The DOD’s War on Waste

By Mark Roberti

My father was drafted during World War II, given a test that found he had an aptitude for math and assigned as a supply sergeant. He told me that while he was stationed in France near the end of the war, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) was still shipping huge amounts of supplies overseas. "We had a big mountain of 5-gallon cans of gasoline and another mountain of 50-pound bags of sugar," he once said. "Some of the guys I worked with filled up jeeps with excess supplies, drove into town, sold them to locals and kept the money."

It was similar inefficiencies in another war some 60 years later that led the DOD to adopt a new weapon in the war on waste. After the first Gulf War, the department began deploying active RFID tags from Savi Technology to track shipping containers. In 2003, when Wal-Mart announced it would use passive ultrahigh-frequency tags to track pallets and cases in its supply chain, the DOD quickly followed suit. And while Wal-Mart has moved toward adoption in fits and starts, the DOD has marched forward at a steady pace.

In this issue's cover story, we highlight some of the ways the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy are employing the technology to fight waste and inefficiency. For example, the Air Force is using RFID to track retrograde aircraft parts, shortening turnaround times for repair and maintenance, reducing costs and better serving pilots in the field. The Army is employing RFID—sometimes paired with GPS and/or sensor technology—to protect weapons and sensitive shipments sent to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While the DOD still has a long way to go to achieve complete supply-chain visibility through RFID and related technologies, many of the projects are impressive. Businesses around the world can learn from the DOD's successes (which is why we're highlighting many of these projects in a special track at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009).

Wal-Mart, of course, is still pushing ahead with its EPC RFID efforts. Sam's Club, its wholesale division, has an ambitious plan to adopt the technology at the sellable-unit level to automate checkout. This could transform the customer experience and give Sam's Club a huge competitive advantage. Suppliers also could achieve benefits—if they start planning now to tag sellable units by Sam's Club's expected launch date of early 2011. RFID Journal has developed a compliance timeline that spells out what companies need to do and how long they should allot for each task.

Elsewhere in this issue, we look at RFID systems for tracking work in process. An RFID WIP system can provide real-time visibility into a company's operations, enabling it to reduce inefficiencies—a critical concern in a slowing economy. As the DOD has learned, visibility into operations is the key to winning the war on waste.