Logistics: November 17, 2003


What do the US Army and Wal-Mart have in common?
Radio-Frequency ID tags (RFID). These are small radio transmitter-receivers that are attached to shipping containers and contain remotely accessible information about exactly what is in a given box. Wal-Mart and other commercial enterprises recently began requiring these tags be used by all their vendors to allow them to better track inventories and guarantee that their shelves were adequately stocked. 

Traditionally, military logisticians have practiced a "push" method that flooded the theater with equipment to prevent shortages. Inevitably, needed items were lost amid stacks of redundant equipment. Obsolete gear shipped anyway, mislabeled containers, and units ordering parts repeatedly until the right item arrived were all routine occurrences. A brute force approach of throwing in extra equipment and manpower was viewed as the easy solution. Supply soldiers spent their days searching through shipping containers one by one. 

The war in Iraq saw the first major use of RFID tags by Central Command logisticians charged with feeding and supplying American forces in the Middle East. Every shipping container arriving in the theater was required to have an RFID tag. The tags allowed CentCom to know where critical equipment and urgent spare parts were located without having to dig through the crates the old-fashioned way. RFID tags and better databases on supply consumption and movement enabled a just-in-time philosophy similar to that used in industry. When you know where things are precisely, can track where they are going, and can get to them quickly, redundancy can be reduced with minimal risk to the soldiers in the field.

For the Iraq campaign, the US supported one third as many troops as Desert Storm, but shipped ninety percent fewer shipping containers. Some of the troops not sent to the Middle East were the folks who would have had the task of opening those extra containers and searching for lost equipment. With the increased chances of rear area chemical, biological, or terrorist attack, the virtues of having a smaller logistics crew are self-evident. 

Ninety percent accurate, RFID tags still aren't as reliable as UPC (bar codes) symbols (99 percent accurate) and can't be used for bulk items because their scanners cannot read through dense items like liquids, sand, or concrete, but they have tremendous potential. The next generation will be able to record the humidity and temperature a container has been exposed to in order to predict the shelf life of food or other items stored inside. 

RFID tags for individual packages will be required for all Department of Defense procured items by 2005. These smaller tags cost $.20 to $.30, but as volumes go up they are expected to drop to about $.05. The tags currently used for shipping containers and pallets cost about $150, but should drop to the $7 to $1 range. The initial purchase was for a five-month supply worth $5.87-million. Knowing better what is in the inventory could allow the DoD to reduce redundancies in its warehouses by $34-billion. --AJ Wagner


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