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An Integrated Enterprise Approach to AIT

The commanding general of the U.S. Transportation Command has named 2008 the command’s “Year of Visibility.” The designation highlights Department of Defense efforts to coordinate the use of automatic identification technology throughout the supply chain.

Asset visibility and in-transit visibility are critical enablers to the logistician’s support of the warfighter. Military commanders have had a requirement for asset tracking for as long as there have been armies. Various tools have been developed over the years to help logisticians track assets, with the most recent being the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) suite of automatic identification technology (AIT) devices and the automated information systems those devices feed.

It is usually the case that new or revised business processes are needed to reap the maximum benefits from emerging technology. Operating new technology under old rules may not best leverage the technology’s capability and often results in dual business processes operating simultaneously, to the frustration of the logistician. With that in mind, DOD continues to develop an enterprise-level approach to synchronizing the AIT efforts of its various organizations.

Moving to an Enterprise Approach to AIT

A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlighted many gaps within the DOD AIT community, but much progress has been made since then. Even before that report, DOD was moving toward an enterprise approach. In September 2003, the Secretary of Defense designated the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) as the DOD Distribution Process Owner (DPO), chartering TRANSCOM to facilitate DOD’s supply-chain management activities and modernization. As a natural follow-on to that action, in 2006 TRANSCOM was appointed the lead proponent for radio frequency identification (RFID) and related AIT implementation in the DOD supply chain. The partnership over the years among the military services, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commands, and TRANSCOM has moved DOD from an agency-centered approach to AIT implementation (each agency acting independently) to a more methodical enterprise approach.

In his 2008 TRANSCOM Commander’s Guidance, Air Force General Norton A. Schwartz stated, “In 2007, USTRANSCOM, its Service components and our enterprise partners made significant progress in advancing and maturing the Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise.” To build on that momentum, General Schwartz designated 2008 as the command’s “Year of Visibility,” which will bring an even greater focus on enhancing end-to-end visibility throughout the deployment and distribution process. Two new planning documents do just that, providing direction for recently established interdepartmental teams to transform visions into tangible AIT benefits.

AIT Concept of Operations

The first of the planning documents is the DOD Automatic Identification Technology Concept of Operations [CONOPS] for Supply and Distribution Operations. Published in June 2007, the CONOPS codifies DOD’s vision for the use of AIT in support of supply and distribution operations.

The CONOPS identifies a primary and backup AIT device for each consolidation layer. “Consolidation layer” refers to the “layers” at which an item is progressively consolidated with other items for shipment as it moves through the distribution pipeline. The item is individually packaged; the package then is consolidated with other packages in a carton or box; the carton is consolidated with other cartons for shipment on a pallet or tri-wall package; the pallet or tri-wall is consolidated with other pallets or tri-walls in an intermodal container; and finally, the container is moved through various supply-chain nodes (truck, train, aircraft, or ship).

The backbone of this process is a blend of two-dimensional symbols, passive RFID tags, and active “license plate” RFID tags; together, they provide in-the-box visibility by connecting to databases. [A passive tag does not contain a battery; power for reading a passive tag is supplied by a reader. An active tag is powered by its own battery. “License plate” refers to active tags that have a unique tag identification number but contain no usable memory.] Current data-rich active tags will still be available and can be used whenever a combatant command or service determines lack of communication connectivity requires their use. [A data-rich tag contains an electronic manifest of the shipment in the tag memory.]

The CONOPS also identifies premium AIT for unique items, such as perishables and temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals, and for situations where security is a priority, conditions are austere, or real-time visibility is required. Premium AIT includes satellite, cellular, and sensor technology and active data-rich tags.

AIT Implementation Plan

Nine months after the AIT CONOPS document was issued, in March 2008, TRANSCOM followed with the second guiding document, the “DOD Automatic Identification Technology Implementation Plan for Supply and Distribution Operations,” which serves as a roadmap for transitioning from the current AIT environment to the 2015 environment envisioned in the CONOPS. The plan will be implemented in three stages, or spirals. Currently, DOD is executing spiral 1 of the AIT Implementation Plan; it will move to spirals 2 and 3 as the spiral 1 milestones are reached.

The DOD AIT Implementation Plan effort hinges on five business process task teams, each consisting of representatives from various DOD activities. The Wholesale Team, led by DLA, will identify gaps in the front end of the supply chain. The In-Theater/Retail Team, led by the Navy, focuses on the tactical level of distribution processes at the delivery end. The Strategic Distribution Team, led by TRANSCOM, will focus on processes at airports, seaports, and Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Navy Exchange Command, Defense Commissary Agency, and DLA prime vendors. The Unit Move Team, led by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, will address unit deployment and redeployment business processes and policies. Pulling it all together is the Global Team, which will integrate the work of all of the other teams. The Global Team is led by TRANSCOM and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and its membership includes the chairs of the other four teams. The AIT Implementation Plan also establishes an AIT Synchronization Integrated Process Team to act as a forum for sharing information within the broader DOD AIT community.

During the next year, numerous initiatives will move the AIT enterprise forward. Incorporating passive RFID and transitioning the active RFID network are two major efforts. Testing of satellite technologies will also continue. DOD’s active RFID network migration from industry-unique, proprietary standards to open, international standards is critical. This migration will enhance the ability of DOD’s active RFID infrastructure to provide asset visibility, improve the efficiency with which information is stored on the tags, and align DOD with international agreements on logistics in combined operations. Passive RFID will continue to be tested and implemented where it provides benefits. Integrating passive RFID data with the services’ automated information systems using middleware is a challenging but important step. Passive RFID data will link with pertinent supply and transportation data, which can be accessed using DLA’s Asset Visibility application.

Although implementing new AIT technologies and refining the use of more mature visibility tools can be a difficult process, DOD continues to expand and reap benefits from AIT use. Undoubtedly, many bumps will occur in the road ahead, but the comprehensive AIT management approach that is unfolding can only result in an even more transparent and efficient supply chain to support the warfighter.

David L. Dias is chief of the Asset Visibility Division, Directorate of Strategy, Policy, Programs, and Logistics, U.S. Transportation Command, at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. He has a B.S. degree from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, an M.S. degree in public administration from Golden Gate University, and an M.A. degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.

Timothy P. Ringdahl works for SRA International, Inc., supporting the U.S. Transportation Command Asset Visibility Division. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he has a B.A. degree in mathematics from the College of the Holy Cross and an M.S. degree in operations management from the University of Arkansas.