They still have plenty to worry about, but at least the GIs serving in Iraq no longer have to worry that when the rations arrive, they'll get a case of chicken stew when they ordered barbecued pork with rice. Today, when soldiers submit requisitions for food, protective clothing, or ammo and weapons, they can be confident that the right supplies will be there when needed. And they have RFID to thank.
Speaking at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' annual conference in October, Alan Estevez, the assistant deputy under secretary of defense, told attendees that by using RFID in conjunction with other technology, the Department of Defense (DOD) has improved its ability to fill requests for critical supplies from soldiers. With that boost from technology, said Estevez, fill rates have soared to 89 percent from an earlier 77 percent.
The soldiers' confidence that their orders will arrive on time has translated into big savings for the military. The retail backlog of requests for items coming into supply areas has plummeted to 11,000 items from 92,000, Estevez said. The DOD also reports that it has reduced inventory in Iraq to about $70 million from about $127 million.
RFID is only part of the story, of course. "These improvements are also related to the fact that we can now fly materials into those areas," Estevez noted, "but the use of RFID [along with a more sophisticated network and improved infrastructure] has increased the confidence of Marines out in the field. Our soldiers know where the materials are that they need, and RFID is a key part of that."
To date, most of the DOD's experience with RFID has been with internal pilot programs. Unlike Wal-Mart, the Defense Department hasn't made a big push to get its suppliers to ship tagged products to its supply depots. But that's about to change. As of last month, new contracts going out to bid require that certain DOD suppliers start shipping cases and pallets of selected products with RFID tags in place.
The DOD designated its defense depots in Susquehanna, Pa., and San Joachim, Calif., as the first sites to receive tagged products. Right now, several DOD suppliers—including Boeing, Raytheon, GE and Lockheed Martin—have been shipping very limited quantities of tagged products to those depots. However, the numbers will soon swell because the new contracts call for RFID tags on repair parts, personal support items (boots, helmets, body armor, uniforms) and ready-to-eat meals. Even more items (and more depots) will become involved when a new contract goes out sometime next year.
Estevez stopped short of saying how many of the DOD's 60,000 suppliers will be immediately affected by the requirement, but he acknowledged that it's a sizeable number. "A good chunk of what we receive ends up in the Susquehanna and San Joachim depots," said Estevez, "so it affects a lot of suppliers."
The DOD's ultimate goal is a military supply chain so efficient that there will no longer be a need for backup personnel and support gear. For example, Estevez envisions a day when the United States will be able to send eight, rather than 10, tankers to a given location because RFID-enabled visibility into repair parts inventories will give dispatchers the confidence to dispense with the backup tankers.
"If ... I can fly a plane when I need to—and not have to put two planes there just to fly one plane," said Estevez, "that's where big dollars can be saved in the DOD."