On Track – RFID and AIT Supply Chain Solutions get material from Point A to Point B – and everywhere in between

FedEx, UPS, even the U.S. Postal Service pride themselves ontheir ability to track a package, “anytime, anywhere in the world.” One would think that such an ability would be just as important—actually more important—to a successful military campaign. However, for decades no centralized system to do so existed. Even as recently as Desert Storm, supply chain management was paper-based. Logisticians lost track of where container shipments were. Worse yet, often they did not even know what assets they had. Freight containers served as impromptu warehouses stretching for miles across the sands. The only way to determine what was inside of them was to open them up.

But that all has changed since the creation of the Program Manager for Joint-Automatic Identification Technology (PM J-AIT) and the radio frequency identification (RFID)-based In-Transit Visibility network. “Automatic identification technology, or AIT, refers to a large family of technologies,” said Mark Nelson, director of communications Savi Group, a Lockheed Martin company. “AIT is a body of different wireless data technologies that can transmit data and information about where an asset or thing is located. By layering on different levels of AIT functionality you can also monitor the condition and the security of those assets.” The heart of most AIT solutions is RFID technology.

Breakdowns and supply chain delays can be a matter of life or death for warfighters. What good is a state-of-the-art weapon system if its components are lost in transit? To resolve such issues over the last few years, DoD has been turning toward RFID.

RFID is the use of a tag or chip affixed to, or incorporated into, a product to identify and track it via radio waves. RFID technology has had a broad range of applications, from tracking migration patterns of birds, to preventing infant abductions in hospitals. RFID tags are usually referred to as passive or active. For military applications we are talking about active, or aRFID applications, or those that possess battery power and can transmit their signals autonomously. active RFID is a subset of the AIT family or technologies, which includes GPS, GPRS, SATCOM and barcode readers and scanners. When the technologies are combined and integrated as they have been in the DoD’s Radio Frequency In-Transit Visibility (RF-ITV) system, a platform is created that enables unprecedented command and control opportunities for the military logistician.

Now the user can tell where something is, if it is secure, and—in the case of such things as food or perishable medical supplies—monitor environmental conditions such as temperature, shock and vibrations. According to the experts this represents the most astounding breakthrough in implementing such ‘visibility’ systems. Unlike in the past, now the logistician can obtain information about any asset in transit or even in storage and take immediate action on that data.

Said Savi’s Nelson, “Today you not only have the ability of knowing where a shipment is within the RFID tracking network; you also know exactly what is inside the container and what condition it is in. So if you are looking for something, you can find it. If something is being delayed, you’ll know it and be able to take action to move it along or seek alternatives. If you have things like tank tracks or jet engines that are sensitive sensitive to humidity, you can get alerts as to environmental conditions. We now have real-time visibility across the entire supply chain.”

The Network

It is the mission of PM J-AIT to manage the world’s largest RFID-enabled asset visibility system. A policy memorandum issued in February 2008 stated: “All U.S. Army organizations and activities will procure AIT products and services from the PM J-AIT. Direct procurement of AIT products and services from commercial sources is not authorized. U.S. Army organizations and activities are encouraged to coordinate directly with the PM J-AIT on any AIT initiatives and offer recommendations to include other value added AIT products to contracts.”

Savi is among several companies that were recently awarded PM J-AIT indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity active RFID contracts. Others include Northrop Grumman Information Technology, Unisys, Motorola, and Systems and Processes Engineering Corp. Since these systems will be used extensively for the delivery of supplies for operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, components must also be able to meet all foreign military sales requirements to provide seamless interoperability with U.S. allies. “We have a very powerful platform,” said Nelson. “We can tie together all of these wireless devices and give you a nice clean simple view of what it is you are monitoring … whether that is security, location or environmental conditions.” It is the goal of PM J-AIT to expand the use of AIT-IV technologies beyond inventory, warehouse and supply chain applications to large, open-area storage facilities and maintenance, repair and tracking facilities.

In August, Motorola announced that it too had been awarded a PM J-AIT IDIQ contract to provide mobile computing, handheld scanning and management software products. In a company press release, Jim Mears, vice president and general manager of Motorola’s U.S. federal government market division, said, “Motorola congratulates our [AIT] partners on these awards and looks forward to working closely with them. These wins validate Motorola’s channel centric go-to-market strategy and role in providing innovative AIT solutions that meet the needs of DoD mission-critical applications.” CDO Technologies of Dayton, Ohio, is one of those partners. “AIT-IV will be the cornerstone of the most sophisticated supply chain systems the DoD has ever undertaken; these systems require the seamless integration of the most advanced automatic ID and communications technologies and services available,” said Don Ertel, vice president of CDO Technologies’ Systems & Technology Solutions Division.

