The Military's War on Invisibility

Jan. 1, 2004
Material that goes missing in action along the last mile of the battle field supply chain has been a major cost to our armed forces. Today the military's strategies to restore asset visibility deserve your attention.

Flexibility has always been a desirable attribute in managing material handling logistics. However, our armed forces are discovering that being flexible isn't enough any more. You need to be adaptive. What's the difference?

Being adaptive means being able to adjust to a broader range of environmental factors including timing and radical changes in context. That rules out a linear supply chain in favor of a "network-centric" one. The network-centric approach is less dependent on pre-planning and is capable of planning on the fly. Say goodbye to the industrial age military and welcome in the age of the network-centric military. This regime depends on a "sense and response logistics capability" (SRLC), which is one of the outcomes of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This concept was detailed in a white paper by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), an employee-owned research and engineering company based in McLean, Virginia.

"In the emerging network-centric age," the paper explains, "information flow is far less hierarchical and all levels work from a common battle space awareness to which they all contribute. Authority flows downward to allow self-synchronization in accordance with rules. The SRLC assumes that:

-- The materiel moving to an armed conflict forms a common pool from which any unit can draw support. (It is a joint pool, not separate service reservoirs.)

-- All units within a functionally organized network are potential consumers and providers of supply to and from all other units in the network. (It is a common network, not a set of separate supply chains.)

-- All units dynamically synchronize to satisfy demands within the network. (It is not strictly hierarchical.)

The power to see

The key to making military or any logistical operations work is inventory visibility. The armed forces are making exemplary use of automatic data collection and warehouse management technologies to help them achieve their objectives. In fact, radio frequency identification (RFID) was cited by the SAIC researchers as the primary reason for the military's increase in supply awareness and resulting delivery efficiencies during the buildup in Iraq.

"This system allowed supply handlers to track containers and their contents in transit and helped theater logisticians better manage changes in delivery requirements and shift supplies to where shortfalls existed," the authors conclude.

Still, as with any technology, operators need proper motivation and training. According to Don Dees, public affairs specialist for the Military Traffic Management Command, promising in-transit and total asset visibility is one thing, but enforcing the use of the technology is another.

"We couldn't get level 6 detail, where the customer provides the data to be input into the RFID system so that when the tag is queried it can tell you how many of what kind of widget are in that container," he explains. "During Desert Storm, about 40 percent of all containers had to be opened just to find out what was in them. On this mission we didn't ship the cargo until we had that level 6 detail, so that once it got in theater people knew what was in it. Also, by having that same information available on the manifest we could determine where a specific thing was."

Dees adds that the current military operations learned a lot from Gulf War One.

"The perfect example is reducing the amount of effort required just to determine what's in a container," he says. "That's not necessarily our job once it gets there, but for our customer, the war fighter, there are combat configurations that go into the area of operations. They have to be concerned with the number of manhours it takes to process their material once it arrives."

Linking systems

The Marines learned how powerful the RFID/WMS combination can be in delivering speed and visibility. According to Lt. Col. Al Will, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the military was able to track materials well during the move into the Iraqi/Kuwaiti theater, but the Marine Corps had difficulty tracking items to the ultimate user — tankers, infantry, etc.

"It is no secret that Operation Iraqi Freedom II is in the near future for the Marine Corps," Will says. The solution the Marines are developing looks something like this:

1. Material issued from the in-theater WMS (STRATIS) will be placed in the customer's container and manifested. The manifest data will be loaded to an active RFID tag embedded in an intermodal container. These data will also be sent to an FTP site via satellite. (FTP is an acronym for File Transfer Protocol, which is used to transfer files between computers.)

2. Containers will be placed on a delivery vehicle which will have a "Blue Force Tracker" device installed in it. Blue Force Tracker devices include a global positioning system (GPS) device and also have the ability to send short text messages. It was initially fielded to track tactical units on the battlefield. Near future versions will also include an RFID reader (Savi) which will interrogate tag labels. The label information will then be sent to units along with the GPS location of the vehicle via satellite. Because the Blue Force Tracker does not have the bandwidth capacity to send the entire contents of the container to the unit, the FTP site will provide data storage.

3. Units can check contents of the containers by accessing the FTP site via Iridium phone.

4. Upon the container's delivery to the unit, personnel can use the paper manifest inside the container, interrogate the RFID tag for contents or use the data from the FTP site.

"When a container arrives at the field warehouse operation, it should act as a 'mini' warehouse," Will explains. "A good example would be Stanley Vidmar cabinets or White Systems carousels installed in a 20-ft. ISO container. This concept offers the opportunity to deploy material into a theater of operation and quickly establish a field warehouse operation. There is no elaborate setup required for a carousel in a container. You simply level it, add power and a connection to the WMS and you're ready to issue."

