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Joint Asset Visibility:
Why So Hard?

Commercial Sector Information Technology Advancements

In the third article of his asset visibility series, the author discusses how commercial sector advancements in information technology are being used to help DOD meet its asset visibility needs.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is having a transformational effect on the entire global supply chain. Some of the most intellectually talented people in the world are working on using RFID to capture logistics data. This is not surprising, considering the effect that the reduction in manpower and the improvement in the amount and availability of logistics information resulting from the adoption of RFID technology will have on the world economy. The cost savings to the Department of Defense (DOD) alone have been estimated to be as high as $1.781 billion.

Just as DOD benefits from the integrating influence of the Joint Staff and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the commercial sector has many national and international organizations that standardize data, techniques, and procedures in order to promote domestic and global supply chain standardization and interoperability. Many of these organizations influence DOD directly or indirectly. Some of the more important are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); the American National Standards Institute (ANSI); the ANSI Accredited Standards Committee (ASC); the United Nations/Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport (UN/EDIFACT); GS1; GS1 US; the National Motor Freight Association; and Electronic Product Code-Global (EPCglobal). These organizations have tremendous influence in the conduct of global commerce and directly affect DOD.

Electronic Data Interchange

One of the major long-term goals of both the commercial sector and DOD is to significantly reduce the amount of human involvement needed to input logistics data to automated information systems that, in turn, digitize and electronically process the data. Currently, at almost every transshipment point, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians manually enter information into automated information systems. Most of this information, however, has already been digitized and processed by other automated information systems. The burgeoning implementation of electronic data interchange (EDI), which passes logistics information electronically (not only within corporations but also among them), is yet another truly transformational endeavor.

The ANSI ASC X12 Committee promulgates EDI domestically, while UN/EDIFACT does so internationally. Reducing the amount of human involvement in capturing logistics data not only improves data reliability by reducing human error; it tremendously speeds up the process and saves billions of dollars a year.

ISO Developments

ISO develops worldwide industrial and commercial standards. It is a consortium of national-level standards organizations, with representatives from major commercial industries and sectors. While it is chartered as a nongovernmental organization, it has a great deal of influence on governments since many of its standards become law and are included in treaties. In an effort to develop standards for information technology (IT), ISO teamed with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to form the first ISO/IEC joint technical committee. This committee is working toward developing and promoting the interoperability of IT systems, tools, automatic identification, and other data capture techniques.

GS1 and GS1 US

GS1 US, formerly called the Uniform Code Council (UCC), oversees the domestic use of the universal product code (UPC), or bar code. GS1 US joined the GS1 in 2002. According to its website, GS1 is a voluntary standards organization charged with the management of the EAN [European Article Numbering]/UCC System and the Global Standard Management Process. The EAN/UCC System standardizes bar codes, EDI transaction sets, extensible markup language (XML) schemas and other supply chain solutions for more efficient business practices. By administering the assignment of company prefixes and coordinating the accompanying standards, GS1 maintains the most robust item identification system in the world.

GS1 and GS1 US have developed the global trade item number (GTIN), which is used as the basis for all UPC bar codes. The GTIN (comprising only numbers—letters and characters are excluded) uniquely identifies commercial items sold, delivered, and stored throughout the world. The number also includes a method of identifying level of packaging to include unit, case, and pallet. Currently, a GTIN can be 8, 12, 13, or 14 digits long.

In addition to the GTIN, the GS1 and GS1 US have developed the global location number (GLN), which is meant to provide a worldwide, standardized way of identifying locations. The GLN is a 13-digit number. According to the GS1 US website, 196 different location coding methods are recognized by the ANSI ASC X12 and 212 different location coding methods are recognized by the UN/EDIFACT. The international and national standardization organizations are working to reduce this number.

GS1 and GS1 US also have developed a serial shipping container code (SSCC) to identify logistics-related shipping containers, a global individual asset identifier (GIAI), and a global returnable asset identifier (GRAI). The GTIN, GLN, SSCC, GIAI, and GRAI numbers have been specifically designed to promote electronic commerce and interoperable logistics information flow. The GS1 US website describes the situation as follows—

Managing the physical flow of product with the electronic flow of business data is a major challenge in today’s intensely competitive environment. The same time, attention, and detail that goes into designing and producing a quality product must also be evident in the transmission of that product’s business data through the supply chain. A system built with standardized processes and a common business language is needed to monitor and manage the movement of product and information through every component along the supply chain.

