Logistics: Smart Supplies Tell You Where They Are

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December 7, 2009: Wars always spur change, and there have been many generally unpublicized innovations that have taken place, during the last eight years, in how the troops are supplied. Two problems, in particular, have been addressed. One is how the millions of tons of supplies are kept track of as they make their way from factory to fighting front.

The other problem is knowing when replacement parts are needed for worn out or damaged equipment. To deal with this, the U.S. Department of Defense is equipping its older equipment (vehicles and aircraft) with sensor systems, like those found in current automobiles, that will monitor key components, and store the data. Periodically, mechanics will plug the sensor system into a laptop, retrieve performance data, and pass it on to a master database. This data can then be analyzed to predict which vehicles, or complex components (like aircraft engines) are likely to breakdown, and need some dedicated attention immediately. The U.S. Army is even equipping its assault rifles with a device that counts the number of bullets fired, as certain parts of the rifle should be replaced, or inspected, when a certain number of bullets are fired. This is another case of the military adapting a technology which has already proven itself in the commercial world. This technology is particularly useful in wartime, when equipment is being used more heavily, and breakdowns are more likely to occur.

A larger problem, keeping track of stuff that is in the long supply pipeline from the United States to wherever the fighting is, has made use of a new technology that has been adopted more slowly by commercial firms. It's RFID (radio-frequency identification), which has been in development for years, to replace bar codes, the previous revolution in keeping track of stuff. RFID uses small labels containing a cheap (less than a buck now, headed towards pennies each) electronic device that contains information about what is inside whatever it is attached to. The RFID is written to by a PC equipped with RFID writer hardware and software, or, in the latest generation of RFID chips, via a wireless device. What makes it all work is the ability of RFID to broadcast back when an electronic RFID reader is within range (at least ten feet) of an RFID tag. The RFID tag requires no power, it simply reflects back when hit with electromagnetic energy from the RFID reader, sending the data placed on the tag back as well. You then plug the RFID reader into a PC and transmit the RFID data back to a central database that is updated. The way the military uses this, anyone with a PC and a password can get on the Internet and access the database to see where there stuff was the last time someone came by with an RFID reader. Unlike bar codes, which have to be visible to the reader, you can have a container full of individual items, each with its own RFID tag, that can be read when the RFID reader goes by. Some readers can also write to tags, and some readers have a range of up to a hundred feet. There are several generations of RFID equipment in use at the moment.

There's a problem, though. RFID is new, and companies have been slow to commit to this new, expensive (if used on a large scale) technology. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, and one of the largest users of information technology, is going into RFID in a big way, and encountered so much resistance from its thousands of suppliers, that it had to back off a bit.

There are so many problems that can be encountered with a new technology, and this often stalls development. With RFID, most commercial firms were waiting for someone else to go first. So four years ago, the U.S. Marine Corps went out and started using RFID. It distributed 600 RFID readers to its worldwide network of bases and attached RFID tags to stuff it was sending overseas, especially to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. The marines encountered some problems, but nothing major. The troops love it. When they need to find out where some vital bit of supplies are (a spare part, new equipment, whatever), they just get on the Internet and check the status of the item. When it arrives, it will be a lot easier to find. The marine experience is being closely observed by commercial firms, and will be learned from. Another peace dividend.

The other services implemented RFID, and now the military is a major user of the technology. While RFID is still too expensive for most manufacturers and retailers, it has become cost effective for smart credit cards (especially outside the United States) and for things like passports (inside the United States). But the military has found RFID extremely effective in solving the ancient problem of tracking goods that enter the normally chaotic military supply system.

 


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