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Apparel Maker Seeks Seamless Tracking

A DOD apparel supplier is ready to start tagging shipments for mandate compliance, but isn't stopping there.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mar 13, 2006The National Center for Employment of the Disabled (NCED) in El Paso, Texas, is a 26-year-old not-for-profit corporation founded to employ disabled workers who would otherwise have difficulty finding work. In addition to making garments for NCED's government and commercial customers, workers in the El Paso facility manufacture chemical-protection overgarments (CPOs), as well as other military clothing, such as camouflage and dessert battle uniforms, hats and other accessories, for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). To comply with an impending RFID tagging mandate from the DOD, as well as to improve its internal inventory tracking and manufacturing processes, NCED has contracted SAIC, a San Diego, Calif., engineering firm, to design and deploy a passive RFID tagging system.

Under an amendment to its DOD supply contract, due to come into effect in the coming months, the NCED must begin attaching RFID-enabled smart labels to cases and pallets of its CPO shipments headed for the DOD's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) warehouses. The DLA supplies the U.S. military with clothing and other resources to support operations. Jan Hodges, SAIC's senior scientist of technology integration, says NCED's tagging operation is in place and ready to roll, as soon as the DLA warehouses are ready to begin reading and processing RFID data.

This marks just one part of the first phase of NCED's RFID deployment, however. The company also plans to use RFID to automate the collection of data needed for inventory control of the CPO raw material, fabric made with a carbon liner that has a shelf life the NCED must observe. Eventually, for phase 2 of the deployment, the NCED plans to expand its RFID system to help automate order processing, production planning and work-in-progress manufacturing.

"Not only are we [deploying the tagging system] to be ready when the DOD requires RFID compliancy, but also for internal process improvements and cost reduction opportunities," says Ernie Lopez, NCED's chief operating officer.

"This is not a pilot project," SAIC's Hodges maintains. "This is a deployment." The entire hardware infrastructure is compliant with the EPC Gen 2 Class 1 standard. "We're getting great read range—as much as 20 feet on our portal readers. We've actually had to change our antenna settings to reduce the range," Hodges says, "and 100 percent of the tags are being read."

SAIC is using fixed interrogators and tags from Alien Technology, in conjunction with Symbol handheld readers.

The first part of phase 1—the tagging of cases and pallets of finished CPOs as they are being shipped to DLA warehouses—will begin as soon as the warehouses are ready to read the tags. The second part of the first phase involves using RFID to inventory and locate rolls of the fabric used to make the CPOs; this part is already underway. In the second phase, for which the NCED does not yet have a start date, RFID will be used to track the fabric throughout the manufacturing process, as it is cut and sewn into CPOs.

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