Joint Asset Visibility: Supporting the Warfighter
Section 1: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard? LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Section 2: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard? Capturing Information LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Section 3: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard? Commercial Sector Information Technology Advancements LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Section 1: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard?
LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Reprinted with permission by Army Logistician Magazine. This article was originally published in the July-August 2007 issue of Army Logistician Professional Bulletin of United States Army Logistics, PB 700-07-04, Volume 39, Issue 4.
From a Department of Defense (DOD) logistics perspective, the attainment of asset visibility at the joint level will reduce the cost of resupply significantly and have a profound effect on warfighter readiness. In the last few years, the joint logistics community has made substantial advances in improving asset visibility, but it still has a long way to go before fully achieving such a capability. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the complexities surrounding asset visibility and offer recommendations on how to improve it.
The term "joint asset visibility" as used here refers to supplies (expendable items) and equipment (nonexpendable items)-on order, in transit, in storage, or on hand-that are owned or destined for the military services, DOD agencies, or coalition partners. It does not refer to a software system. Although the DOD definition of asset visibility includes the tracking of personnel, this discussion will focus on supplies and equipment only.
Attaining Asset Visibility
Logisticians serving on the staffs of combatant commanders are keenly interested in knowing the aggregate status of supplies on hand, in transit, and on order for the military services and agencies that make up the joint force. This is particularly true for logisticians who have been designated to focus on a particular area of responsibility, such as a standing joint force headquarters, or those who have deployed as part of a joint task force.
Attaining asset visibility is incredibly difficult. It involves the entire DOD global supply chain (which dwarfs even Wal-Mart), binary code, the electromagnetic spectrum, worldwide telecommunications, local- and wide-area computer networks, and the integration and standardization of logistics data among the services and the domestic and international commercial sector. The architectural design of joint asset visibility should be viewed from what SOLE-the International Society of Logistics refers to as a "total system" perspective. The total system includes-
The following findings from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom after-action reviews illustrate the magnitude of the visibility problem-
Continue with efforts towards data standardization to improve interoperability between Service legacy information systems. Improve the joint compatibility of communication and coordination connectivity within the Theater Support Component Command (TSCC) and other logistic planning and execution entities in the theater. Align joint theater logistics standards and cross-Service arrangements to eliminate stovepipe support of common-user items. Supply chain processes, sustainment, transportation, and force protection are all areas that should be standardized across all Services and these standards used in joint training. A joint supply and management system for common items, most notably food, fuel, and munitions, should be developed. Cross-Service agreements should be enhanced to benefit from joint theater logistical opportunities.
ITV [in-transit visibility] continued to be a problem during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), resulting in units having limited or no visibility of forward moving supplies and assets over extended lines of communication. As a result, cargo became frustrated, misdirected, delayed in delivery, improperly marked or lost. [The Joint Lessons Learned Approach Package, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Major Combat Operations (MCO) Finding: Joint Theater Logistics (JTL), 10 February 2005]
In OIF, the inconsistency in providing each of the required preconditions meant that enterprise integration and visibility did not exist. Limited system availability, poor data capture, unreliable communications, inaccessible data, and limited information fusion provided little more than "islands" of visibility in theater. This is best seen in the breakdown of the Army's Standard Army Retail Supply System/Standard Army Maintenance System (SARSS/SAMS) and the Marines Asset Tracking Logistics and Supply System/Supported Activity Standard Supply System (ATLAS/SASSY) logistics systems . . . the most commonly cited tracking and visibility tool is Excel and e-mail. [Objective Assessment of Logistics in Iraq, DUSD (L&MR) and Joint Staff (JSJ4) Sponsored Assessment to Review the Effectiveness and efficiency of Selected Aspects of Logistics Operations During Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 2004]
Key Aspects of the Asset Visibility Problem
These lessons learned demonstrate that the most difficult part of supply chain management is not the physical aspect of buying, receiving, storing, transporting, or issuing items; the hard part is obtaining, managing, and sharing the related information about the chain. In reality, moving the information is more complicated than moving the item itself. The following questions are keys to understanding joint asset visibility-
In an ideal world, any DOD-authorized individual would be able to access the Internet from a personal computer and obtain all of the pertinent information about an item. A wholesale buyer would be able to view information associated with the Material Inspection and Receiving Report (DD Form 250); a transportation coordinator would be able to view information found on the Government Bill of Lading (Standard Form 1103); and a clerk at a central receiving point would be able to view information contained on the Military Shipment Label (DD Form 1387).
As a rule, logisticians capture information about stored items daily and about items in transit whenever the items arrive at and depart from transshipment points or pass by predetermined information collection points. The term "transshipment point" refers to a place where cargo is stopped and reconfigured, such as an area where items are placed in a multipack container, onto an aluminum pallet, or into a 20- or 40-foot container. A transshipment point also refers to a location where the conveyance changes (for example, from one truck to another truck or from a truck to a plane, ship, or railcar). There are hundreds of different types of transshipment points. They can be domestic or international; they can be military or commercially run; they can be in developed areas or in austere environments; they can be under the watch of wholesale or strategic organizations, such as the U.S. Transportation Command, DLA, or the General Services Administration; or they can be managed by one of the services. They include depots, rail yards, airports and seaports, theater distribution centers, container handling areas, supply support activities, and central receiving and shipping points. They can be part of the Defense Transportation System or outside of it.
Since there is no such thing as a certified collector of asset visibility information, many different personnel are involved in capturing logistics data at the transshipment points and at more permanent storage locations. They can be Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, or civilians. They can be employed by DOD or by commercial industry and can have supply, transportation, finance, or information technology backgrounds.
The expertise of the personnel who capture logistics data is geared toward using whatever logistics automated information system is employed where they work. Workers for the DLA use the Direct Support System or the Business System Modernization program; workers for AMC use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software developed by SAP International; workers at Air Force-managed airports use the Global Air Transportation Execution System (GATES) and Remote GATES; workers at Military Sealift Command or Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command seaports use the Worldwide Port System and the Integrated Booking System. Army units use the Unit Level Logistics System, the Standard Army Retail Supply System, and the Standard Army Ammunition System. These are only a few of the hundreds of automated information systems that make up the feeder systems for wide-area networks, such as the Joint Operations Planning and Execution System (JOPES), the Global Transportation Network (GTN), the Defense Automatic Addressing System (DAAS), and the asset visibility application of the Global Combat Support System (GCSS).
Asset Visibility Technologies
Asset visibility-related information can be captured from the item's packaging (such as the DD Form 1387 or the accompanying packing list) by typing it into a computer. Of course, typing data is time-consuming and leads to numerous errors. An alternative is to use electronic data interchange (EDI) and automatic identification technology (AIT) that are being developed and used by the military and the commercial sector on a global scale. Examples include bar codes, smart cards, and radio frequency identification (RFID) devices. The promise of EDI and AIT is mind-boggling since logistics information processing is a multibillion-dollar endeavor. This technology is constantly advancing as some of the best minds in the world work to exploit EDI and AIT possibilities.
The goal of EDI is to standardize the methods of electronically transmitting logistics data elements, while the goal of AIT is to reduce substantially the amount of human interaction required to capture asset visibility information. DOD must be able to adapt quickly, whenever appropriate, to the advancements of international and domestic logistics consortiums since it depends on the commercial sector as a source of supply and as a transporter of its supplies and equipment. These consortiums include the International Organization for Standardization; EPC global; the American National Standards Institute; the United Nations Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport; GS1; and GS1 US.
