Sgt. Robert Williams, with the 276th Transportation Detachment,uses a hand-held kit to scan U.S. cargo in northern Afghanistan while Staff Sgt. Will Engle, right, 732nd Movement Control Team, affixes a radio frequency identification tag to a shipping container in Iraq. Pentagon investments in tracking technology have greatly improved its ability to know the location and condition of assets in transit. (Army)
When it comes to managing the Pentagon’s vast logistics operations, access to reliable and timely data is critical.
Over the past decade, the department has steadily invested in tracking technology and systems that today are capable of generating data on the location and condition of assets in transit, including whether a sensitive asset may have been tampered with, dropped or exceeded a certain temperature during the shipping process.
“For a long time, just knowing where the assets were was good enough,” said Rosemary Johnston, vice president of federal sales and strategy at Savi Technology. “We are seeing an increased use in tagging technology and, more importantly, the data ... to make better informed decisions,” she said.
Johnston said DoD is increasing its use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging for computer assets and other high-value and sensitive items. This type of technology has reduced the amount of manpower needed to track shipments, identify where they’re located or reroute them, if needed.
For years, DoD relied heavily on manual labor to track shipments of fuel and other items. Today, agencies can aggregate real-time location data from the RFID tags with social networking data and weather data to make better decisions, such as routing a convoy to reduce travel time, she said.
Within DoD, the Army is using a new generation of RFID tagging on a limited basis to track vehicles in storage yards. Called wireless sensor mesh, this evolving form of RFID technology allows users to continuously track items across a larger vicinity than traditional RFID technology, said Dave Evans, a consultant with LMI. This area can be as large as several square miles, and the technology doesn’t require users to scan items with an RFID hand-held or mounted reader. With mesh RFID, there is a continuous emission of encrypted radio frequency signals that allows tagged items to communicate with each other and report the condition of other items in the vicinity, forming a network, Evans said.
In the near term, inventory in fixed locations or large shipping containers in transit with valuable items, hard-to-replace items or critical spare parts are good candidates for mesh RFID, he said. As the technology becomes cheaper, he expects DoD will use the technology to track inventory at the pallet level.
“The big thing is the price point,” Evans said. The Army is trying to quantify the value of this kind of technology. “It takes a long time to develop and field an entirely new technology,” he said.
Evans predicts that mesh RFID will prove to be a disruptive technology in the logistics arena, much as cell phones were disruptive to payphones and calling cards.
The other challenge: “What do we do with all the data we’re creating?” said Rick Blasgen, president and CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. “What you really want is insights in how do I make better decisions now that I have access to data.”
Organizations have to consider where they will house the data, how to make sense of the data and get timely information to decision-makers, Blasgen said. Cloud computing is a tool companies and agencies can use to make logistics data accessible to their customers or suppliers and improve performance, Blasgen said.
For example, if a company knows when items will be available to ship, it allows the routing process to run smoother and organizations can keep inventory moving, he said. Agencies and companies can save money on shipping costs and minimize the chance of goods not being delivered on time by providing timely access to data via technologies like the cloud.
As methods for analyzing data have improved, so has the ability to better understand the actual demand today and predict what the demand might be tomorrow, said Taylor Wilkerson, program manager with LMI’s supply chain management program. There are tracking tools that allow organizations to track more discrete usage of a product. In the military’s case, they may want to know when a product was removed from its case or when a spare part was used for maintenance, in order to better predict future use.
“Whether DoD or the commercial sector, there is a need to try to figure out what your users are going to need tomorrow or next month,” Evans said.