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Pallets, RFID and the Military: Logistics Evolves to Improve Troop Support; Defense Expects Savings from RFID
Pallets in the Military: Department of Defense is quietly increasing supply chain productivity with new technologies and packaging designs, but pallets still do the grunt work.

By Matthew Harrison
Date Posted: 5/1/2007

   Today’s military fronts are far cries from the historic trenches of the Rhineland. War of attrition has been replaced by strikes with strategic weapons.

   Eventually, though, someone must hold and secure territory to claim victory. Lags in communication or delays in the supply chain become a matter of life or death for our soldiers.

   The Department of Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics division is quietly dedicated to increasing supply chain productivity with new technologies and packaging designs, but pallets still do the grunt work.


RFID Saves Military Money, Time, Lives

   When people think of technological innovation for war, their minds may shift to advanced weaponry, such as the F-22 Raptor fighter plane. But what good is a next-generation aircraft if its armaments are shipped to the wrong Air Force base or are damaged in transit?

   With the hope of preventing U.S. casualties by increasing the accessibility of munitions and supplies, the Defense Department has spent the past few years perfecting the use of passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to monitor supply shipments.

   Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for supply chain integration, has been an advocate of integrating passive, read-only RFID into military supply chains. In 2004 the agency decided to implement standardized RFID technologies into global defense logistics.

   “The desired end state for the Department of Defense supply chain is a fully integrated, adaptive entity that uses state-of-the-art enabling technologies and advanced management information systems to automate routine functions and achieve accurate and timely in-transit, in-storage, and in-repair asset visibility with the least amount of human intervention,” Estevez wrote in an article for Army Logistician.

   RFID Journal notes that the Defense Department spends nearly $120 billion annually on maintaining its supply chain. The Pentagon estimates it will spend nearly $500 million on RFID technology, but it expects net savings of over $1.7 billion by reducing accidental re-orders and misdirected shipments over the first seven years of its implementation.

   The agency believes it can achieve the savings by reducing the costs of human labor and human error. The department is so concerned about the success of RFID integration that it recently approved a $7.2 million contract for the Wright Brothers Institute Inc. of Dayton, Ohio.

   The funds will pay for a new facility that will act as a ‘solution center’ to stimulate the rapid transition of RFID technologies. The solution center is expected to allow government end users, contractors, and defense industry suppliers a resource to collaborate on utilizing and implementing RFID technologies for a more effective overall logistics strategy.

   The solution center is scheduled to be completed by October, only months before the Defense Department estimates that its entire supply chain will be RFID-enabled.

   Estevez believes that implementing RFID will reduce inventory value in the Marine Corps from $127 million to $70 million because of the decline in unnecessary reorders. Average delivery time fell from 28 to 16 days with RFID, and the backlog of supply shipments dropped from 92,000 to 11,000.

   “Marines can see where critical items are, and that changes the dynamic,” Estevez said in an interview for RFID Journal. “The dialog (between forward operating bases and the logistic hub) has changed from, ‘Where’s my stuff?’ to ‘Why isn’t my stuff moving?’ to ‘I want you to put my stuff on the next truck because I can see it’s there.’ ”


Growing Pains

   Like any emergent technology, the passive RFID technology has been a roller coaster ride of experimentation with intermittent success.

   Based on an initial implementation analysis in early 2006 by the Secretary of Defense, only 35%-60% of the first generation Army RFID tags were readably reliable during the summer of 2004.  Out of 8,000 tags originally created for the National Center for the Employment of the Disabled, only 6,000 were actually applied to pallets or cases.

   Results from the Defense Distribution Center in San Joaquin, Calif. were even more disappointing. Out of 500 RFID tags created, 450 were successfully applied to cargo, but tag readability was still only 50% of received supplies. When RFID-enabled pallets were shipped from the center, only 5% of the tags were read correctly. The report optimistically attributed low tag readability to “outmoded equipment.”

   RFID fared much better during its initial trial implementation by the Navy at the Fleet Industrial Supply Center in Norfolk, Va. The purpose of the trial was primarily to assess the feasibility of rapid implementation during July-November 2004.

   RFID tag readability was consistently between 75%-95%. Although the report revealed that on four days, 0% of tags were readable, tag readability was 100% in nine of the last 10 days of the trial.

   The report indicated that tags supplied by manufacturers had a failure rate of nearly 20% in 2004, but it also noted that manufacturers have greatly improved tag performance since then.

   Sources working for the Defense Department said that RFID was successfully implemented in accordance with 2006 project goals. Continental defense supply centers are RFID-operational thanks mainly to improved technology, better management strategies, and expedient data collection and analysis.

   The military also found ways to negotiate once cumbersome obstacles, like tagging metal containers. Foam backing material for tags now is used when there is potential for interference because of the metal container. The separation of the tag from the container negates possible interference, allowing RFID scanners to get perfect reads on the tags.

   RFID tags are attached at the supplier level. On a unit load, for example, the RFID chip is applied in the shrink-wrap. Sometimes cases containing bundles of smaller items will be tagged, but tags are not attached to individual items.

