts to the table. Let us focus here on what we think are the most important ones.

Web Technologies (Warning: Highly technical content!)

First of all, on the technical side, this update brings the EPCIS standard to the Web by adding Web APIs to it’s interfaces. This is a big and much demanded move as it moves the standard away from supporting outdated technologies like SOAP over XML, into supporting modern Web technologies. Specifically it supports capturing and querying supply chain events via the REST architectural principles (opposed to the HTTP protocol). On top of this request-response HTTP API, the standard also now specifies two push mechanisms to allow clients to get informed when specific events happen. This happens via a mandatory HTTP Callback API (aka Webhook), as well as an optional Websocket interface. EVRYTHNG was given the mission to lead the Web APIs work package. The end result can be seen in the online documentation of the API.

On the data format side, the EPCIS 2.0 standard supports capturing data via the JSON format as opposed to XML only. Furthermore, JSON-LD is supported to ensure strong semantic interoperability.

GS1 Digital Link Support

The EPCIS 2.0 standard includes two additional notable features. First, it supports identifying items not only via an EPC code but also via the GS1 Digital Link standard (aka a unique URL for products). This is an important feature as it allows consumer brands to use the standard for a much wider range of use cases. As an original co-chair of the GS1 Digital Link standard working group, this bridge between the two specifications is very close to my heart and I am very happy that we managed to make it happen.

IOT Ready

Second, as mentioned before, EPCIS 2.0  also supports capturing the how of an event or, in other words, the environmental context of an event. Concretely this allows capturing information coming from sensors alongside the event. Think for example of capturing the temperature of a vaccine vial as it moves through the supply chain. This brings the EPCIS standard closer to IOT use cases and more modern tags capable of sensing (see for example our partnership with Williot).

What about EVRYTHNG?

EVRYTHNG has been at the forefront of this standard with key contributions because we believe in the power of an open standard to build a more transparent and efficient supply chain. But we did not stop there, EVRYTHNG implemented the first test implementation of the standard and then released EPCIS 2.0 support as part of our Product Cloud supply chain solution. We have since rolled out the standard with two live customers, allowing them to push data into the EVRYTHNG Product Cloud® via the EPCIS standard and in turn, deliver powerful real-time analytics.

We’ve also worked with Zebra and IOTA on an end to end integration via EPCIS 2.0. Zebra devices push supply chain events to the EVRYTHNG Product Cloud® and then anchors these events into the IOTA Distributed Ledger to ensure the events cannot be tampered with and are auditable on a public ledger. This project clearly illustrates the power of a common language for capturing and recording supply chain events: the integration of all elements is seamless, delivering value on top of data much faster.

Where do I get started?

The EPCIS 2.0 Working Group has produced valuable, accessible material on top of the standard itself. Here are links to materials I believe are most useful as you get started:

  • The soon-to-be standard is open for review. Feedback is welcomed! Note that the standard is in public review now. This means it is not ratified yet, and hence it is still subject to small changes.
  • The GitHub repository of the project where you can find both examples and API documentation. You’ll find a good visualization of the REST API here.
  • Epcis2.js – an open source Javascript library EVRYTHNG released in collaboration with Zebra to facilitate the development of applications communicating with EPCIS 2.0 repositories.
  • A set of tools to convert and experiment with EPCIS events built by the team at Benelog.

Finally do contact us if you’d like to learn more about EVRYTHNG’s Product Cloud support for EPCIS 2.0. We look forward to helping you implement your next supply chain transformation with EPCIS 2.0.

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