Like DOD, these logistics consortiums have very lofty goals. For instance the goal of EPC global, which is spearheading the development of an electronic product code (EPC) for RFID, is to provide "immediate, automatic, and accurate identification of any item in the supply chain of any company, in any industry, anywhere in the world." However, the current reality is far removed from that goal. Passive RFID is in a relatively early stage of development, and many data standardization and software interoperability challenges must be overcome. Moreover, the advantages of RFID must be compared to its implementation costs and its inherent reliability. Just as important are information security factors, especially considering that, besides the typical computer attacks made by disgruntled computer "geeks," an enemy will employ its best information technology experts in attempts to disrupt DOD information systems.
Once logistics information is captured, it must be processed and stored on a computer. The type of hardware needed is becoming less and less of an issue since today's desktop computers have enormous capacities; besides, the bulk of the information is transmitted to a web-based network. However, many of our current asset visibility problems can be traced to the use of numerous automated information system software programs and applications. Most of these are legacy systems or simply revised versions of legacy systems. Some still depend on the 80-card column format developed in the 1950s. Others overly emphasize supply, transportation, acquisition, or financial information. Some automated information systems are designed to handle information on cargo moving by surface transportation, while others are designed to handle information on cargo moving by air. Some primarily capture Army information; others capture Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, or DLA information. Some information is captured via the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), while other information is captured with the Unclassified but Sensitive Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNet). Some software systems are designed exclusively for the military, while others are used only by the commercial sector, which, when considered as a whole, has many more logistics-related software applications than DOD.
Once the information is captured by the software or application of a single computer device, it must be transmitted to a higher-level computer system or local-area network until the information makes its way to a web-enabled wide-area network such as JOPES, GTN, GCSS, or DAAS. If the transshipment point is in a developed area where telecommunications are available to transmit the data to the World Wide Web, then the only major decision to make is how often to send the data. Data could be sent in real-time, near-real-time (which has not been defined by DOD), or as an information batch. Real-time communication requires a constant telecommunications linkage-something that is not practical if expensive satellite communication is required. If the transshipment point is in an austere environment, establishing telecommunications with the World Wide Web becomes much more difficult and expensive.
Like civilian industries, DOD uses the World Wide Web to access its overarching logistics management information systems. However, DOD does not have a single, all-inclusive, logistics network because a logistics-related Global Information Grid does not exist. Instead, DOD has many networks. Besides JOPES (which depicts deployment data), GTN (which depicts transportation data), and DAAS (which depicts supply data), DOD has many other high-level networks, each with its own server, software, and application system. The Army's tactical systems use the Standard Army Retail Supply System for classes I (subsistence), II (general supplies), III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants), IV (construction and barrier materials), VIII (medical supplies), and IX (repair parts) and the Standard Army Ammunition System for class V (ammunition). The wholesale element of the Army (represented by AMC) uses the Logistics Modernization Program-an ERP software system developed by SAP. DLA uses the Business System Modernization program. The Marine Corps uses SASSY and ATLAS.
These high-level networks are fed by numerous automated information systems, so, in many cases, the information available on one network is not available to other networks. Since the data elements are not standardized, logisticians must access several networks to obtain the information they need. Even if the data are available, it can take several hours for a trained logistician to retrieve a few pieces of desired information. Consequently, compiling meaningful logistics reports takes an inordinate amount of time.
Frankly, these overarching logistics management information systems are difficult to use and do not readily provide the fidelity required. Currently, many of these local-area network and wide-area network automated information systems are being subsumed by the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps's versions of GCSS. These, in turn, will have to be interoperable with GCSS at the combatant command and joint task force (CC/JTF) level, which itself will have to be interoperable with the Global Command and Control System. Data standardization and interoperability issues associated with software applications and telecommunications are vexing problems because so many different logistics information systems are involved.
Determining What Information Is Needed
Let's revisit the first step to attaining joint asset visibility: What information do we need? The answer is that DOD's global supply-chain logistics managers need all kinds of information about an item. Moreover, although there are many common denominators, the various stakeholders, such as sellers, the acquisition community, the supply community, the transportation community, the financial community, and the chain of command of the buyers or owners of the items, require different types of information. The amount of data involved is startling.
Let's begin with the seller. The seller wants to know the purchaser and where and when to ship the item. The paper document used to capture this information is an invoice or a purchase agreement.
The acquisition community needs much of the same information. It also needs other information, such as the contract line item number, order number, acceptance point, discount terms, the name of the seller and whatever alphanumeric code is used to identify the seller, and the name of the individual accepting the item on behalf of the Government.
The supply community wants to know the name of the item; its identifying number, such as the national stock number (NSN), the contractor's part number, or the Army's line item number (LIN); and the unit of issue. The supply community also needs to know the required delivery date, the document number, the supply-related document identifier code, the quantity requested, the routing identifier code, and if there are any advice codes (which requestors use to inform supply managers of special circumstances).
The transportation community wants to know the gross weight of an item and its height, width, and length. Transporters also want information on any hazardous material, the name of the shipper, transportation modes, the freight charges, the commodity type, the seal numbers, the standard point location code, the standard carrier alpha code, the transportation control number, the transportation-related document identifier code, the aircraft mission number or the voyage number, and the number of pieces.
The financial community wants to know the transportation account code, the mailing address to which the shipping charges should be sent, the type address code 3, and the bill of lading number
The chain of command awaiting the arrival of an item wants to know where the item is currently located and, more importantly, when it will arrive where it is needed. Logisticians would be interested in knowing if the item was under the control of a vendor, a DLA depot, a service depot, a U.S. or international airport or seaport, or some other transshipment point. They also might want to know if the item was being shipped in a multipack, pallet, or container and the mode of transportation.
The list below shows the wide scope of information required from a total-system supply-chain perspective. It is by no means all inclusive. Some of the data pertain to containers used to protect or transport the items.
Item Identification Codes
Some of the information shown on the list at right is unique to the military, while other information is similar to that used in the commercial sector. For instance, the military normally uses the NSN and the commercial and Government entity (CAGE) code, while the commercial sector refers to a stock keeping unit (SKU) and Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS). Some of the information describing the same type of data is expressed in many different ways. From a total system perspective, this is one of the major reasons that DOD data cannot be readily processed within the myriad wholesale, retail, service, and agency automated information systems. As a result, the wide-area networks that manage DOD logistics information are not as accurate, comprehensive, timely, or useful as they could be. To make a simple analogy, consider the word "pharmacy." If we were to search a database dictionary looking for "pharmacy" by starting with the letter "f" instead of the letter "p," it would take a long time to uncover information about this word-if ever.
DOD services and agencies do not use the same basic naming and numbering conventions. This means that the pertinent logistics information is not visible to or exploitable by the many military global supply-chain stakeholders. For instance, the vehicle that most military personnel call a "humvee" has no single, agreed-on name. The Federal Logistics Information System, DOD's most authoritative source, calls this item a "truck, utility." Others call it a "hummer" or a high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicle (HMMWV). It is also known as an M998A1; an armored 4x4 crew-cab pickup; a TRK UTIL M998A1; or a truck utility: cargo/troop carrier, 11⁄2-ton, 4x4, M998. Similar to the futility of finding information about the word "pharmacy" by looking under the letter "f," the same futility would occur if logisticians conducting research on a "truck, utility" tried to access the data using the first letter of the abbreviation HMMWV.
