Training for RFID

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Training and the pressures of war, but not technology, are the main challenges to widespread adoption of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for tagging materiel as it flows from distribution center to soldiers, said Mae De Vincentis, chief information officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

"We don't see technology as the obstacle," she said. "I'm sure that the technology and all the players are going to get there. Our biggest problem is the operating environment."

De Vincentis spoke today at the Fall 2004 CIO Summit in Boca Raton, Fla.

Military officials expect RFID technology to replace the bar codes widely used today to track material. Unlike bar codes, RFID tags don't require line-of-sight proximity between a scanner and a label.

Arguments about RFID spectrum ranges will pass, De Vincentis said. "Where there's product that comes into the country, [manufacturers] are going to abide by whatever standards we set," she said.

In addition, arguments that RFID could compromise soldiers' security by allowing rogue elements to identify cargo being transported were found to be largely without merit, she added. "For starters, you have to get a ping" from the RFID tag, she said. "We came to the conclusions that it was a low-risk proposition."

However, allies in Pakistan dislike U.S. use of RFID, suspecting the tags might actually be monitoring devices, De Vincentis said. And in Afghanistan, where officials say the tags are sorely needed, no infrastructure can support their deployment, she added, citing a one-star general now deployed in that country as her source.

The battlefield itself presents an implementation problem, De Vincentis said. "It's a very hazy environment," and training needs to go along with physical adoption of the tags.

Installing RFID technology is "pretty much like installing a [radio frequency] network," said Linda Dillman, CIO at Wal-Mart Stores. Dillman also spoke at the conference. "We didn't have to change our legacy systems; we didn't have to build a new data warehouse."

In fact, holding up the spread of RFID throughout all Wal-Mart's stores was an overabundance of information coming from the tags, she said. "People are being encouraged to overdesign," she said. "We didn't need all the data." Wal-Mart technicians calibrated the technology with black boxes to send only data needed at the time of collection, she said.

Use of the real-time tracking technology has led to some surprising results, Dillman said. For example, the two most often shoplifted items from the pharmacy area recently have been wrinkle and scar reduction creams. There must be "a lot of wrinkled, scarred people walking around," she said.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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