Electronic Product Code

EPCglobal is a joint venture between GS1 and GS1 US. This organization oversees the EPC. Just as the bar code has reduced the time and manpower needed to capture data on an item’s identification, the EPC is doing likewise with RFID technology. The EPC is a license plate-type number that uniquely identifies items of equipment and supplies. It is designed to assimilate the different item identification numbering schemes of both the commercial and government sectors.

Each EPC number contains header data (assigned 8 bits), a manager number (assigned 28 bits), an object class (24 bits) and a serial number (36 bits). Information contained in a passive EPCglobal RFID tag consists solely of the EPC, although additional fields are sometimes needed to encode and decode information from a multitude of numbering systems to make them readable by humans.

Just as DOD uses automated information systems, local area networks, and wide area networks to correlate pertinent logistics information to a national stock number, transportation control number, or document number, the EPCglobal Network uses the EPC as its basis for data correlation. According to the EPCglobal website, “The EPCglobal Network is a set of technologies that enable immediate, automatic identification and sharing of information on items in the supply chain … enabling true visibility.” The EPC is one of the five elements of the network; the others include the identification system (RFID tags and RFID readers), the object name service (ONS), Savant (a software technology), and the physical markup language (PML).

Object Name Service

ONS converts alphabetic names into numeric Internet protocol addresses. The RFID Journal describes ONS as—

. . . an automated networking service similar to the domain name service (DNS) that points computers to sites on the World Wide Web. When an interrogator reads an RFID tag, the electronic product code is passed to middleware, which, in turn, goes to an ONS on a local network or the Internet to find where information on the product is stored. The middleware retrieves the file (after proper authentication) and the information about the product in the file can be forwarded to a company's inventory or supply chain applications.

The RFID-associated middleware described above is Savant. The RFID Journal describes Savant systems as “distributed software systems developed … to act as the central nervous system of the Electronic Product Code Network. A Savant takes data from an RFID reader, does some filtering, handles product lookups and sends the information on to enterprise applications or databases.”

Physical Markup Language

The last of the five elements of the EPCglobal Network is the PML. Just as there is hypertext markup language (HTML) for use with the Internet, there is now a PML for use with the EPCglobal Network. It establishes data for physical objects. The RFID Journal explains it this way: The EPC identifies an individual product, but all the useful information about that product is written in PML, a new standard computer code. PML is based on the widely accepted XML.

Because it is meant to be a universal standard for describing all physical objects, processes, and environments, PML will be broad and will cover all industries. It will provide a common method for describing physical objects and will be broadly hierarchical. So, for instance, a can of Coke might be described as a “carbonated beverage,” which would fall under the subcategory “soft drink,” which would fall under the broader category “food.” Not all classifications are so simple, so to ensure that PML has wide acceptance, EPCglobal is relying on work already done by standards bodies, such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States.

The amount of data transmitted over the EPCglobal Network is expected to grow at a phenomenal rate. VeriSign, an information technology firm that provides digital security and network infrastructure services, manages both the domain name service (which currently handles about 17 billion messages a day) and the ONS. Some estimates suggest that, within the next decade, the ONS network will transmit nearly 4 quadrillion messages a day.

Logistics Network Diversity

As the preceding paragraphs point out, the amount of daily computer processing associated with attaining visibility of items in transit and in storage is enormous and will only get larger. RFID tags alone will not solve this complex problem. The really hard part is matching the scant “license plate” data contained on a passive RFID tag with robust, interoperable automated information systems. These systems, in turn, must provide information that can be processed and effectively organized within a single wide area network, viewable by authorized stakeholders around the world.

What makes this so hard? Hundreds of different automated information systems make up the DOD global supply chain. Many of these systems were designed decades ago, and most of these systems were not meant to provide information to the wide area networks that are now accessible through the Internet. Moreover, almost none of these systems process information in a method that is compatible and interoperable with a “total system” perspective. Instead, they were developed by the disparate communities within DOD, such as Army wholesale supply, strategic air transportation, strategic surface transportation, local truck transportation, Army retail supply, Navy retail supply for aviation, Navy retail supply for vessels, Marine Corps retail supply, Air Force retail supply, and strategic deployment.

