Setting the stage for RFID

DoD AIT Office

By the end of October, the Defense Department will have the systems, regulations and contract language in place to enable the use of passive radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to track shipments of a limited class of materiel.

The initial foray into RFID use will track materiel to and from two massive Defense Distribution Center depots in California and Pennsylvania.

RFID tags could streamline Defense Department supply-chain operations by supplying officials with electronic data that automatically locates millions of items in DOD's inventory.

Compared to older bar code technology, which requires line-of-sight proximity between a scanner and a label, RFID has the capability to increase efficiencies in supply operations. The scanners can read tags on the bottom of pallets or cases stacked in a warehouse, as long as they are within 10 to 20 feet of the reader.

Ed Coyle, chief of the Automatic Identification Technology Office for DOD Logistics, said the department has already bought five RFID readers to equip dock doors at the depot in Susquehanna, Pa., and another five readers to equip dock doors at the San Joaquin, Calif., depot. Coyle said he expects the readers to be installed by the end of October with both facilities ready to receive RFID-tagged shipments by Jan. 1, 2005, when the program officially starts.

DOD officials also plan to issue a new acquisition regulation that would eventually require all 43,000 military suppliers to use passive RFID tags on everything from rations to aircraft and tanks parts by Jan. 1, 2007. The regulation would allow DOD contracting officers to insert language requiring the use of RFID tags into contracts issued in fiscal 2005 and beyond, Coyle said.

DOD officials will phase in passive RFID tags during the next two years. For now, only vendors with contracts signed on or after Oct. 1 for field rations, clothing, and repair parts and components for weapon systems are required to use the technology on pallets and cases delivered to the Susquehanna and San Joaquin depots.

The RFID readers at the two depots will be hard-wired into the facility's existing local-area network through a PC-based network edge device, said Larry Loiacono, an information technology specialist at Defense Distribution Center headquarters in New Cumberland, Pa. That LAN will, in turn, feed information derived from the tag into the Wide Area Workflow system, a paperless electronic commerce system run by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

Coyle said the use of RFID tags to drive information, such as the date and time when goods arrived at depots, represents a major change in DOD business processes. It will speed up electronic payments and could provide a tremendous payback for the department and its suppliers.

The Defense Distribution Center manages 22 depots in the United States and Europe that stock 4 million items and process more than 23 million transactions annually. DOD officials plan to eventually handle all of those transactions with the aid of RFID tags. Sonya Gish, the center's deputy director of information operations, said officials are still determining the architecture they will need to support RFID throughout that vast system.

Steve Halliday, an RFID analyst with High Tech Aid in Gibsonia, Pa., agreed. "It is much better to do small-scale rollouts" of RFID to determine how the technology works and assess the impact on data flow and supply chain databases, he said. Data flow and data management are central to the promise of RFID, but if the process is not handled carefully, the massive amount of data generated by the tags could cripple a database, Halliday said.

"I've heard of nasty tales of databases that die" because of the volume of RFID data, he added.

Symbol's RFID task

Symbol Technologies Inc. won the symbolic victory of providing the first radio frequency identification (RFID) readers to be installed in Defense Department depots in California and Pennsylvania.

Ed Coyle, chief of the Automatic Identification Technology Office for DOD Logistics, said the department bought Symbol's readers through an RFID consulting contract it has with the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

But, Coyle added, DOD officials intend to use a blanket purchase agreement being run by the office to make sure users have a wide variety of readers and other RFID devices to choose from as use of the technology spreads throughout the department. Symbol, based in Holtsville,

N.Y., and Intermec Technologies Corp. are among the companies bidding on that contract, according to analysts and company officials.

A Symbol spokesman said the company is supplying DOD with readers with a range of up to 25 feet and four separate channels to support four read points. The readers were developed by Matrics Inc., which Symbol acquired earlier this month.

— Bob Brewin

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