What's in it for civilians?

What can civilian material handlers learn from all this? Granted, the DoD has unique challenges that most in the private sector don't have. For example, having to set up frequently in remote locations and keep track of inventory while on the move isn't a business's normal mode of operations. However, the discipline involved can prove to be most useful if your business is subject to unpredictable changes.

"If you need to set up in areas where there isn't much infrastructure, then we have some good insights into those kinds of problems," says Doug Anderson, deputy director for deployment operations at the Military Traffic Management Command headquarters. "When you talk about going into austere environments, then we have to be on the cutting edge of working with GPS on a truck linked back to a seal on a container that's linked back to the GPS so we have visibility on that movement. We're using the container as the warehouse in-theater. That's why heavy-duty material handling equipment like hoists and cranes are playing a bigger role these days. There will be a continuing focus on getting equipment that can be operated in an austere environment for extended periods."

Anderson says that although this technology is being developed for the military, private industry is getting a preview of what will be available for their applications when the costs come down.

Bruce Jacquemard, executive vice president of Savi Technology, agrees. His company has been instrumental in the military's research into active tag technology. He says this technology will help both the public and private sectors fill in the information holes that pock the last mile of road to the customer.

"After the first Gulf War in the early '90s, The General Accounting Office estimated that there was $2 billion worth of excess material shipped into theater," Jaquemard explains. "The majority of that was not shipped back and was either lost or wasted. They did not have visibility to what was being transported into theater. The only way to fill requirements efficiently is to know exactly where that material is in the supply chain. We got involved in the mid-90s to try to solve this problem. Over the years the cost has come down for the government and for commercial users. The military had the opportunity to battle-test this technology."

Indeed, in the DoD's October mandate to top suppliers, it specified all material at the container and pallet level that's moving in war or peace time will now have active data rich RFID technology connected to it. What sold the DoD on this technology is that, according to Jacquemard, today we're using 30 percent fewer troops and 90 percent fewer containers to get materiel to the front lines. This is attributed to improved visibility into the supply chain.

"Data rich tags provide a database," he continues. "You can use a handheld device in theater, go up to a container, and the tag will tell you the entire manifest of what's in the container. Then you can update the tag and the overall system. In Baghdad they didn't always take the time to update the tag, so the next step was to figure out how to automate that process. That's leading to nested visibility of passive tags. I'm nesting all of the information from the passive tags inside an active tag, so as I pull something off a container or off a pallet you update the database."

The cost?

"We've recently introduced a new active tag to the military that brought the price down by about 30 percent," Jacquemard answers. "It's given us an opportunity to bring the price down through advanced manufacturing processes and different packaging techniques."

The private and public sectors have a lot to learn from each other. Many private companies have come to master the art of business processes re-engineering and information technology implementation. The military prides itself on handling unexpected situations and analyzing what-if scenarios.

"From a material handling viewpoint this means getting down to the preposition ship inventories and being able to come off these ships in multiple ways depending on the mission at that time," says Roger Kallock, a logistics consultant and former deputy undersecretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness at the DoD. "If it's humanitarian relief they come off the bow, if it's war they go off the stern and they require an offshore debarkation. They've done a lot more thinking about making material handling more flexible and adaptable."

It used to be that saving both money and lives were at cross purposes when waging war. Today, technology is enabling economies in national defense, both in human and financial terms, that will strengthen your supply chain.

For more information...

Contact these material handling vendors mentioned in this article:

Savi Technology

Stanley Vidmar

White Systems/FKI Logistex

Department of Defense outlines standards-based RFID and UID initiative

The Department of Defense has asked suppliers to include Universal Identification (UID) markings on products supplied to the government by 2005. A UID product marking system can include RFID, bar coding and other types of automatic identification. Adoption of the UID system will allow the Department to increase efficiency and cut costs, even while increasing distribution accuracy and inventory visibility.

Intermec Technologies Corp., a pioneer in radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies and global supply chain automatic data collection systems, recently announced the availability of RFID products and services that comply with the DoD requirements.

"The DoD initiative underscores the promise and future of RFID technology at the heart of the supply chain," says Intermec Vice President Mike Wills, who leads Intermec's RFID initiatives. "From toothpaste to munitions, the Department of Defense arguably has the world's most diverse supply chain. Now, with RFID and a standards-based approach, the Department and its suppliers will be able to achieve real-time visibility of their products for more efficient and effective delivery when and where they are most needed."

