How a tiny label controls a tank
- By Susan M. Menke
- Jun 19, 2002
Timothy M. McGilloway, Zebra's code striper
(GCN Photo by Henrik G. DeGyor)
Contrary to rumor, the government is an excellent customer that pays its bills on time, Timothy M. McGilloway says.
McGilloway is director of strategic accounts at bar code giant Zebra Technologies Corp. of Vernon Hills, Ill.
'We touch almost everybody's life every day, and hardly anybody knows it,' he said.
'If you know what you're doing in billing the government, you have very few problems,' McGilloway said.
He praised IMPAC purchase cards for 72-hour turnaround. For noncredit purchases, he said, getting paid promptly 'comes down to knowing the government's requirements and supplying all the documentation. We rarely have a government billing that runs over 30 days.'
The 22-year veteran of the automated identification industry has been an alternate member of the American National Standards Institute's Radio-Frequency Tag Committee and has held sales positions at Caere Corp., National Semiconductor Corp., Polaroid Corp., Welch Allyn Inc. and elsewhere.
He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed McGilloway at GCN's offices in Washington. GCN: What kind of business does Zebra Technologies Corp. do with the government?
MCGILLOWAY: We do three things: locate, track and identify. We make printers for compliance labels, radio frequency asset tags and identity cards.
We do business with the government every way we possibly can'through systems integrators, General Services Administration schedule contracts, blanket purchasing agreements and indefinite-quantity contracts.GCN: You've said the government invented bar coding. How did that happen?
MCGILLOWAY: The government has been in the business of automated data collection by bar code for about 25 years. It has billions of individual assets to keep track of. The Defense Department, for instance, has stockpiles of equipment, food and weapons that all have to be located and tracked from Point A to Point B'and not just by a sergeant with a clipboard.
The government currently bar codes in some form every asset it has. A lot of the assets have to be maintained. Say you have a tank. You have to update the database to track its repairs or replacements. The electronics on ships, even printed-circuit boards, have bar codes to tell what the item is and what the last revision date was. All encryption radios, for example, have to have the same board version so they can communicate with each other.
This all started out as the Army's Logistics Modernization Program many years ago, up at the Tobyhanna, Pa., depot. LOGMOD set a specification for the information on tags for equipment. The officers said anybody that shipped into the government had to have this kind of tag.
So all the manufacturers that wanted to do business with the government'one of the largest consumers in the world'was forced into compliance labeling. It spread to the manufacturing process, and the manufacturers decided they might as well do it for other customers. The automakers developed their own set of rules from the military tags, and they required their suppliers to label, too. So everyone doing business with the government or Fortune 500 companies was into bar codes.
But now an item number will no longer suffice. There are so many items in databases that it takes too much time to scan the bar code at the warehouse, come back and upload to a computer, and go to the warehouse and pull the item when it's due for service.
The industry needed new codes. Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y., developed the two-dimensional PDF417 encrypted code that can have up to 3,000 characters or graphics. The whole data file travels with the asset. That eliminates the step of going somewhere to a computer to check. And with a portable printer, a warehouse worker can perform the service and stick on a new label with the added data.GCN: How big an item gets a 2-D bar code?
MCGILLOWAY: The government has to transport things that you don't realize. Almost all of its heavy equipment floats by boat'only the rapid-deployment equipment goes by plane. We don't have enough planes with enough capacity to support Afghanistan, for instance. So carriers have to be loaded with tanks, humvees, all kinds of support vehicles.
People think tanks are big'you should see the trucks that carry the tanks after they break down. And the carrier of course has to be load-balanced. The loading system has to know the tank's exact weight and whether it has fuel or armaments loaded on it.
When they first started bar coding tanks, they forgot to measure the height of the tank, so when they drove it down three or four stories into the hull of a ship, and the tank was too tall, it got stuck. It's really hard to pull a tank back out.
So now the bar code on the tank tells how much space the equipment takes up, so they can get the maximum into the carrier. They make the identifier tag right at the port and update the database with a portable wireless assistant. Then they stick the tag on the front of the tank and send it on to its destination.
A humvee can be configured in hundreds of different ways'with cannons, two radios, five radios, special tires, whatever. The only way to tell is with compliance labeling. When it's offloaded at the foreign port, they can scan all the data about the vehicle with a laser scanner. If they have connectivity, they can also uplink back to the U.S. database, but the commander in the field has the complete vehicle profile. So now they have real rapid deployment with Global Positioning System locations on the tag.
The government also has thousands of storage facilities with equipment standing idle that might be needed. The best way to track that is with compliance labeling.GCN: Is DOD the main government user of your printers?
MCGILLOWAY: We're a subcontractor on the five-year Automatic Identification Technology contract. We supply all the label printers to the Military Air Transport Command. We have supply contracts with the State and Veterans Affairs departments, the Library of Congress and the Postal Service.
We were concentrated at DOD, but after Sept. 11 a lot of civilian agencies are starting to do more asset control and to use identity cards, which we produce.GCN: Was your label on the classified notebook PC that got stolen from the State Department in 2000?
MCGILLOWAY: Misplaced, misplaced.
Actually, it did have our bar codes on it. We supply serial-number labels for the major computer manufacturers. But the State Department didn't have a label on it.
All government assets worth $5,000 or more must now have an agency bar code on them that gets scanned or recorded at least once a month. In some cases, there must be verification that the asset is within a certain area or certain office.
The department has PCs throughout their offices and conference rooms. Those PCs are not allowed to leave those places. That's a new use of labels that a lot of agencies are looking at, and that's where you get into bridge technology in automated data collection.
Bridge technology moves from a scanable printed label to a printed label that incorporates a radio frequency tag, similar to the antitheft tags on merchandise in stores. Right now that's expensive compared to a printed label, which costs pennies. RF tags can cost $1.25 each. You don't use them if the item is inexpensive.
Agencies are looking at the tracking aspect of RF tags, too. Original documents, for instance, might be transferred from department to department, but they cannot leave the building. They must not be lost and cannot be duplicated without a great deal of effort. An RF tag is expensive, but it's worth it for those documents.
The Social Security Administration has millions and millions of document files. Every person with a Social Security number has a paper file. Every time something happens on a sheet of paper, they have to put the paper in the file and put it back. Tracking that is immense.
Think of the chain of evidence that the FBI has to collect for court cases. Almost every law enforcement agency uses bar code labeling to check evidence in and out. There cannot be a break in that chain of evidence.