Besides using naming conventions, the military also uses codes to identify items, which facilitates the electronic processing of information. As with item names, no single code (numeric, alphabetic, or alphanumeric) universally identifies a specific type of equipment or item of supply. The primary DOD supply code is the NSN, which is comprised of 13 numeric digits. However, the Army also uses the LIN-an alphanumeric code composed of one letter and five numerals, and the end item code-a three-character alphabetic code. DLA's Defense Logistics Information Service (DLIS) database depicts both the NSN and the LIN, but it also includes and promotes the use of an item name code-a five-digit numeric code. The Marine Corps uses a six-digit alpha-numeric code called the item designator number. A HMMWV could also be identified by using a CAGE part number.
This lack of standardization is a huge, costly problem since effective data processing is highly dependent on exactness. For instance, because The Army Authorization Document System uses LINs instead of NSNs, this incredibly robust, web-enabled database is not compatible with those databases that rely on NSNs. Although it is possible to obtain information by converting LINs to NSNs, this process is time-consuming (especially if a large amount of data is involved) and significantly reduces the utility of automation.
The military also has several means of identifying ammunition and fuel. Along with the NSN, other codes for ammunition include the DOD identification code and the DOD ammunition code. Fuel can be identified by the NSN, a U.S. fuel code, or a NATO fuel code. For instance, aviation turbine fuel has an NSN of 9130-01-031-5816, a U.S. fuel code of JP8, and a NATO fuel code of F-34.
DOD uniquely identifies location in many ways. The commercial sector also uses several methods to identify location. Since 85 percent of military cargo is moved by the commercial sector, DOD must assimilate the methods of the commercial sector within its information processing environments.
A physical location can be identified by street address, city, state, and zip code (or some type of similar convention for international addresses). A virtual location can be identified using an email address or Internet protocol address. Similar to items of supply or equipment, an address is frequently identified by both a name and by a code (which can be numeric, alphabetic, or alphanumeric). For instance, JOPES uses a geographic name (called "GEO name") and a four-character alphabetic designator called the "geographic location code." The Defense Transportation Regulation (DTR), however, does not use the JOPES coding convention. The DTR and the GTN use three-character air terminal identifier codes and water port identifier codes to designate port locations. Some commercial activities identify airports using an alphabetic, four-character code called "ICAO," developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Other commercial activities use an alphabetic, three-character code called "IATA," developed by the International Air Transport Association. (See the article, "Joint Force Logistics: Keeping Track of Forces on the Move," published in the January-February 2006 issue of Army Logistician.)
The National Motor Freight Association uses standard point location codes, DLA uses type address codes, and the Defense Automatic Address Service Center uses both routing identifier codes (RICs) and DOD automatic address codes (DODAACs) to identify location. Ship-to addresses, mark-for addresses, supplementary addresses, plain language message identifier addresses, Army or fleet post offices, billing addresses, and in-the-clear addresses all describe location- physical or virtual.
As you can imagine, neither the military services, DOD agencies, nor the domestic and international commercial sectors have agreed on standardized conventions to identify location. However, with the emergence of the Global Positioning System and computerized maps, the concept of identifying location by latitude and longitude is gaining acceptance. Using a code that is based on the geometry of the Earth has tremendous advantage.
DOD units and activities also are identified by written or spoken names and codes. JOPES and the Global Status of Resources and Training System (GSORTS) are the primary automated information systems that depict information identifying military units and DOD activities. GSORTS uses both a long unit name, which can be a maximum of 55 characters, and an abbreviated unit name, which can be a maximum of 30 characters. However, DOD has no centralized approving authority for service and agency unit names.
Because of the limits on the number of characters that can be used to describe military units and other DOD and Government agencies, many of the names are not readily comprehended by those unfamiliar with unit and agency types. For example, logisticians who are Sailors or Airmen or who work at the wholesale level may not be able to understand the abbreviated name of the Army's 11th Armored Calvary Regiment: 0011 AR RGT (AR CAV RGT). Some might wonder if the "AR" stands for Army, Army Reserve, Air, or Armored. The logistics databases within DOD use neither GSORTS abbreviated names nor GSORTS long names to identify units. Different names for the same unit have evolved as the result of the many legacy automated information systems.
Likewise, different alphanumeric codes are used within DOD to identify units; the unit identification code (UIC) is the primary one. Units that have the same generic structure are also coded using the unit type code (UTC). The Army also uses a modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) code to identify units. Another Army code used to identify units is the standard requirements code (SRC), which is based on the authorized level of organization code and the MTOE code. The SRC and the JOPES UTC capture similar data, although the structures of the two codes are entirely different. The SRC is a 12-character alphanumeric code, while the UTC is a 5-character alphanumeric code. Unfortunately, it is difficult to integrate the separate databases that use one or the other. Other codes that identify units or agencies include the six-character alphanumeric DODAAC, the three-character RIC, and the CAGE, which identifies non-DOD units. The standard carrier alphabetic code is used to identify commercial transportation companies.
DOD has many middleware software programs intended to reduce interoperability and standardization problems. Although middleware can bridge information-processing gaps, relying on one software system or application to perform a specific function is much better than depending on software or application systems that are linked to other systems through middleware. Determining the cause of a problem is much easier when no middleware is required because only a single hardware, software, and telecommunications system is in operation. When middleware is involved, the diagnosis of a problem is magnified threefold since problems can be caused by the software, the hardware, or the telecommunications of any one of the three systems involved. As a rule, the less middleware involved, the better the electronic processing of information will be.
Communicating With Commercial Systems
Just as the physical movement of items alternates between the Defense Transportation System and the commercial transportation sector, the information pertaining to the movement of these items must be processed alternately by both commercial and DOD automated information systems. Not only is data standardization and interoperability a problem within DOD, it is also a problem within the commercial sector. This problem is magnified even further when information is processed by several commercial and DOD automated information systems. Unless dealing specifically with the military, the commercial sector does not recognize military coding conventions such as the UIC, DODAAC, RIC, and CAGE.
The commercial sector understands the need to standardize data and integrate computer processes. National and international organizations have been established to work toward improving EDI with the goal of reducing human manpower and error during information processing. The long-term EDI objective is to avoid the manual reentering of logistics information into subsequent systems once it has been digitized within an initial automated information system. The American National Standards Institute has chartered the Accredited Standards Committee X12 to develop uniform standards for EDI. (See "Transforming Joint Logistics Information Management" in the January-February 2005 issue of Army Logistician.)
The EDI products of standardized digitization are called "transaction sets." Air shipment information, vessel content data, freight receipts, invoices, purchase orders, and order status inquiries are a few examples of transaction sets. The EDI standards are globally disseminated by the United Nations Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport. As a result, DOD must keep pace not only with its own transformational logistics initiatives but also with the revolutionary initiatives being developed in the commercial sector since DOD is a subset (albeit a very large subset) of global commerce. Consequently, DOD data elements should replicate standardized commercial data elements whenever possible and redundant data elements should be gradually removed from DOD databases. For instance, the SRC could be subsumed by the UTC; the DODAAC could be subsumed within the UIC; and the CAGE code could be subsumed within DUNS.
Here are some examples of the need for data standardization. The different automated information systems depict the day of the year and the time of day in various formats. January 31, 2006, could be displayed as follows: 31Jan06, 1/31/06, 1/31/2006, and 0316. Different countries use different methods of depicting dates. Time of day can be depicted in local time, or it can be based on Greenwich Mean Time. It can be expressed using a 24-hour clock or with the use of a.m. and p.m. Moreover, with a global supply chain, the differences between the use of the metric system of measurement and the English system of measurement can lead to confusion. Barrels, miles, and pounds may have to be converted to cubic meters, kilometers, and kilograms. Fahrenheit may have to be converted to Celsius. Simply said, the more standardized the data, the fewer mistakes will be made.