Because the systems have been designed and fielded to solve parochial information requirements with little thought to the DOD global supply chain, they are a prime example of suboptimization, in which overemphasis of a portion of the supply chain enables it to perform better at the expense of the larger, more important total system. This bottom-up approach to information architecture (where the services and the agencies design their own information systems) degrades interoperability and inhibits data integration across the DOD global supply chain. In fact, DOD has not one but several supply chains.

As simply another player in worldwide commerce, DOD must be able to adapt quickly to the ongoing transformational, logistics-related IT developments that are gaining acceptance in the civilian sector. This is a challenge for DOD since there is no unified direction regarding IT assimilation.

Instead of one all-encompassing logistics-related wide area network, DOD has several. Logistics data are captured on both a classified wide area network and an unclassified wide area network, thereby inhibiting the exchange of information among the systems. Functionally, we have “families of systems” that feed families of systems. It is no surprise that logistics data are not standardized, integrated, or interoperable among these hundreds of locally designed automated information systems. The sidebar below lists a few of the DOD logistics management information systems; it is by no means an all-inclusive list.

DOD Logistics Information Systems

If the information captured and processed by an automated information system is to be passed on to the DOD global supply chain, there must be a means of transmitting the logistics information to a wide area network for global supply chain integration. The Air Force normally deploys to fixed facilities with links to an electric grid, and the Navy deploys with a full complement of sophisticated satellite telecommunications gear. However, land forces typically deploy over very large geographical areas that often are not connected to an electrical grid and have no connection to the Internet, a wide area network, or sometimes even a local area network. Similarly, many temporary transshipment points and the transshipment points in austere environments are not connected to information networks.

Reporting Asset Status

The guidance on which level of organization should provide reports regarding asset receipt, issue, and storage information appears to be conflicting. In the past, DOD required visibility of items only as far forward as the supply support activities (direct support units). However, as IT improves, users of the DOD supply chain will desire visibility of items received, issued, and stored at unit level. Let’s take a look at why this is so important.

Let’s say that a supply support activity (SSA) supports a brigade-sized force of 3,000, which is composed of 25 individual units (120 soldiers per unit). When they are on the move or deployed to austere environments, these units have difficulty transmitting their logistics information to the SSA, which also provides a local area network and has links to a theater-level local area network that, in turn, has links to the wide area networks.

In fast-paced tactical operations, it is very difficult to achieve full IT connectivity between the units and the SSAs that support them. Because of this, logisticians in the DOD global supply chain often are not able to view the receipts, issues, and on-hand balances of the units. A unit may receive a critical repair part, but, if this information is not passed to the information networks, interested stakeholders will not know about it. Furthermore, the global supply chain will not have inventory data on the combat loads of the units. Combat loads are expendable items that are meant to sustain units until replenishment arrives from a supply source. They usually are measured in days of supply.

This is a serious flaw since, on an aggregate level, the number of items stored within combat loads is quite large and can represent the bulk of items in storage within an operational area. For instance, if an SSA stocked 25 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) tires, but each of the 25 units supported by the SSA stocked 4 HMMWV tires, the aggregate number of tires stored at the unit level would be 4 times as large as the number stocked at the direct support level. Similarly, logisticians with visibility of unit combat loads of operational rations, packaged petroleum, barrier materials, small arms ammunition, and common repair parts would be in a much better position to ensure readiness, especially if cross-leveling were required.

Considering that our deployed land forces must now operate in noncontiguous, distributed environments with supply lines subject to perpetual interruption and interdiction, it makes sense to track on-hand balances at all inventory points, to include the unit level. With advancements in IT, it is much easier to move logistics data than it is for service members to move supplies continually. On today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields, the best source of resupply, especially on a temporary basis, may be a unit nearby. If this can be done, not only within a single service but among all of the services, coalition forces, and interagency partners, the incidence of stock outs (required items at zero balance) will be significantly reduced. The exchange of just one repair part might allow an M1A1 battle tank to resume full combat operations, for example.

Improving readiness at the unit level clearly demonstrates the importance of the ongoing commercial and military efforts to standardize information, enhance EDI, and exploit automatic information technology. Although these efforts have already made a significant improvement to distribution, even greater improvements are on the horizon.

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Bates, USA (Ret.), works for Alion Science and Technology as a senior analyst. He is a certified professional logistician and a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and holds an M.B.A. degree from the University of Hawaii. He can be contacted at James.Bates@je.jfcom.mil.