Those episodes of "M*A*S*H" when Radar gets a load of swimsuits in the dead of winter and a half-million tongue depressors instead of medicine were funny, but in real life, its no joke when the supply chain breaks down and lives are at stake. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the U.S. military found that out the hard way.
"In the Gulf War, the United States wasted $2 billion. They shipped five containers if someone needed one in hopes of finding something. After that, they came back and said, Lets address this," said Bruce Jacquemard, executive vice president of worldwide sales for Savi Technology, in Sunnyvale, Calif.
U.S. military officials came up with a plan to address the massive supply chain inefficiencies. The U.S. Department of Defense signed a contract with Savi in 1994 to build out and maintain its ITV (In-Transit Visibility) network, now the worlds largest RFID (radio-frequency identification) cargo tracking system, stretching across 46 countries and 2,000 locations.
The system has worked so well that the U.S. ITV network has become a model for allied nations, and it could be a good proof of concept to the IT departments of U.S. consumer products and retail businesses that are now just starting to experiment with RFID.
In 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, NATO got involved, sending troops and supplies to Afghanistan and, in the process, modernized its supply chain. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and the Denmark Ministry of Defence also built out ITV networks, and the ADF (Australian Defence Force) has started its own initiative with NATO, as has Spain and Israel.
"Part of the history is that the U.S., of course, is one of the NATO nations. It had success with RFID in other theaters. As they began partnering with NATO in Afghanistan, they brought it to the attention of the NATO community that we could really benefit from RFID with the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] supply chain," said Brent Bingham, project manager for the NATO Consultation, Control and Command Agency, in Brussels, Belgium.
A successful Phase 1 RFID pilot was initiated in 2004, and NATO is currently in the second phase of an interim implementation to RFID-enable five key nodes along its ISAF supply chain that stretches from the Netherlands and two points in Germany to Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan.
The goal: to build out an RFID backbone, or infrastructure, that other countries can hook into with their supply chain systems and to facilitate a standards-based, interactive and interoperable supply chain among allied nations.
Despite the "interim" tag, the system is fully functional and will form the basis for a more formalized "Capability Package" that will provide a comprehensive infrastructure with global supply chain nodes in the future. Its just that, in the war on terror, NATO found it had to act fast.
"[NATOs] operations commander requested the capability to be there rather urgently and didnt want to wait for packages, so thats where we come in," said Dr. Levent Mollamustafaoglu, principal scientist and logistics section leader for NATOs Operations Research Division, in The Hague, Netherlands. "Because it is interim, [the ISAF RFID project] has a limited scope, limited nodes in which it is installed for a limited part of the supply chain. But what we are trying to provide is interoperability with national systems."
Following a yearlong assessment of its initial RFID backbone that Savi deployed for NATO, the NC3A awarded Savi a second contract in December 2005. Savi will upgrade and sustain operational support for NATOs ITV network, including the build-out of additional RFID tags and readers and an upgrade to NATOs existing software. It also calls for the installation of Savis CMS (Consignment Management Solution), which will enable NATO to maintain near-real-time visibility into the supply chain.
For Bingham, the goal is for RFID to become less of a gee-whiz technology and more of an integral component of NATOs global IT infrastructure.