GS1 EPC Encodings Save Time, and Money… and a Whole Lot More

By March 30, 2016 All, Company No Comments


Perhaps you are new to the track and trace/serialization industry or maybe you’re an old coot like me who has been around for a while. Either way, if you are in a supply side related industry that deals with track, trace, or serialization, do yourself a favor—understand what GS1 specifications are and why they are so important.

EPCIS 1.1 Specification
•    Core Business Vocabulary (CBV 1.1)
•    Tag Data Translation Specification (I’m not a fan, but still…)
•    GS1 EPC Tag Data Specification

Yes, there are many more concepts, mandates, laws, rules, regulations and so on that you will need to know. But in this post I want to speak to the EPC Tag Data Specification or the TDS.
To say it’s vital to have a handle on this subject is an understatement. I find that all too often within software or service vendors this subject is not so much overlooked as it is brushed aside. That is, until one of the many things that can go wrong from not understanding it rears its ugly head.

What is an EPC TDS?
EPC TDS is an Electronic Product Code Tag Data Specification—a way to identify specific, individual physical objects. The object could be almost anything. But strictly speaking EPC numbers are associated with trade items, logistics units, documents, service relations, locations, and/or other physical assets. Every physical object can be assigned a unique EPC TDS, and with this unique identifier, that object can be the subject of electronic information.

Going from the General to the Specific
Most everyone is familiar with the Universal Product Code or UPC that was introduced in the early 1970s. If you grab any product lying around on your desk such as a soda can, you can find a UPC affixed to that product. A UPC simply tells whomever wishes to know what company manufactured the product and what the product is. The two data items that make this possible are the company prefix, which identifies the company, and the item reference, which identifies the product the company makes.

The UPC is an efficient way to generalize. A good analogy would be if you were at a crowded mall and looked into a group of people and said “Those are human beings.” Chances are that’s really all you could do without interviewing each individual in that crowd. Ok, let’s do that. Let’s ask a woman her name: Sally Jenkins. Just that little bit of information has set this particular human being apart from the crowd because now we know her name.

If we let the crowd continue shopping and, at some point later, yelled out “Hey, You!,” chances are most people in the crowd would turn in our direction, not knowing which of them we were yelling to. If, however, we yell out “Hey, Sally Jenkins!,” chances are that the woman named Sally Jenkins would turn around.

But what if there is another Sally Jenkins in the crowd? When we yell out “Hey, Sally Jenkins!,” maybe two women might look our way. To make sure we have the right Sally, we have to learn more about both women. (This is only an example and, besides, mall security would have been called a long time ago. But go with me here for a moment).

Maybe we ask them their ages, and one Sally Jenkins says she’s 29 while the other says she’s 41. Now we let the crowd continue to shop and, after a little time passes, we yell “Hey, Sally Jenkins who is 29!”  Chances are the 29-year-old Sally would turn around. Now we have gone past generalization to specificity.

What makes an EPC Encoding Unique?
Whereas the UPC gives us the general information (these are human beings), EPC TDS encodings goes deeper (name, age).  EPC TDS is a combination of the item’s serial number plus the company prefix and item reference. With these three identifiers, we know not only the exact product, but the exact item: the Coke can sitting on your desk. And we know that the actual soda can sitting on your desk was manufactured in Atlanta, GA, shipped to a distribution center in Memphis, TN, flown to another distribution warehouse in Philadelphia, PA, sent to the CVS on Broad Street and then subsequently purchased.

EPC TDS Can Save Time, Money, and Reputation
Having immediate access to all of this information is an important capability when we’re talking about retail products—and absolutely necessary for pharmaceuticals and food. Prior to EPC, if the soda you drank was defective in some way, all that the manufacturer could do in response would be conduct a national recall of every soda in every store across the nation. Today, thanks to the specific EPC TDS on your can of soda, the manufacture can identify the exact lot it was part of, and recall only those sodas shipped to that specific CVS on Broad Street.

Clearly, being able to pinpoint recalls using EPC TDS can mean huge savings in time and money.  And by avoiding the negative publicity that can come with a widespread product recall, EPC TDS saves something else too: the manufacturer’s reputation.

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Chuck SailerAbout Chuck Sailer
Chuck Sailer serves as Vice President, IRIS Product Management at Frequentz.  He is an architect, developer and project leader with notable success in designing, developing and implementing all facets of world-class commercial software in a broad range of industries and technologies.  Chuck also blogs about software topics from programming to track, trace and serialization at

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