Defense Department Pushes Ahead With RFID Tests - InformationWeek

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12/15/2003
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Defense Department Pushes Ahead With RFID Tests

It's planning four pilot tests that will start in Feburary, but a department spokesman admits real returns are a few years away.

The Department of Defense is planning four pilots to test radio-frequency identification technology, Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for supply-chain integration, told InformationWeek on Monday. The tests, scheduled for February, are designed to let the department assess RFID as part of its October mandate that requires its suppliers to use passive RFID tags on the cases and pallets they deliver to the branches of the department by January 2005.

The Defense Department will test RFID on Meals Ready To Eat, the packaged food that soldiers eat in the field. The RFID tags will be put on cases and pallets at a military depot in California to keep track of the food as it arrives at the military installation and is shipped to soldiers in the field. The pilot also will test more sophisticated sensor technology that can document what happens to the food as it moves through the supply chain. "You don't want to have milk sitting out in the heat for too long, and this could tell you that," Estevez says.

The Defense Department also plans to test RFID tags on the suits soldiers wear to protect themselves from chemical and biological warfare, as well as to test tags on supplies that move from distribution centers to tactical forces. It also plans to work with its suppliers to test tags on items coming into the department. No locations have been decided for these three pilots.

The Defense Department and its suppliers will use the testing to help come up with a workable timeframe for RFID implementations. The department is still pushing to have its suppliers be RFID-ready by January 2005, but Estevez knows several hurdles still need to be overcome. RFID standards and cost issues still need to be ironed out, and most companies are still determining how they will integrate RFID with their back-end systems.

"This is more than just slapping tags on boxes," Estevez says. "You need to do an assessment of how you operate, of how you do business, and see where you can gain efficiencies from this technology."

The benefits are far greater than simply knowing where an item is within the supply chain. For example, having granular information regarding a product recall could save a company millions of dollars. "If a supplier needs to eat a full recall because they can't get down to that granularity, that's costly to them," Estevez says. And for the Defense Department, he adds, detailed information on a recall has even more importance than cost.

Estevez acknowledges that real returns on RFID investments are likely a few years out. But that won't stop the Department of Defense. "We owe it to the soldier, sailor, or marine on the battlefield. They go into harm's way to defend our democracy, and we owe them the best supply chain possible," he says. "The other constituent we owe it to is the American taxpayer."

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