Logistics: January 8, 2005


The American military has found a way to avoid losing track of stuff that is in the long supply pipeline from the United States to wherever the fighting is. But there's a twist to this. Much has been made of the peace dividend from military technology. One such event is taking place right now, and its pretty much unnoticed, and it has to do with keeping track of stuff. RFID (radio-frequency identification) 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, eventually 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 can 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. 

Theres a problem, though. RFID is new, and companies are 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 is encountering resistance from its thousands of suppliers. There are so many problems that can be encountered with a new technology. Commercial firms are waiting for someone else to go first. So this year, the U.S. Marine Corps went out and started using RFID. It distributed 600 RFID readers to its world wide 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. 




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