Developing and implementing a standardized logistics management information system that achieves total asset visibility is an enormous undertaking. It will require the integration of numerous data elements from both the commercial sector and within the services and DOD agencies. Consequently, the more logisticians who understand the complexities involved, the better they will be able to overcome the systemic problems associated with EDI and AIT. The next article in this series on joint asset visibility will discuss where and how information for joint asset visibility can be captured.
Section 2: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard? Capturing Information
LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Reprinted with permission by Army Logistician Magazine. This article was originally published in the September-October 2007 issue of Army Logistician Professional Bulletin of United States Army Logistics, PB 700-07-05, Volume 39, Issue 5.
In the second of his articles on joint asset visibility, the author discusses the processes and systems used for capturing data for asset visibility.
Department of Defense (DOD) stakeholders are interested in obtaining a lot of information about items in transit or in storage. Information about items in storage is usually reported whenever on- hand balances change, such as when additional items are received or issued. However, this information is usually updated on a daily basis as it is passed electronically through the supply chain-from the unit level to battalion, brigade, division, theater, and onwards to the strategic-level-using wide-area networks such as the Joint Operations Planning and Execution System (JOPES), the Global Transportation Network (GTN), or the Defense Automatic Addressing System (DAAS).
In an ideal world, the worldwide DOD item balances would be updated automatically any time ownership or location of an item changed. In reality, however, this is not the case; the limitations of telecommunications and the time needed for some computers to process information prevent real-time displays.
For example, consider high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) tires. Let's say that, on a particular day, the various units and DOD agencies have a worldwide total of 100,000 tires stored or in transit at 5,000 different sites. How could logisticians keep track of the on-hand balances of all of the HMMWV tires over time as tires were purchased, issued, condemned, and transferred at the various locations? After all, not all of these sites would be connected to the World Wide Web. (For instance, a large portion of a deployed ground force may be powered by generators or may have no electrical power source at all. Without access to an electrical grid, it is much more difficult to connect to the Web.) For units not connected to the Web, logistics information is still passed along the supply chain echelons, but this is done in batch mode, not real time. A unit might have to deliver a disc to the automated information system of its supply support activity (SSA), or perhaps the SSA would have to send its asset visibility information via satellite to the automated information system at theater level. Depending on the unit's location, the method of transmission, and the extent of information to be passed, the use of direct links to satellites can be an expensive, manpower-intensive proposition. Moreover, some legacy automated information systems need time to process account balances, putting all other computer processes on hold while preparing to transmit data to a higher or lower echelon. Instead of being passed and processed in real-time, the information is passed and processed in a batch. A batch of information may be passed at various time intervals, such as hourly, twice a day, four times a day, daily, weekly, or monthly. However, for the most part, stakeholders within the DOD global supply chain are looking for daily asset visibility reports for supplies and equipment in storage or on hand at the unit level. For instance, most DOD logistics managers would be more than satisfied with daily on-hand availability updates by location of HMMWV tires (or other item).
Although DOD supply chain stakeholders can accept in-storage information that is updated daily, they want updates about items in-transit on a more frequent basis. Ideally, stakeholders want to know when an item in transit arrives and departs a transshipment point.
Items traverse a wide variety of transshipment points "from factory to foxhole." As soon as DOD purchases an item from a manufacturer or a retailer, it begins accounting for that item. Information about the item must be captured, preferably electronically, and passed from one automated information system to another until it reaches a wide-area network, accessible by all DOD logisticians. However, different transshipment points capture different types of logistics information. Depots capture wholesale information. Airports managed by the Air Force capture air transport information. Strategic deployment and distribution centers or seaports run by the Navy capture information pertaining to surface delivery. Managers at commercially run transshipment points capture logistics information that is pertinent to their particular needs. Personnel at transshipment points must capture not only information about the item being shipped but also information about the type of conveyance being used to transport the item to the next transshipment point.
The Data Capture Challenge
Unfortunately, many transshipment points do not have the manpower, computing power, or telecommunications equipment needed to capture all of the pertinent logistics information. This is especially true when items in transit are substantially reconfigured.
Let's look at a hypothetical scenario. To support forces deployed throughout Iraq, Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) personnel stationed at the Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, load 4,000 different items (with 4,000 different national stock numbers [NSNs] and 4,000 different document numbers) into one 40-foot container. The automated information system at this sophisticated transshipment point electronically captures the NSN and document number for each item within the container. This information is then passed to the wide-area networks, such as JOPES, DAAS, and GTN.
Next, the container is sent to a military or commercial port in the continental United States, where the supply and transportation data are again easily captured. This is not that difficult because the contents of the 40-foot container remain the same; only the container's location has changed. While en route to Iraq, however, the vessel transporting the container turns out to be too big to transit the Suez Canal. The vessel's draft also is too deep to access the overseas port of debarkation. As a result, the contents of the 40-foot container have to be off-loaded at an intermediary port at the entrance of the Suez Canal and loaded into two 20-foot containers. In this case, the previous content integrity of the 40-foot container is now gone. At this new transshipment point (the intermediary port), the automated information system now must update the container information for two containers, each with 2,000 items. Whatever data processing codes were used to identify the contents of the 40-foot container must be updated to identify the contents of the two 20-foot containers. Will this commercial overseas port be able to capture this information and then pass it on to the wide-area networks? The answer depends on the port.
Actually, this problem is even more complex than it first appears. The contents of the one 40-foot container could be spread out into 5, 10, or 20 different 20-foot containers, each containing previously loaded items in addition to the contents transferred from the 40-foot container. Similarly, the contents of each of the resultant 20-foot containers could be further broken down at a subsequent transshipment point into pallets and loaded onto aircraft, railcars, and trucks.
Will transshipment points (especially the commercial ones with scant DOD representation) have the capability to capture the appropriate logistics information into automated information systems and then transmit this information to the respective wide-area networks? The answer is probably not.
Consider how much time it would take for one person to scan the two-dimensional (2D) barcodes of military shipment labels or, worse yet, manually enter content-level data into automated information systems. Even with the most rudimentary information, such as nomenclature, document number, NSN, and transportation control number data, errors naturally occur whenever human entry is required. Some studies indicate that, for every 85 keystrokes, 3 errors are made unbeknownst to the operator. And with coded information like an NSN, if the input contains a single incorrect character, the accurate code (in this case the NSN) cannot be processed by the automated information system. Capturing barcoded information is easier and less error prone, but it is still very time-consuming; it also requires the appropriate barcode readers and complementary automated information system. Radio frequency identification (RFID) offers promise, but it is not the sole solution.
Although DOD supply chain stakeholders can accept in-storage information that is updated daily, they want updates about items in-transit on a more frequent basis.
Let's consider a simpler scenario. What if the Susquehanna Depot completely stuffed a 20-foot container with a single item: concertina wire (NSN 5660-00-921-5516). In this case, there would be only one customer and only one document number. The concertina wire, destined for an SSA in Iraq, would remain intact inside a container throughout its shipment from the depot all the way to the SSA somewhere north of Baghdad. In this scenario, the automated information system at DLA could easily capture the pertinent information about the container's contents and associate it with the identification number of the container. This information then could be readily passed to a wide-area network, where it could be viewed by interested logisticians worldwide. All they would need to know would be the document number or the container number. Shareholders would be able to track some of the movement of the container as it made its way to Iraq as long as the various transshipment points being transited had a means of capturing the container number as it arrived and departed and a means of passing this information to a wide-area network.
So Much Data!
