Factory To Foxhole: RFID Deadline Looms

Dec. 21, 2004

An episode of M*A*S*H comes to mind when thinking about how radio frequency identification (RFID) will benefit the Department of Defense. The episode has Klinger telling Col. Potter that the Army sent a surplus of down jackets to the 4077th during an unbearable heat wave. While it is uncertain whether such foibles happen every day, the one thing certain in manufacturing is a need for visibility throughout the entire supply chain -- from the factory to the foxhole. Another certainty: Like the mighty Wal-Mart, deadlines for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) are on the horizon. January 2005 starts its RFID implementation initiatives. The DoD has kept a close eye on what Wal-Mart is doing to aid its own efforts. "The bigger part [of the DoD] is all the logistics behind the scenes," says Jeff Hutchinson, associate partner in Accenture's Supply Chain Management Line of Business. "What does it take to provide supplies for Armies -- from nuts and bolts to go on wheels to keep trucks going to food and clothing? In many cases, that logistics arm of what they are doing is very similar to a store. What Wal-Mart is doing can readily apply itself to the DoD sector." Adds Peter Langworthy, director of the AIT Center, Northrop Grumman, "[The DoD] wants to provide assurances and visibility to the soldiers that the material is getting to them in a timely manner, allowing them to make the decisions they need to carry out their mission." According to the DoD, RFID will be a mandatory requirement for delivery of material on or after Jan. 1, 2005. For implementation of passive RFID capability within the DoD supply chain, the "DoD will use and require its suppliers to use EPC Class 0 and Class 1 tags, readers and complementary devices," states a July 30, 2004, memo from The Undersecretary of Defense. "DoD will migrate to the next generation tag (UHF Gen 2) and supporting technology. When the specification for UHF Gen 2 is finalized, the Department will announce a transition plan to this technology, but we expect use of EPC Class 0 and Class 1 technology for approximately two years." What is the likelihood that manufacturers who supply the DoD will meet those deadlines? For Northrop Grumman, a Los Angeles-based global defense company that is working with the DoD -- specifically the Air Force -- to examine the use of passive RFID in distribution channels, the question is how to comply. "There is a lot of focus on the RFID policy and compliance with that policy," says Langworthy. "And the questions that are coming up are when should [we] comply and how should [we] comply. "We obviously have supply-chain and business processes that we do as well. The question is should we be using the RFID in those?" For manufacturers that aren't as advanced in RFID, Accenture's Hutchinson offers this advice: Keep it simple. "There are already some pre-canned packages on the market that [manufacturers] can buy that interface or help generate the requirements very quickly The other thing they can do is put in the part of the automation . . . then worry about all the back end later." Additionally, manufacturers can manually key in data and make tags -- at least in the short term to meet deadlines.

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