Army Training Centers Enlist RFID to Help Track Uniforms

time: 2015-05-06 09:55

The Fort Leonard Wood Recruit Training Center (RTC), in Missouri, is the first of three U.S. Army recruit training center to adopt a radio frequency identification system to manage items for uniforms it receives from a warehouse near Atlanta, Ga., operated by Lion-Vallen Industries (LVI) on behalf of the Troop Support branch of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solution, provided byAdvanTech Inc., enables the RTC and DLA Troop Support to automatically track when clothing items are received at the center, and when they are issued to a soldier.

The DLA has been using similar uniform-tracking RFID systems at some other recruit training locations for approximately four years, beginning with Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas (see USAF Boot Camp Tracks Boots), and Marine Corps sites in San Diego, Calif., and Parris Island, S.C. This was followed by uniform-tracking RFID deployments at the U.S. Army training centers at Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., and Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., as well as the U.S. Navy's Recruit Training Command facility in Illinois. Fort Leonard Wood's RFID installation was taken live in October 2014, with Fort Jackson's and Fort Benning's going live in the subsequent months. The DLA soon plans to deploy the technology at the Army's training center in Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla.

Each year, Fort Leonard Wood processes uniforms for about 20,000 recruits, both male and female, who are issued uniforms at the training center's Clothing Initial Issue Point (CIIP).

Vendors to the DLA have been phasing into the RFID system by tagging products they ship to a warehouse operated by LVI or some other DLA Troop Support third-party logistics provider (3PL), where the items are stored and eventually forwarded to RTCs to be issued to recruits. Initially, says Monique Williams, DLA Troop Support's clothing and textile (C&T) army recruit cell chief, the RFID deployments are in what the Army recruit training centers call Phase 1, in which suppliers attach RFID tags (with the make and model tag of the vendor's choice) to all day-to-day uniforms that soldiers wear during training, including boots, trousers, T-shirts, and button-up shirts. Some smaller, low-cost items are not being tagged, such as belts, insignia and socks. In fact, tags on some socks—due to their moisture-wicking features that include metallic fiber—would have been difficult to read, says Doug DeLoach, AdvanTech's program manager. The next phase will include the tagging of dress uniforms that recruits wear at formal events.

When filling orders from the DLA, DeLoach explains, clothing vendors have used the agency's Virtual Item Manager-ARN Supply-chain Automated Processing (VIM-ASAP) Web-based software to view which goods were needed. Suppliers then enter the items being shipped into the VIM-ASAP system, in which DLA personnel can view when those goods were shipped. That method had been in place for more than a decade, he says, before the RFID system was included. Now, vendors also input the unique ID number of the tag attached to each item, married to the ID of the RFID label attached on the carton in which those goods are shipped.

More than a year ago, the DLA issued contract modifications requiring that the goods packed in cartons, as well as the cartons themselves, be tagged, explains Angela Richwine, DLA's business process analyst for the clothing and textile supply chain. According to Richwine, about 99 percent of the Phase 1 items are now coming into LVI's warehouse in Pendergrass, Ga., already RFID-tagged by vendors, while stock previously received by the warehouse had been tagged by the site's workers.

When stock is pushed to the recruit training center based on usage rates, the VIM-ASAP software creates a manifest. At the LVI warehouse, as goods are then shipped to RTCs according to orders, warehouse workers apply an RFID tag if they do not find one applied to any of the closed cartons. (LVI is also planning an implementation of RFID systems within the warehouse for the purpose of shipping and receiving, but that system is not yet in place).

The cartons are then moved to the recruit training center's CIIP, such as the one at Fort Leonard Wood. At Fort Wood, workers transport the boxed items from the truck into the CIIP's storage area via a forklift. The driver carries the boxed goods between a pair ofJamison RFID MOD3 portals with Impinj xPortal readers, which capture the carton tags' ID numbers. The tag IDs are captured and stored in the ARN Integrated Retail Module (IRM)/RFID software, a local AdvanTech-provided software platform. The ARN RFID/IRM software compares those ID numbers against the manifest and displays any inaccuracies on a laptop at that location. As the truck is being unloaded, a warehouse manager watches the laptop screen in order to ensure that the order received is correct, and that no items are missing, or are included that should not be. Fort Leonard Wood uses IRM to identify which products are onsite, what items soldiers require and when the goods are issued to each soldier. That data can also be shared with the DLA via a link between the IRM system and VIM-ASAP, thereby providing detailed inventory visibility from manufacture through issue to recruits.

The second use of RFID relates to the issuing of uniforms to soldiers. Recruits come to the RTC with a paper requisition form that lists the items they need—for instance, three shirts and six pairs of socks—and includes a bar-coded requisition number. Fort Leonard Wood's RTC staff use the printed requisition form to help issue the items they need, in the proper sizes. They then proceed to an RFID CheckOut counter, where each recruit's new duffel bag, loaded with the required clothing items, is placed on the countertop, which contains integrated Impinj RFID readers and antennas.

An RTC worker scans the requisition bar code, launching the IRM RFID CheckOut Application, which displays the recruit's requisition on the screen and activates the readers. The readers then capture the item tags' ID numbers, and the IRM RFID software compares those IDs against the soldier's requisition requirements, while also ensuring that there are no mismatched sizes, such as a size-small shirt among all other larger-sized shirts. If the system indicates that the order has been properly filled, RTC personnel process the issue, and the recruit continues on his way with his new items.

The IRM software forwards the data to the VIM-ASAP system, which enables the DLA to bill the appropriate service for the equipment issued to each recruit.

The benefits of the technology at Fort Leonard Wood, the first Army recruit center to go live with RFID, are still being assessed, Williams says. "There's been a learning curve," he reports. For instance, the RFID readers were interrogating the tags of goods that were not placed on the counter at the RTC. To prevent the stray reads, the RFID implementation team made adjustments to the power transmitted by the readers and placed shielding fabric around the reader counters.

During the past few months, the recruit training center has been focused on ensuring that the system is used properly, Richwine explains. "The warehouses for the four Army recruiting centers [still] have some inventory in stock that wasn't tagged," he states, "and they add tags before shipping to the RTCs."

Getting vendors to tag the goods destined for the RTCs required contract modifications that took up to three months to negotiate and an additional three months for each vendor to implement. "It's become more of a routine process when we issue new solicitations," Richwine says, "as the item-level tagging requirement is included upfront."

A similar RFID solution is expected to be taken live at Fort Sill sometime this summer, also involving Phase 1 uniforms only.