However, let's take a look at a more realistic scenario. Think of how much logistics data would have to be captured and passed pertaining to a vessel carrying the equivalent of 6,000 different 20-foot containers. If each container had 2,000 different items within it, 12,000,000 different items would be on board the vessel (6,000 * 2,000). How much information would we need to capture about each item? If we only needed the document number and NSN, then we would need to capture 24,000,000 different data elements (6,000 * 2,000 * 2). But if we wanted to track each item's document number, NSN, nomenclature, unit of issue, condition code, supplementary address, required delivery date, weight, cube, and project code, then we would need to capture 120,000,000 different data elements. We also might want to track the identification numbers of all the multipacks inside the containers so that we could associate all of the NSNs within with their specific multipack identification numbers.
If each 20-foot container were to have 50 multipacks within it, then there would be 240,000 multipacks (6,000 containers * 2,000 items per container ÷ 50 items per multipack) onboard the vessel. If these multipacks were atop pallets, with each pallet holding 6 multipacks, then there would be 40,000 different pallets (240,000 multipacks ÷ 6). Each pallet should have a unique identifying number, and each pallet number should be correlated to the identifying numbers of the six multipacks on the pallet. Associating a specific item's document number with the identifying number of its multipack, with the identifying number of its pallet, with the identifying number of its container, and with the identifying number of the vessel can be extremely complicated. After all, in the scenario just described, 1 ship is carrying 6,000 containers, 40,000 pallets, 240,000 multipacks, and 12,000,000 different items. The amount of data that would have to be loaded into automated information systems is mind-boggling. It would take a very, very long time to capture all of these data by hand or using barcode readers, especially if it were done while the ship was being loaded. (See the article, "Containerizing the Joint Force," published in the March-April 2005 issue of Army Logistician.)
The challenge in the scenario described above is created by the enormous amount of data. The scenario assumed that the port of debarkation had sophisticated data-capture equipment and telecommunications. Let's take a look at a different problem. What would happen if the transshipment point were located in a very austere environment, like a desert, where enablers such as electricity, computers, and telecommunications were not even remotely available? What if the transshipment point were simply a spot in the sand where the form of conveyance changes, say from a commercial truck to a military truck? How can the information about the items that were transferred be captured within automated information systems? Under our current procedures, the answer is that the information may not be captured.
Whose Job Is It To Capture the Information?
A major problem in capturing information pertaining to asset visibility (in-transit visibility in particular) is that DOD has no designated military occupational specialty or civilian equivalent specifically trained to do so. Since so many different types of transshipment points are run by so many different types of organizations, no one has been trained on how to capture the information about supplies in transit using both joint military procedures and commercial practices. No standardized automated information systems or telecommunications systems are available to capture the information and pass it to the wide-area networks (which themselves are not standardized). Many transshipment points, such as overseas seaports and railheads, may have no DOD presence at all.
Capturing Information at Transshipment Points
Just as not every transshipment point has a designated specialist, no set method has been established for capturing the required asset visibility information. Several methods of capturing data should be available to help ensure reliability. The most basic method is for clerks to capture information by manually transferring data from the shipment documents or by jotting down the logistics data shown on the item's packaging. However, if a clerk were simply to file the information in a filing cabinet, it would not be visible to logisticians with access to the wide-area networks. It would be much better if a clerk were to enter the pertinent logistics information into an automated information system. It would be better still if he were to capture the logistics information using electronic data interchange (EDI) and automatic information technology (AIT).
Since both EDI and AIT rely on computer processing, let's take a look at some of the rudiments of this incredibly complex field. The ability of computers and telecommunications devices to digitize information has been truly revolutionary and has been, and still is, one of the cornerstones of logistics transformation. But what do we mean when we say information has been digitized? In the most basic sense, all computerized information can be subcomposed into what are called "bits." The word bit began as an abbreviation for the phrase "binary digit." The root of binary is "bi" which connotes two of something. In computer terms, binary code means either 1 or 0; it also connotes the concept of something being on or off. Just as a light switch can be turned on or off, a silicone chip can be turned on or off. Binary code, then, is a stream of some combination of the digits 0 or 1 and is used as the basis for computer processing.
The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), a widely accepted method of encoding characters based on the English language, uses binary values. For example, the binary value of the ASCII letter M is 00 1101 and the number 2 is 11 0001. In computer processing, such binary values can depict all the letters of the alphabet (both uppercase and lowercase), all numbers, and many special characters. Binary numbers are used to compose hexadecimal numbers (with a base of 16 binary digits), which are used extensively in RFID devices.
The text and numbers included within almost every electronic document can be subcomposed into a series of 0s and 1s. As an analogy, think how a person can navigate anywhere in the world by making a series of decisions based on only two choices: go left or go right. In our digitized world, 8 bits make 1 byte, which usually represents one alphabetic character (like A, B, or C), one special character (like &, *, or ?), or two numeric digits. A kilobyte is a measure of 1,024 bytes; a megabyte is a measure of 1,048,576 bytes; and a gigabyte is a measure of 1,073,741,824 bytes. A standard $50 thumb drive can store one gigabyte.
The linear barcode is the most basic of the several different types of AIT used to store a wide variety of data. The linear barcode can store 17 to 20 alphanumeric characters. It is typically used to store one key data element, such as an NSN, a document number, or a transportation control number. If all three of these numbers are on the packaging of a container, a clerk has to scan all three numbers separately to retrieve the digital information the barcodes portray. The newer and more sophisticated 2D barcodes have a greater capacity that the linear barcode; a 2D barcode can portray about 1,850 different characters and is more reliable than a linear barcode because it has several layers of data repetition as part of its design.
A clerk at a transshipment point or a storage facility can either scan the barcodes by sliding them across a fixed scanner or use a portable scanner called a portable data collection device to scan items at various locations within a warehouse or storage yard. Regardless of whether the barcode scanner is portable or fixed, it must be linked to a computer to process the digital information, although the linkages (particularly with the portable data collection device) may be wireless. The laser technology associated with barcode readers must be able to see the barcode. In other words, the barcode must be within the barcode reader's line of sight. Humans must be involved in lining up an item's barcode with the barcode reader. This means that only one item's barcode can be scanned at a time, and a human must be present during the scanning process. This time-consuming, human involvement is not necessary for RFID.
Optical memory cards (OMCs) are another form of AIT. OMCs are the size of credit cards and use the same type of technology as CD-ROM products. Data are downloaded onto the cards in sequential order; once loaded onto the card, the data cannot be overwritten. In other words, portions of data cannot be erased (although the entire contents can be erased so that the card can be reused as if it were new). Additional data are loaded onto the card until its capacity is reached. These small cards can store over 2 megabytes of data. They are rugged, inexpensive to produce, and unaffected by environmental conditions such as moisture and heat. Smart cards (also called common access cards, or CACs) are similar to OMCs. Like OMCs, smart cards are the size of credit cards. While OMCs are used to capture information about supplies and equipment, smart cards are used to capture information about people. They currently have a data storage capacity between 16 and 32 kilobytes.
The contact memory button is another type of AIT, which is currently used by the Department of the Navy to store information about a major end item's maintenance history. A memory button is a battery-free, read/write, identification device designed for use on components and equipment in harsh environments.
RFID is the most sophisticated type of AIT. To understand the complexities associated with RFID, it is best to introduce the rudiments of the science that makes it possible. Let's start with a brief discussion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
According to the website of the Goddard Space Flight Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-
Electromagnetic radiation can be described in terms of a stream of photons, which are massless particles each traveling in a wave-like pattern and moving at the speed of light. Each photon contains a certain amount (or bundle) of energy, and all electromagnetic radiation consists of these photons. The only difference between the various types of electromagnetic radiation is the amount of energy found in the photons.
