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Navy Tracks Broken Parts From Iraq

The U.S. Navy completed a six-month field trial involving the tagging of more than 12,000 airplane parts and containers. Learn how much the project cost, the challenges that were overcome, the results and why the Navy wants to expand the project.
By Mark Roberti
Since the Zebra printer-encoder was designed to work with 96-bit tags with the transponder in a different position within the label, ATAC went back to Zebra and exchanged 22,000 64-bit tags for 96-bit versions. About 7 percent of the 96-bit tags being encoded at ATAC Norfolk didn't work, and 10 percent of the 96-bit tags being encoded at Al Asad failed, as well.

Despite these problems, NAVICP's Thomas says the trial, which concluded in August, was a success because it proved RFID could increase the accuracy of information about parts being shipped. She adds that there would have been more benefits in terms of labor saved if the DLA had participated in the trial and confirmed receipt of parts at its Norfolk depot.

Total project costs upon completion of the six-month field trial.

NAVICP is now putting together a proposal to get funding for another trial that would include both its other hub in San Diego and the DLA. NAVICP's goal is to make the Retrograde Management System the first fully RFID-enabled system within the Navy. "We believe that it will provide a lot of value," says SAIC's Litten. "We could RFID-enable this system within the next year, if the funding is available."

NAVICP's final report includes these lessons learned:

Label placement: Ongoing training and monitoring of label placement is necessary. During the trial, NAVICP noted a number of times when labels were not applied to parts correctly.

Business process change: Continuous communication and retraining must be conducted to ensure that all personnel understand the changes involved with the addition of RFID.

Project participation: It's important to get key players involved early in the project. The Defense Logistics Agency's decision not to participate in the pilot meant tags had to be interrogated manually at the DLA facility. Thus, the benefits of automatic portal interrogation could not be determined.

DOD passive RFID approach: The DOD approach to item, case and pallet aggregation effectively eliminates the limitations of RFID read reliability. Aggregating tagged materiel mitigates the risk of missing tag reads, but this does require putting in place a business process to ensure tags are read reliably.

RFID printer communications: The wireless local area network (LAN) router did not provide reliable connectivity for communications between the printer and the PC.

Reader interference: It's necessary to walk through the entire operation to identify potential inference from all wireless devices. NAVICP found that there were cordless phones located directly above the reader, and the building manager was not aware they were being used.

The NAVICP report on the field trial concludes that "passive RFID use at the item and container level has the potential to automate and drive out the deficiencies from several supply chain processes at NAVICP and ATAC." Specifically, the report finds that RFID provides greater accuracy of data on shipping manifests, greater delivery accuracy and reduced labor costs when shipping and receiving tagged parts. It recommends launching an RFID tagging and identification pilot and including more locations in the field where Navy units remove broken parts, in preparation for a full deployment. It projects the cost of a high-volume trial pilot would be an additional $218,000. The report does not estimate the cost of a full deployment, however, or what the return on investment would be.

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