Defense calls shotgun on RFID

DOD undersecretary Michael Wynne says it's a waste of military manpower to unload shipments at depots and tag items before delivery.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Tracking a global supply chain with radio frequency identification tags is like trying to jump into a vehicle that's still moving down the assembly line.

But the Defense Department is proceeding aggressively with RFID plans so it will have a say in how the technology advances.

'We're an early adopter because we want to influence the development,' said Ed Coyle, chief of DOD's Logistics Automatic Identification Technology Office. 'We don't want to be unique, but we want to make sure the technology that evolves meets our requirements, too.'

DOD is cooperating with large commercial enterprises such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and standard-setting groups such as EPCglobal Inc. to make sure its RFID requirements dovetail with commercial ones. The department also is cooperating on RFID with other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, General Services Administration, Postal Service and Transportation Security Administration.

'We've decided we need to get an intergovernmental council going,' Coyle said.

DOD next year will require its 43,000 suppliers to begin placing passive RFID tags on cases and pallets of goods. The tags will be read automatically at shipment points around the world, giving the military services a better view of the millions of items moving through supply chains.

Coyle was among the Defense and industry officials who spoke this month at DOD's second RFID industry summit in Washington. The department held the summit to keep contractors abreast of its requirements.

So far, technical details are scarce. DOD is considering tag transmitters in the 860- to 960-MHz UHF band, said Dan Kimball, lead technical adviser in Defense's AIT office. Data on the tags will comply with EPC standards, and the data constructs will be the same as those required by Wal-Mart and other commercial users, he said.

DOD plans to release final technical specifications in July and final acquisition regulations for tags in October. The first technical specs came out this past October, with a second version in December. The department will release a third version next month.

DOD will require the tags on procurements made after Oct. 1 for delivery after Jan. 1.

IBM Corp.'s business consulting services group received a three-year contract in February for the RFID program. The company will identify DOD-specific requirements and develop the final technical policy as well as manage the program for the first two years.

'This technology is not mature,' said William Phillips, head of IBM's defense industry consulting business. 'It is evolving rapidly.'

DOD requirements are similar to industry's at a high level, Phillips said, 'but as you drill down, DOD's focus is on readiness.' Its supply chain is more widely distributed and more fluid than those of most commercial organizations, he said.

DOD already is using active RFID tags on large shipments and has credited them with streamlining logistics support for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Active tags have up to 128K of memory and incorporate their own transmitters to allow reading at relatively long distances.

'We're fairly mature' in active RFID, Coyle said. But because of the size and cost of the tags'about $15 each'they are practical only for large items such as shipping containers.

Materiel en route to combat units now is unloaded at Dover Air Force Base, Del., tagged and reloaded before shipment overseas, said Michael Wynne, acting undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Passive versus active

'This is a waste of manpower,' Wynne said. 'The RFID tags should be installed at vendor locations.'

The active tags help DOD better track materiel in its supply chain but not necessarily manage it better. The department is counting on the smaller, cheaper passive tags to solve both problems.

Linked with back-end systems, data from tags would conduct transactions of record, speeding electronic payments to vendors.

Tags on smaller packaging units also could track goods to their point of use instead of their last depot. That would improve inventory management, ensuring that items get to where they are needed without excessive stockpiling'a major savings, Coyle said.

Better parts management also could reduce maintenance time for weapons and reduce the number of systems needed to support troops in the field, he said.

There are privacy concerns, however, about setting up a standards-based, interoperable RFID infrastructure and pushing tags down to individual items. Privacy groups fear that small, identifiable tags on consumer goods would let businesses track and gather data about individuals.

But Wynne countered, 'I see the application in the defense community as breaking through some of these barriers.'

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