Army tries to solve supply chain management problems with mobile apps

Thursday - 8/28/2014, 4:53am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Army believes it has an answer to a 24-year-old problem all of the Defense Department has been facing.

The Army is about to launch several apps intended to replace a supply chain management process that relies on proprietary handheld scanners, which cost about $2,000 each.

They feed data into both the Army's own logistics and readiness system, Property Book Unit Supply-Enhanced (PBUSE), and the DoD-wide system, in which each piece of equipment has its own unique barcode called an Item Unique Identification (IUID).

"This program, when it's fully implemented, will save DoD anywhere between $3 billion and $5 billion every year on the total cost of ownership due to maintenance, plus additional direct and indirect savings in other areas," said Col. Jack Wayman, who directs integration improvement initiatives for the Army staff. "But we can't get to that until every item is marked, and it's marked with a quality barcode. We have to have some technology adoption in order to do that."

Those IUID barcodes are DoD's way of tracking military gear across its entire lifecycle, and they connect back to a central database that's operated and maintained by the Defense Logistics Agency.

The system includes information about the manufacturer, part number, serial number and several other data elements about any given jet engine or MRAP axel, including the last recorded location of each individual item.

But the IUID system will only achieve its intended outcome when the military manages to apply physical barcodes to the billions of items in its inventory.

Barcodes don't always meet standards

DoD applies barcodes to many items within the services' inventories of spare parts, but they don't meet DoD's standards under the IUID program.

Wayman said a second aspect of the Army's approach will let soldiers and civilians in its depots and other locations press a button on their mobile devices when they come across a barcode that's unreadable, doesn't meet current standards or links back to bad data in DLA's database.

"We're losing a couple million dollars a year, every year, in unenforceable contracts, because people are not reporting defects in the barcodes," he said. "Out of the thousands of reports that we've heard anecdotally, we've only seen 18 formal reports. The reason is that the process to submit the report is too labor intensive. If we can give them the ability to automatically detect and report a defective barcode, report it to the DoD site, press ‘OK' and walk away, then we're good."

DoD has struggled to track its inventory for more than two decades. Since 1990, the Government Accountability Office has listed DoD's supply chain management practices as among the government's top "high risk" areas, saying the military can't say for sure what it already owns, so it can't ensure it's procuring the right amount of goods.

GAO has kept supply chain management on its high risk list for nearly a quarter century, because the military services aren't able to accurately track the location and condition of the items they've bought.

The result is that, in some cases, they have more supplies then they will ever use — an estimated $10 billion worth of excess supplies as of 2011 — and in others, not enough.

In its 2013 high risk update, GAO found that incomplete delivery data meant that troops in Afghanistan weren't getting the supplies the needed in a timely fashion.

DoD has a program in place to improve its property accountability. Since 2005, the Pentagon has required that every piece of tangible property it buys is tagged with a unique, machine-readable barcode.

A combination of reengineering, IT

But the implementation of that directive hasn't exactly moved at lightning speed. In the Army alone, 8 million items still need to be tagged with DoD barcodes, said Wayman.

"The way we're doing it now would cost us about $68 million in labor and material, and we developed a process to reduce that down to about $48,000," Wayman told an audience at the Federal Mobile Computing Summit in Washington last week. "We developed an app to help solders follow a verbally-directed, checklist-driven process to collect simple data, either with barcode scanning or with embedded speech recognition or keypad entry. It includes a verbal readback to the soldier or a keypad confirmation."

Wayman said the progress the Army has made so far toward tagging its tangible property has had at least as much to do with reengineering its approach to touch labor as coming up with technological solutions.

For example, the Army decided it would make more sense for soldiers in the field to handle only the functions that required a human being to be physically present, like scanning a barcode and examining the condition of a piece of military hardware. Entering the item into a database or creating a new barcode could either be automated or handled remotely by specialists.

"In my experience, anytime we ask people to put pen to paper and transcribe data, we're asking them to do a lot of other stuff," he said. "We should be asking them to collect the minimum amount of information, offload as much as possible to the machine and software, and then let the information be rehydrated within the IT system. The first thing we studied was what the job was that needed to be done. Ignore the existing forms and the instructions for how to fill out the forms. Then, start from zero, and force the existing process to prove why it's forcing the person on the ground to collect new data. The first thing we did was to figure out the ‘why.' If you understand why you're doing what you're doing right now, you can figure out how to streamline that."

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