Information about the UID initiative is available at For more information from Intermec, go to

The Army still makes room for paper

The armed forces may be putting more of its forms and documents on CDs and web-based systems, but paper is still an important communication medium. Posters, for example, impart timely information via bulletin boards in offices and lunchrooms. Some forms have carbon interleaving and manuals are more convenient and portable for many users. The Army Publications and Distribution Center in St. Louis, Missouri, provides for the storage and distribution of these products as well as a number of CD-ROMs. It also handles classified publications, which have special shipping requirements.

The facility's three-aisle automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) from HK Systems has 15,000 storage locations in 15 levels. The double-deep, rack-supported structure is 88 feet tall and 350 feet long. Three AS/RS stackers operate independently to store and retrieve unit loads of stock. Eleven battery-operated automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) deliver these pallet loads of stock from the AS/RS to one of 49 delivery points in the facility for eventual issuance to Army units in the United States and overseas. The batteries keep the AGVs running for up to 10 hours. When a battery is running low, the vehicle will send itself to the battery room for recharging.

The AS/RS Computer Control System maintains inventory integrity for all pallets stored in the AS/RS. It issues directives to the AGVs to pick and deliver pallets of stock within the Distribution Center without operator intervention.

On the inbound side, as a load of stock enters the AS/RS, its height and weight are automatically read prior to storage. These readings help ensure that the load will fit into the system and determine where the load will be slotted. The AS/RS Computer Control System interfaces with the Standard Warehouse Operating System (SWOS) for pick/store commands. Multiple pallets of an item are stored in different aisles so if one stacker becomes inoperable, that stock can still be retrieved from another aisle.

Automated horizontal carousels provide storage for single-item or small quantity orders (less than full carton). SWOS directs all picking activity within the carousels.

According to John Keen, facility manager, the variety of paper documents they handle calls for system flexibility.

"We needed a system that's capable of being modified," he says. "As we look at the different products we handle and the customers we can service, whether Army, Navy, or Air Force, we need to make sure our systems can handle whatever their requirements are. If they want to come to us with their orders as a file transfer, that's acceptable, as is handling each order separately.

"We use AGVs to move everything into and out of our high-rise system," Keen adds. "Everything comes out to work stations where one of two things is done. Either we need a whole pallet of the item or just a few boxes off that pallet. If we just need a few boxes, we'll pick them and that pallet will be returned by AGV to the high-rise. As the automated system orders material out of the high-rise, we indicate what inventory was removed, then it returns it to the high-rise. It places it in a different empty location and updates the AS/RS Computer Control System. We can also prioritize orders and move them to the top of the list for picking and packing.

"We receive orders by 5 a.m., and at 6 a.m. we have them out on our floor for the workforce to work on them. The majority of items are prepared and ready for shipment that day. Our throughput time averages less than two days from order receipt. This reduces the need to prioritize orders."

Some products are odd-sized. For example, the Navy has posters that require special handling and need to be stored separately so they don't get bent when shipped.

"You can't fold them," Keen observes. "We roll them. They come in 100 to a box and we store them that way. Then as we get orders, we may break them down to one or two posters per customer, so we roll those, put them in tubes and ship them. We identify these as posters to the WCS, so the system knows we have to ship them in a tube via the postal system."

Plans exist to add three more aisles in the AS/RS to accommodate additional business from outside the Army. The facility currently stores forms and educational material for the Navy and issues them to Navy units throughout the world. The facility also hopes to get additional business from other government agencies as those bodies downsize the amount of paper they carry at their sites.

The General Services Administration built and then transferred ownership of the AS/RS to the Department of the Army in 1987. At that time the St. Louis Distribution Facility was one of two facilities that handled paper distribution for the Army. The other facility was in Baltimore, Maryland. More recently the Army consolidated all operations to the St. Louis site. Then as automation improved, the workforce gradually shrank by attrition, from 151 to its present 92. Personnel include material handlers with lift truck duties who move product from AS/RS stations to replenish carousels for filling small or single-item orders.

Full carton orders are conveyed to an inline scale to be weighed, scanned, and manifested by the SWOS. Small packages (less than a carton) go to an automated parcel sortation system that interfaces with the SWOS. This system can sort the parcels by weight, customer, or zip to rate shop for the most economical transportation mode. It sorts the parcels by carrier (for example, UPS, USPS, FedEx or freight) and allows the facility to consolidate shipments to reduce transportation costs. If it's a UPS package, the package information is automatically uploaded to UPS. If it's destined for a truckload carrier, the system creates a manifest.

HK Systems is updating the AS/RS system software to accommodate 15-digit product numbers that will be common by 2005.

Material Handling System Suppliers:

HK Systems (AS/RS and AGVS):

Control Logic (parcel sortation system ):

RemStar (horozontal carousels):

VanPak (conveyors)

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