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Saluting the RFID Pioneers in the DOD

A lot of companies in all industries could learn from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is using RFID to transform its complex supply chain.
By Mark Roberti
Apr 13, 2009As journalists, we're taught to be completely objective, but as anyone who reads a newspaper or magazine knows, that's an ideal rarely reached. We're human, and we have thoughts, feelings and opinions, just like everyone else. The best of us try to keep these out of our news stories, but since this is an opinion column, I'd like to acknowledge my admiration for the pioneers in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), who are using radio frequency identification to transform the world's most complex supply chain.

I call the DOD's supply chain the most complex for several reasons. The department purchases just about everything imaginable—bullets, airplanes, drugs, socks, tents, food, light bulbs, laptops and... well, you get the point. In addition, it has to ship a lot of these items all around the world, including to places that lack modern infrastructure. Given the size and scope of the DOD's supply chain, it's not surprising that it was—and still remains—plagued by inefficiencies, waste and security vulnerabilities.

But the DOD has made great progress in rooting out these problems since it first began employing active RFID tags in the mid-1990s to track containers. I don't know who the visionary was who, back then, turned to a small company called Savi Technology, but I salute that soldier. Today, the DOD's RF In-Transit Visibility (ITV) Network, an active RFID-based cargo-tracking system, has nodes in more than 40 countries and 4,000 locations, and tracks an average of 35,000 supply shipments around the world per day.

In 2003, after Wal-Mart announced plans to track pallets and cases with passive RFID, the DOD saw the value in getting visibility at this level as well. And for that, I salute Alan Estevez, the Defense Department's assistant deputy undersecretary, who had the vision to champion passive RFID within the department. I used to think he had the most unenviable job, because he had to get one of the world's largest—and most bureaucratic—organizations to change the way it does things, and that's never easy. But I admired his leadership, and it has begun to pay off

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