DOD awards RFID contracts

Army taps six suppliers to deliver UHF tags

Inching closer to their goal of using passive radio frequency identification technology (RFID) throughout the Defense Department’s supply chain, DOD officials awarded contracts last week to six suppliers for ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID tags.

But the target date for regulations that would mandate DOD suppliers’ use of the technology remains murky. Early tests show that some human interaction is still necessary to verify that the tags have been read.

Michael Wynne, DOD’s acting deputy undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, issued a memo last July that stated that RFID tags would be mandatory on containers or pallets of food, clothing and weapons repair parts shipped to DOD depots as of Jan. 1. All of the department’s 60,000 suppliers would have to use the technology by Jan. 1, 2007, according to the memo.

To make this a legally binding requirement in contracts, DOD officials needed to develop a new Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement in cooperation with the Office of Management and Budget. But OMB officials only recently started to review final versions of DOD RFID analysis and supporting materials last week, department sources said.

Sarah Hawkins, an OMB spokeswoman, said the RFID review has been extended, but she could not say when it would be completed. Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary for supply chain integration, said at an industry meeting last month that he expected approval of the new RFID clauses sometime this spring.

The RFID tag contracts awarded last week by officials at the Army’s Joint-Automatic Identification Technology program cover passive UHF tags that operate in the 860 MHz to 960 MHz range, have a 96-bit data store and have a range of 3 feet for readers.

Officials at Alien Technology and Intermec Technologies said they had won blanket purchase agreements from the Army for UHF RFID tags. Industry sources said Army officials awarded BPAs to at least three other companies.

Larry Huseby, Intermec’s industry marketing director for government markets, did not comment on the value of the BPA, adding that he could not estimate how many tags DOD officials will use internally. He said that besides the current UHF tags, the BPA covers the purchase of new UHF tags that will have higher data capacity when officials approve the underlying standard for them and manufacturers start producing them.

Huseby added that program officials plan to issue contracts for fixed, portable and handheld tag readers, software and integration services this year.

DOD will use the tags to identify outbound shipments dispatched from DOD depots and warehouses. A test of the technology at the Ocean Terminal in Norfolk, Va., operated by the Naval Supply Systems Command, shows that RFID is not unquestionably reliable. Speaking at the DOD RFID industry day last month, Dave Cass, director of the Ocean Terminal division of the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center in Norfolk, said RFID users “cannot expect 100 percent reads of shipments 100 percent of the time.”

Cass said RFID technology is “not acceptable for transactions of record today,” and “human interaction [is] required to provide a check and a balance that everything that should have been read was read.”

He predicted that RFID technology will improve dramatically, but the laws of physics “will prevent absolute accuracy.”

Uncle Sam’s RFID wants you

Although Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget officials have yet to come to an agreement on the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement mandating the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, Defense Logistics Agency officials have equipped their mammoth depots in San Joaquin, Calif., and Susquehanna, Pa., with tag readers and would like to test them before the regulations go into effect.

DLA officials are seeking companies to volunteer to participate in test programs at the depots with no contractual obligations or compliance requirements. Lockheed Martin and the General Electric’s Transportation division have already enlisted in the project.

It’s easy for suppliers to volunteer for DLA’s RFID army. Send an e-mail message to ddc.rfid@ddc.dla.mil that includes your name, title, organization, contact information and anticipated date of shipment and destination depot, and you will receive additional instructions.

— Bob Brewin

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