The spectrum of electromagnetic energy, from low energy to high energy, includes amplitude modulation (AM) radio waves, shortwave radio waves, very high frequency (VHF) radio waves (used by television), frequency modulation (FM) radio waves, ultra high frequency (UHF) radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light (light that humans can see), ultraviolet light, x rays, and gamma rays. The electromagnetic spectrum can be expressed in three different ways: wavelength, frequency, and energy. AM radio (at the lower end of the spectrum) has long wavelengths (measured in meters-the distance between the crest of one radio wave and the next), low frequency (measured in cycles per second), and low energy (measured in electron volts). In comparison, gamma rays are at the highest end of the electromagnetic spectrum. They have short wavelengths, high frequency, and high energy.
Because so much technology is based on the electromagnetic spectrum, governments (including our own) have established guidelines to regulate portions of it. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission grants broadcast licenses to radio and television stations. Without some type of regulation, two radio stations in the same area, one a hard rock music station and the other a classical music station, might broadcast their different musical genres at the same exact frequency. Regardless of musical taste, the result would be unpleasant to hear.
RFID is based on the technology associated with the electromagnetic spectrum. Measured in hertz (1 hertz equals 1 cycle per second, where a cycle is the passing of one complete wave of energy), most RFID devices operate within a radio frequency of 124 kilohertz (124,000 cycles per second) to 2.45 gigahertz (2.45 billion cycles per second). RFID devices use the energy of radio waves as a basis for digitizing logistics information. The lower frequencies are less affected by metal and moisture than the higher frequencies, but the latter can be read at greater ranges. Radio wave readers (interrogators) emit radio waves to radio tags (transponders). The tags include both a mini-antennae and a computer chip; the latter contains digitized information about the items attached to the tags. The three types of RFID tags are active, passive, and semi passive.
An active RFID tag contains batteries. These batteries enable the tags to transmit information to a reader. A passive tag does not contain batteries or any other type of internal power source. It receives its energy from the reader, which emits its energy via radio frequency (RF) waves to the passive tag, which then uses the microchip's antennae to convert this energy into electricity to transmit the information stored in its chip through its antennae back to the reader. A semipassive tag makes use of an internal power source that monitors environmental conditions and runs the chip's microcircuitry. In order to conserve energy, many semipassive tags stay dormant until power is received from an interrogator. However, like passive tags they require RF energy transferred from the reader/interrogator in order to power a tag response.
Unlike barcodes, OMCs, or smart cards, RFID does not require human involvement in the scanning process. In fact, RFID tags do not have to be scanned via a line-of-sight process as do the other forms of AIT. Similar to audible sound (which is itself radio waves), RFID radio waves reverberate over a large area and can be captured by a reader even when the source of the radio wave is not within a line of sight. This means that the reader/interrogator does not have to be facing an item to sense it is nearby, as long as the item is located somewhere within the range of the interrogator. Moreover, the information transmitted by radio wave frequency can be captured quickly by the interrogator and the computer linked to it. The logistics information about thousands of different items can be captured within seconds, without human involvement.
Although several different types of active tags are used by DOD, the typical one, when compared to passive tags, is larger in physical size, costs more, stores more data, and transmits further. Active tags are about the size of a can of beer, cost about $70 each, contain 128 kilobytes of data, and can transmit information a radial distance (omnidirectional) of 300 feet if unobstructed. Passive tags are much smaller (about the size of a postage stamp), cost as little as $0.25, store as little as a few bits of data, and must be read within 3 to 10 feet.
Active RFID Tags
The most sophisticated active tags can transmit data directly to satellites, which then relay information to appropriate wide-area networks. Because of the high cost of these tags and the expense associated with using satellite telecommunications, these types of tags are reserved for tracking time-sensitive items, such as critical ammunition or perishable items. However, these tags are being used more often, and associated costs are expected to drop.
In Iraq and Kuwait, logisticians are using satellites to track the locations of specially equipped containers that have been outfitted with "AXTracker" global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices, which are manufactured by a high-tech corporation called Axonn. These self-contained devices, which are 9 inches by 6.25 inches by 1 inch, can be attached to containers easily. They send signals to low Earth-orbiting satellites, which relay a container's current GPS location and other information such as ambient temperature, humidity, and whether or not the container is stationary or moving. The satellites then transmit the information to ground-based computer gateways that pass the information to web portals. The AXTracker has specially designed batteries that can last from 3 to 18 years, depending on how often information is relayed to the satellites.
Active tags-the type typically placed on railcars, major end items, 20-foot containers, and 463L pallets-have their own unique tag identification numbers. When active tags are placed on 20-foot containers, they normally do not contain very much data on the items within the container. However, AIT systems and wide-area networks are being designed to correlate an active RFID tag number with the physical location of the tag, the time the tag was read, and the contents of the container. This is currently accomplished at DLA container and consolidation points and DOD-run seaports in the United States.
A major problem in capturing information pertaining to asset visibility (in-transit visibility in particular) is that DOD has no designated military occupational specialty or civilian equivalent specifically trained to do so.
Active RFID readers normally are positioned at transshipment points, at preselected checkpoints along a designated route, and at end unit locations. Unlike passive tags, some of the data stored on an active tag can be changed using radio wave frequency transmission. Usually, however, a person loads the appropriate information onto a tag at a computer docking station. The loading of digital information onto a tag is called "writing" or "burning."
As with most technology, active RFID tags are not without certain problems. Their batteries go dead; the more frequently data are exchanged between the tag and the reader, the sooner this happens. For example, if an active tag on a 20-foot container being hauled by a tractor passes by a fixed interrogator at 20 miles per hour, the tag will be read only once. However, if the tractor-trailer happens to be parked for several days near that same interrogator, the tag will be read numerous times and its battery life will be significantly reduced. Furthermore, because of the omnidirectional nature of the RF transmissions, the same active tag may be read by two separate interrogators at the same time.
Passive RFID Tags
Unlike active tags, passive tags are being designed to be an integral part of nearly every piece of equipment and of all but the smallest or most inexpensive supplies. As technology improves, the cost per tag is expected to drop below $0.05. Active tags are normally placed on items at transshipment points. However, passive tags are assimilated into items at the point of manufacture. Passive RFID tags in transit or in storage can be read by readers at a rate of more than 1,000 tags per second.
Passive tags do not contain very much logistics information; they are similar to that of a license plate in that they contain only a few alphanumeric characters. A passive tag, like a license plate, is used as the key for obtaining additional information. For example, a police officer who stops a car for speeding can simply call police headquarters and report the alphanumeric characters of the license plate. Headquarters then would use the license plate number to access its database and uncover all types of information pertaining to the car and owner, such as vehicle registration data and arrest records.
RFID technology, particularly passive technology, is still relatively new and developing. Many of the active tags and the interrogators designed to read them are not interoperable with the passive tags and interrogators. It is almost as if there are two separate systems. Moreover, a comprehensive architecture for the AIT systems and the wide-area networks associated with RFID has not been designed on a global scale yet, although a great deal of progress has been made in areas where U.S. forces have an established presence.
A major weakness of RFID is that the technology can be interrupted by the enemy. Interrogators placed along delivery routes are easily seen and sabotaged, and their very emplacement indicates the location of a main supply route. Furthermore, it is unlikely that rapidly advancing forces will have the time and wherewithal to establish interrogators along the route of troop advance. Data-read capability is also an issue. The placement and positioning of the tags and the interrogators makes a difference as to whether or not the data are successfully transmitted.
