For DOD logistics, tags are it!

A new Defense Department policy that mandates the widespread use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology could be critical to the military's efforts to transform its supply line.

RFID hardware, software and services have helped the armed services make a quantum leap in cargo and vehicle tracking since the last Gulf War, but for critical payloads entering remote, hostile areas, DOD officials are relying on satellite tags. Those units include a Global Positioning System satellite receiver and antenna and a long-life battery stored in a heavy-duty box that is affixed to critical cargo. The tags can be tracked every 30 to 60 minutes with the data relayed back to a server.

RFID systems aren't nearly as bulky or gluttonous consumers of power as satellite tags.

Today, RFID technologies have made possible "just in time" logistics, where materials are no longer stored but instead can be ordered to arrive when needed. DOD officials can embed containers with electronic tags that can be read like bar codes using a handheld device or an automated scanning system.

Containers can be scanned at various points in transit, with the information captured in an online database so logistics experts worldwide can track the progress of supplies they ordered. Department officials refer to this as total asset visibility.

"Implementation of RFID minimizes time spent through the normal means of inventory processing," according to an Oct. 23 DOD statement. "This technology allows the improvement of data quality, items management, asset visibility and maintenance of materiel. Further, RFID will enable DOD to improve business functions and facilitate all aspects of the DOD supply chain."

The new policy, outlined in a memorandum drafted by Michael Wynne, DOD's acting undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, will require suppliers to put passive RFID tags on the lowest possible part, case or pallet packaging by January 2005.

"We will develop business rules based on the results of initial RFID projects to be completed and analyzed no later than May 2004," Wynne's memo reads. "We will issue a final version of this policy in July 2004."

Acknowledging the impact on DOD suppliers, the agency plans to host an RFID summit for industry in February 2004.

Wynne named Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for supply chain integration, to spearhead the organization and implementation of an integrated product team, which will be responsible for refining the policy, developing a long-range implementation strategy and identifying pilot opportunities for initial implementation.

"We have been using active RFIDs for 10 or 12 years, but it's been on an ad hoc basis," Estevez said. "Instead of doing it ad hoc every time we go to war, we want to codify this as a way of doing business."

The team will come up with interim guidance until the final policy is ready next summer, and run several pilots to determine where the state and cost of technology lie, he said.

DOD officials will be moving to more passive RFID tags rather than active ones, Estevez said. Active tags are battery powered and constantly "on," seeking an interrogator device, and their average cost is slightly less than $100, he said. Passive tags cost between $0.40 and $10 and are dormant until they are scanned — or interrogated.

"We will be working across the department, with the services, the combat commands, the joint staff, the [Defense Logistics Agency] and U.S. Transportation Command," he said. "We will also be working with industry groups and vendors, both commercial and government-focused suppliers."

David Stephens, senior vice president of the public sector at Savi Technologies Inc., DOD's lead procurement contractor for RFID, said DOD has seen the technological advantage offered by RFID and will follow closely on the heels of such industry giants as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in its adoption.

"The active, data-rich tags were mandatory in Iraq, and the Defense Department saw the cost savings and said, 'Let's use this today,' " he said. "DOD is banking on the success of the commercial industry because it has a lot of suppliers."

Wal-Mart earlier this year announced it will put its weight behind RFID tracking. With such a large private-sector corporation also using the tags, it should ensure the development of industry standards and best practices. Estevez said he plans on using commercial standards, and that will be DOD's first step.

Stephens said data-rich tags that are in place now have proven their scalability, and he thinks department officials should have little trouble in meeting the self-assigned January 2005 deadline.

"The only limiting factor for DOD is funding," he said.

The RFID policy and the corresponding tagging and labeling of department materiel are applicable to all items except bulk commodities such as sand, gravel or liquids.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a program — the dynamic optical tags system — that fits a similar purpose, but achieves the results in a different way.

The goal is to develop small, thin, long-lived optical retroreflecting tags with a long-range system for activating them and transmitting data.

Retroreflecting devices bounce light beams back along the same paths from which they came. Unlike other traditional tags, the DARPA-developed optical units will not rely on radio frequencies but instead use what officials describe as automated scanning algorithms.

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