Also among those receiving recent PM J-AIT awards is Northrop Grumman Information Technology. Under the terms of that contract, NGC’s information systems division will supply mobile computing solutions, including software, scanners, barcode printers and other wireless technologies including armory management kits, as well as the technical engineering services to implement this technology. The contract will be performed over a three-year base period with one two-year, and one four-year renewal option.

A significant subcontractor on the Savi prime RFID III PM J-AIT contract is RFID Global Solution, Inc. (RFIDGS). The current president and chief technology officer of RFID Global, Joe Leone, was instrumental in the design and deployment of DoD’s asset visibility network in the 1990’s. In addition to RFID III, under the sub-contract with Savi, Global will provide the design and implementation of complete passive RFID (pRFID) solutions for the Department of Defense, joint services, U.S. Coast Guard, other federal agencies, NATO and allied international defense forces on an IDIQ through 2012 and beyond.

RFID Global’s aim is to provide prime contractors with the ability to add value to the solutions they provide. “We go beyond compliance,” said Diana Hage, company CEO. “We believe that a properly designed
solution can create a value-generating proposition that works for the supplier and the mandating organization. Our solutions allow users at all levels to ‘look’ virtually into the supply chain or manufacturing process, and see where items are at any point in the process, if they are meeting scheduled production or delivery milestones, and how production will be impacted based on dependencies.”

RFID Global worked with Savi to implement a stock management and rapid deployment solution at Fort Bragg for the XVIII Airborne Corps. This solution gives commanders a tool to monitor and manage the different stages of the preparation of movement process. In July, Lieutenant General Mitchell Stevenson, U.S. Army G-4 was at a demonstration of the installation at Fort Bragg. The on-duty supply specialist went through the receiving processing for General Stevenson using our SmartTable solution as a processing surface,” related Leone. “When asked by the general if she liked the table and if it helped, she said that ‘it was the best thing since sliced bread’, and that she wished she had such an RFID-enabled workspace years ago.”

Nelson described a typical application: “Let’s say you are shipping clothing to the Marines from Camp Pendleton in San Diego to Baghdad, or Kabul, Afghanistan. … Bar codes would be put on the boxes of boots, socks, what have you; the boxes are put on a pallet—on the pallet you would have an active RFID tag—and you scan with a handheld reader the barcode information on the boxes and the information on the tag, and on the pallet. Then you load all that in the container, seal the container, and then put another RFID tag on the outside of the container. Now, using the handheld device you associate the box and pallet data with that container. That information then is uploaded into a supply management system and that in turn is now information that is accessible by DoD’s total asset visibility system.”

Every time that container goes by a reader—whether stationary or handheld, at a depot, airport, train station, gate or other strategic point along the supply chain—that data is fed into the military transportation system, and operators know exactly where that shipment is and what the conditions are within the container. The latest innovations supplied by the vendors under the contracts mentioned combine active RFID with GPS and satellite communications, so even in areas without such fixed infrastructures, you can still track these shipments.

According to RFID Global’s Leone, these solutions, “allow users to receive items without opening boxes, know where parts are with a click of a mouse from anywhere in the world, and provide simple, easy to use, receiving systems that reconcile automatically without doing anything more than placing an item on a processing table.”

Moving Forward

The future of RFID/AIT technologies for military logistics is very bright. According to PM J-AIT, its RFID program is even going green. Solar-powered RFID systems are already in use at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and Fort Bragg, N.C. Lieutenant Colonel (P) Patrick Burden, PM J-AIT, has been quoted, “We’re planning to install the identical configuration in Afghanistan, and we’re also evaluating how to use a similar setup in Italy, Japan and Korea. It goes without saying that installations make the most sense where there’s plenty of sunshine.” Integrating advanced monitoring and diagnostic technologies such as micro-electro mechanical systems will potentially do for logistics and supply management what on-board health monitors have done to improve maintenance and operations of high-value assets.

Future uses for AIT-IV solutions may include monitoring entry and exit points of military facilities and roadside. When combined with biometrics, AIT-IV technologies can be used to secure restricted office and laboratory environments. Almost all DoD departments and federal agencies that currently deal with moving or warehousing regulated materials or data that are encumbered by antiquated manual methodologies, will benefit from wide-scale adoption of RFID technologies.

“The real objective here,” said Nelson, “is to provide confidence to the warfighter, so they know they will have the right stuff, in the right place, at the right time, and can concentrate on the job at hand. Does that save money and improve efficiency? Of course it does, but ultimately that saves lives.”