Active tags are more susceptible to enemy interference than passive tags for several reasons. First, since active tags transmit data over longer distances, the enemy has a better opportunity to corrupt or impede the transmissions. Second, active tags contain more information for the enemy to corrupt than do passive tags. Lastly, the enemy could actually change the data on active tags that have read/write capability since most tags currently in use are not encrypted.
In some DOD experiments, passive tags placed on the inside of multicontent pallets were not picked up by the interrogator. This could have occurred because certain radio frequencies do not penetrate easily through liquids or humid conditions. For instance, paper products have high moisture content, so their passive tags do not always enable the capture of complete and accurate information. Similarly, the RF waves associated with passive tags do not readily pass through dense objects or metals. Data-read also depends on the quantity of tags being read by a single reader, the speed of the tags passing by a reader, and the distance between the tag and the reader. The more tags being read, the greater the speed of the tags in motion, and the greater the distance the tag is from the reader, the less reliable the reads will be. Probably because passive RFID technology is in its nascent stage, some studies indicate that the low-cost tags can be damaged during production, which frequently happens when microchips are attached to the mini-antennas. Tags can also be damaged when logistics data are written to them.
Additional issues are associated with RFID technology. Tags that use a frequency of 433 megahertz can interfere with military radar. The electromagnetic energy of RF can adversely affect people, ordnance, and fuel. RF transmissions at 2.45 gigahertz excite water molecules; not coincidentally, this frequency is used by microwave ovens to heat food.
Like the United States, foreign governments regulate frequencies within their airspace. This means that DOD must obtain permission from foreign governments for deployed U.S. forces to use certain portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Currently, no international agreements stipulate electromagnetic frequencies for RFID. The spectrum being used for RFID ranges from 860 to 960 UHF within the United States, Europe, and Japan. However, there is a growing global acceptance of designating a few frequencies exclusively for RFID use.
Regardless of the method in which it is captured, logistics information pertaining to asset visibility must be accurate and complete. Commanders and logisticians must firmly believe that the information they retrieve about items in storage or in transit is reliable. After all, supply and equipment readiness is an integral part of combat power.
Section 3: Joint Asset Visibility: Why So Hard? Commercial Sector Information Technology Advancements
LTC James C. Bates, USA (Ret.)
Reprinted with permission by Army Logistician Magazine. This article was originally published in the November-December 2007 issue of Army Logistician Professional Bulletin of United States Army Logistics, PB 700-07-06, Volume 39, Issue 6.
In the third article of his asset visibility series, the author discusses how commercial sector advancements in information technology are being used to help DOD meet its asset visibility needs.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) is having a transformational effect on the entire global supply chain. Some of the most intellectually talented people in the world are working on using RFID to capture logistics data. This is not surprising, considering the effect that the reduction in manpower and the improvement in the amount and availability of logistics information resulting from the adoption of RFID technology will have on the world economy. The cost savings to the Department of Defense (DOD) alone have been estimated to be as high as $1.781 billion.
Just as DOD benefits from the integrating influence of the Joint Staff and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the commercial sector has many national and international organizations that standardize data, techniques, and procedures in order to promote domestic and global supply chain standardization and interoperability. Many of these organizations influence DOD directly or indirectly. Some of the more important are the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); the American National Standards Institute (ANSI); the ANSI Accredited Standards Committee (ASC); the United Nations/Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport (UN/EDIFACT); GS1; GS1 US; the National Motor Freight Association; and Electronic Product Code-Global (EPCglobal). These organizations have tremendous influence in the conduct of global commerce and directly affect DOD.
Electronic Data Interchange
One of the major long-term goals of both the commercial sector and DOD is to significantly reduce the amount of human involvement needed to input logistics data to automated information systems that, in turn, digitize and electronically process the data. Currently, at almost every transshipment point, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians manually enter information into automated information systems. Most of this information, however, has already been digitized and processed by other automated information systems. The burgeoning implementation of electronic data interchange (EDI), which passes logistics information electronically (not only within corporations but also among them), is yet another truly transformational endeavor.
The ANSI ASC X12 Committee promulgates EDI domestically, while UN/EDIFACT does so internationally. Reducing the amount of human involvement in capturing logistics data not only improves data reliability by reducing human error; it tremendously speeds up the process and saves billions of dollars a year.
ISO develops worldwide industrial and commercial standards. It is a consortium of national-level standards organizations, with representatives from major commercial industries and sectors. While it is chartered as a nongovernmental organization, it has a great deal of influence on governments since many of its standards become law and are included in treaties. In an effort to develop standards for information technology (IT), ISO teamed with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to form the first ISO/IEC joint technical committee. This committee is working toward developing and promoting the Interoperability of IT systems, tools, automatic identification, and other data capture techniques.
GS1 and GS1 US
GS1 US, formerly called the Uniform Code Council (UCC), oversees the domestic use of the universal product code (UPC), or bar code. GS1 US joined the GS1 in 2002. According to its website, GS1 is a voluntary standards organization charged with the management of the EAN [European Article Numbering]/UCC System and the Global Standard Management Process. The EAN/UCC System standardizes bar codes, EDI transaction sets, extensible markup language (XML) schemas and other supply chain solutions for more efficient business practices. By administering the assignment of company prefixes and coordinating the accompanying standards, GS1 maintains the most robust item identification system in the world.
GS1 and GS1 US have developed the global trade item number (GTIN), which is used as the basis for all UPC bar codes. The GTIN (comprising only numbers-letters and characters are excluded) uniquely identifies commercial items sold, delivered, and stored throughout the world. The number also includes a method of identifying level of packaging to include unit, case, and pallet. Currently, a GTIN can be 8, 12, 13, or 14 digits long.
In addition to the GTIN, the GS1 and GS1 US have developed the global location number (GLN), which is meant to provide a worldwide, standardized way of identifying locations. The GLN is a 13-digit number. According to the GS1 US website, 196 different location coding methods are recognized by the ANSI ASC X12 and 212 different location coding methods are recognized by the UN/EDIFACT. The international and national standardization organizations are working to reduce this number.
GS1 and GS1 US also have developed a serial shipping container code (SSCC) to identify logistics-related shipping containers, a global individual asset identifier (GIAI), and a global returnable asset identifier (GRAI). The GTIN, GLN, SSCC, GIAI, and GRAI numbers have been specifically designed to promote electronic commerce and interoperable logistics information flow. The GS1 US website describes the situation as follows-
Managing the physical flow of product with the electronic flow of business data is a major challenge in today's intensely competitive environment. The same time, attention, and detail that goes into designing and producing a quality product must also be evident in the transmission of that product's business data through the supply chain. A system built with standardized processes and a common business language is needed to monitor and manage the movement of product and information through every component along the supply chain.
Electronic Product Code
EPCglobal is a joint venture between GS1 and GS1 US. This organization oversees the EPC. Just as the bar code has reduced the time and manpower needed to capture data on an item's identification, the EPC is doing likewise with RFID technology. The EPC is a license plate-type number that uniquely identifies items of equipment and supplies. It is designed to assimilate the different item identification numbering schemes of both the commercial and government sectors.
Each EPC number contains header data (assigned 8 bits), a manager number (assigned 28 bits), an object class (24 bits) and a serial number (36 bits). Information contained in a passive EPCglobal RFID tag consists solely of the EPC, although additional fields are sometimes needed to encode and decode information from a multitude of numbering systems to make them readable by humans.