   At distribution centers, most of the goods arrive through dock doors and on conveyor belts, so RFID scanners primarily are mounted on fixed infrastructure.

   Just about everything that can fit on a unit load is RFID-tagged in the continental United States; however, there are some exceptions for hazardous materials, like munitions and ordnance. The Defense Department is pursuing certifications for RFID tags so they can be attached to hazardous materials in the future.

   The next phase of RFID implementation will extend overseas. Coalition forces in Iraq already use technology approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).


New Era, New Containers

   As the nature of war has changed since the days of established fronts and well-worn trenches, soldiers rely on packaging materials that are as adaptable as the soldiers themselves.

   Hardy-Graham Inc. has successfully created military packaging solutions for the last 30 years to meet the changing demands of modern warfare.

   The signature product of Hardy-Graham is the Hardy-Built System, a fastening system for knock-down, reusable containers.

   We manufacture a fastening system, or what you might call a closure system, for large containers that allows them to be knocked down, returnable and reusable,” said President and Chief Executive Officer Drew Graham.

   The containers can be assembled by placing adjoining wood panels edge to edge and securing them with the Hardy-Built System, which consists of steel plates on opposite sides of the panels held together by spring clips. Containers can be assembled with ease in a matter of minutes by one or two soldiers.

   Hardy-Graham fasteners are supplied under military contracts for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

   At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., containers are assembled with the Hardy-Built System on-site and are used to ship refurbished parts to the field. Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico uses Hardy-Graham demountable containers for storage. Other implementations are underway, and a host of proposed contracts await approval.

   Drew admits that working with the military has been a mixed bag over the years. “With the government, you never know what’s going down,” he said. “We’re working on a project in Arizona. They can’t tell me explicitly how many containers they’re talking about, but they need a whole range of different sizes.”

   Even though military contracts “come and go,” noted Drew, the latest push for efficiency in military logistics has encouraged Hardy-Graham to pursue more business with the military.

   “We’re going after a GSA (General Services Administration) contract number, and we’ve never done that before,” Drew said. “The government is going to be using a lot of this stuff.”

   Containers became particularly important to the military during the Vietnam War. Hardy-Graham designed containers that were not susceptible to the mold, mildew, and vermin that posed practically insurmountable logistics problems in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia.

   Hardy-Graham recommends material supplied by Intercept Technology to line the interior of containers in order to prevent corrosion, mold and mildew.

   Terrorism and urban warfare are additional reasons for the interest in Hardy-Graham fastening systems for containers, according to Drew. Since identifying the enemy may be difficult, as in Iraq, for example, the threat of theft of military supplies is a perpetual concern.

   “In the military, this stuff is all lockable,” explained Drew. “You have to actually destroy the container to get inside it.” Containers assembled with Hardy-Graham fasteners are tough enough to survive an air drop.

   “I think there’s going to be a greater need for the kind of containers we can make because of the fact that they’ve got to be more secure so they can be handled in different venues,” said Drew.


Pallets in the Field

   Once a wood pallet arrives in the theatre of war, soldiers find ingenious ways of recycling them for just about everything other than a unit load.

   First Lt. Christopher Sims of the 260th Military Intelligence Battalion has been stationed at an undisclosed site in Iraq. He said that most empty wood pallets are used mainly to fuel fires to burn old classified information.

   The military uses many different types of transport packaging in addition to wood pallets. AAR Corp. produces the 463L, an air cargo system used primarily by the Air Force since the 1960s. Soldiers find many unusual uses for the 463L during war time because of their size and sturdiness. The 463L air cargo system comes complete with an aluminum pallet and nets for securing unit loads around bulky objects.

   The pallet, made of corrosion-resistant aluminum, is 88x108 and has a wood or fiberglass core designed to roll across special conveyors used for loading Air Force cargo planes. A C-5 transport plane, for instance, could easily hold 36 of the 463L pallets. The pallet weighs 290 lbs. empty and has a dynamic load capacity of 10,000 lbs.; it can withstand 250 lbs. of pressure per square inch.

   AAR offers several variations of the standard 463L design as well as airlift-capable 10-foot and 20-foot ISO cargo pallets that are capable of transporting modular containers and 25,000 lbs. of supplies.

   When the pallets reach the end of their service life, military personnel still find uses for them. According to Christopher, the 463L pallets tend to wind up in motor pools; mechanics use them to lay on when they work underneath a vehicle to avoid getting muddy.

   Sgt. 1st Class Patrick McCarron spent the last year training new Iraqi security forces. Soldiers in the field used surplus wood pallets to build anything from make-shift work benches to shelves, he said.

   Excess wood pallets also are used for flooring. Patrick said Iraqi soldiers would use wooden pallets to keep their sleeping bags off the ground. Occasionally, decommissioned 463Ls were used as patios by officers or civilian contractors.

   While an unsung hero in America’s military, packaging, especially pallets, help supply troops with what they need to fight.

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