Just as DOD uses automated information systems, local area networks, and wide area networks to correlate pertinent logistics information to a national stock number, transportation control number, or document number, the EPCglobal Network uses the EPC as its basis for data correlation. According to the EPCglobal website, "The EPCglobal Network is a set of technologies that enable immediate, automatic identification and sharing of information on items in the supply chain ... enabling true visibility." The EPC is one of the five elements of the network; the others include the identification system (RFID tags and RFID readers), the object name service (ONS), Savant (a software technology), and the physical markup language (PML).
Object Name Service
ONS converts alphabetic names into numeric Internet protocol addresses. The RFID Journal describes ONS as-
. . . an automated networking service similar to the domain name service (DNS) that points computers to sites on the World Wide Web. When an interrogator reads an RFID tag, the electronic product code is passed to middleware, which, in turn, goes to an ONS on a local network or the Internet to find where information on the product is stored. The middleware retrieves the file (after proper authentication) and the information about the product in the file can be forwarded to a company's inventory or supply chain applications.
The RFID-associated middleware described above is Savant. The RFID Journal describes Savant systems as "distributed software systems developed ... to act as the central nervous system of the Electronic Product Code Network. A Savant takes data from an RFID reader, does some filtering, handles product lookups and sends the information on to enterprise applications or databases."
Physical Markup Language
The last of the five elements of the EPCglobal Network is the PML. Just as there is hypertext markup language (HTML) for use with the Internet, there is now a PML for use with the EPCglobal Network. It establishes data for physical objects. The RFID Journal explains it this way: The EPC identifies an individual product, but all the useful information about that product is written in PML, a new standard computer code. PML is based on the widely accepted XML.
Because it is meant to be a universal standard for describing all physical objects, processes, and environments, PML will be broad and will cover all industries. It will provide a common method for describing physical objects and will be broadly hierarchical. So, for instance, a can of Coke might be described as a "carbonated beverage," which would fall under the subcategory "soft drink," which would fall under the broader category "food." Not all classifications are so simple, so to ensure that PML has wide acceptance, EPCglobal is relying on work already done by standards bodies, such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States.
The amount of data transmitted over the EPCglobal Network is expected to grow at a phenomenal rate. VeriSign, an information technology firm that provides digital security and network infrastructure services, manages both the domain name service (which currently handles about 17 billion messages a day) and the ONS. Some estimates suggest that, within the next decade, the ONS network will transmit nearly 4 quadrillion messages a day.
Logistics Network Diversity
As the preceding paragraphs point out, the amount of daily computer processing associated with attaining visibility of items in transit and in storage is enormous and will only get larger. RFID tags alone will not solve this complex problem. The really hard part is matching the scant "license plate" data contained on a passive RFID tag with robust, interoperable automated information systems. These systems, in turn, must provide information that can be processed and effectively organized within a single wide area network, viewable by authorized stakeholders around the world.
What makes this so hard? Hundreds of different automated information systems make up the DOD global supply chain. Many of these systems were designed decades ago, and most of these systems were not meant to provide information to the wide area networks that are now accessible through the Internet. Moreover, almost none of these systems process information in a method that is compatible and interoperable with a "total system" perspective. Instead, they were developed by the disparate communities within DOD, such as Army wholesale supply, strategic air transportation, strategic surface transportation, local truck transportation, Army retail supply, Navy retail supply for aviation, Navy retail supply for vessels, Marine Corps retail supply, Air Force retail supply, and strategic deployment.
Because the systems have been designed and fielded to solve parochial information requirements with little thought to the DOD global supply chain, they are a prime example of suboptimization, in which overemphasis of a portion of the supply chain enables it to perform better at the expense of the larger, more important total system. This bottom-up approach to information architecture (where the services and the agencies design their own information systems) degrades interoperability and inhibits data integration across the DOD global supply chain. In fact, DOD has not one but several supply chains.
As simply another player in worldwide commerce, DOD must be able to adapt quickly to the ongoing transformational, logistics-related IT developments that are gaining acceptance in the civilian sector. This is a challenge for DOD since there is no unified direction regarding IT assimilation.
Instead of one all-encompassing logistics-related wide area network, DOD has several. Logistics data are captured on both a classified wide area network and an unclassified wide area network, thereby inhibiting the exchange of information among the systems. Functionally, we have "families of systems" that feed families of systems. It is no surprise that logistics data are not standardized, integrated, or interoperable among these hundreds of locally designed automated information systems. The following sidebar lists a few of the DOD logistics management information systems; it is by no means an all-inclusive list.
If the information captured and processed by an automated information system is to be passed on to the DOD global supply chain, there must be a means of transmitting the logistics information to a wide area network for global supply chain integration. The Air Force normally deploys to fixed facilities with links to an electric grid, and the Navy deploys with a full complement of sophisticated satellite telecommunications gear. However, land forces typically deploy over very large geographical areas that often are not connected to an electrical grid and have no connection to the Internet, a wide area network, or sometimes even a local area network. Similarly, many temporary transshipment points and the transshipment points in austere environments are not connected to information networks.
Reporting Asset Status
The guidance on which level of organization should provide reports regarding asset receipt, issue, and storage information appears to be conflicting. In the past, DOD required visibility of items only as far forward as the supply support activities (direct support units). However, as IT improves, users of the DOD supply chain will desire visibility of items received, issued, and stored at unit level. Let's take a look at why this is so important.
Let's say that a supply support activity (SSA) supports a brigade-sized force of 3,000, which is composed of 25 individual units (120 soldiers per unit). When they are on the move or deployed to austere environments, these units have difficulty transmitting their logistics information to the SSA, which also provides a local area network and has links to a theater-level local area network that, in turn, has links to the wide area networks.
In fast-paced tactical operations, it is very difficult to achieve full IT connectivity between the units and the SSAs that support them. Because of this, logisticians in the DOD global supply chain often are not able to view the receipts, issues, and on-hand balances of the units. A unit may receive a critical repair part, but, if this information is not passed to the information networks, interested stakeholders will not know about it. Furthermore, the global supply chain will not have inventory data on the combat loads of the units. Combat loads are expendable items that are meant to sustain units until replenishment arrives from a supply source. They usually are measured in days of supply.
This is a serious flaw since, on an aggregate level, the number of items stored within combat loads is quite large and can represent the bulk of items in storage within an operational area. For instance, if an SSA stocked 25 high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) tires, but each of the 25 units supported by the SSA stocked 4 HMMWV tires, the aggregate number of tires stored at the unit level would be 4 times as large as the number stocked at the direct support level. Similarly, logisticians with visibility of unit combat loads of operational rations, packaged petroleum, barrier materials, small arms ammunition, and common repair parts would be in a much better position to ensure readiness, especially if cross-leveling were required.
Considering that our deployed land forces must now operate in noncontiguous, distributed environments with supply lines subject to perpetual interruption and interdiction, it makes sense to track on-hand balances at all inventory points, to include the unit level. With advancements in IT, it is much easier to move logistics data than it is for service members to move supplies continually. On today's and tomorrow's battlefields, the best source of resupply, especially on a temporary basis, may be a unit nearby. If this can be done, not only within a single service but among all of the services, coalition forces, and interagency partners, the incidence of stock outs (required items at zero balance) will be significantly reduced. The exchange of just one repair part might allow an M1A1 battle tank to resume full combat operations, for example. Improving readiness at the unit level clearly demonstrates the importance of the ongoing commercial and military efforts to standardize information, enhance EDI, and exploit automatic information technology. Although these efforts have already made a significant improvement to distribution, even greater improvements are on the horizon.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012