Wireless technology can improve insight into an agency's supply chain, if done right.

Whether sending combat gear to troops or office supplies to U.S. embassies, or scanning equipment at the border, federal agencies rely on sophisticated wireless technologies to track the movement of equipment from one point to another. If managed properly, the tools can improve a manager's view of what's happening in the supply chain, saving time and money. If not, they can leave networks wide open to attack.

Mention wireless and supply chain together, and many managers think of computer chips outfitted with antennae known as radio frequency identification tags. The technology first entered the mainstream vernacular when retail giant Wal-Mart required its suppliers to attach such chips to all shipments so it could better follow and identify products. The tags store information that a reader sends to a database, which managers can access to follow shipments in more detail.

But RFID is only one example of a wireless technology used for tracking equipment. "Wireless is the data transport mechanism that allows us to move data without the restrictions that come with a wired device," says Dave Dias, chief of the asset visibility division at the Defense Department's U.S. Transportation Command.

Defense formed the command in 1987 to manage the shipment of its supplies globally. "We use many forms of wireless, all of which support the mission for asset visibility in transit, to allow [people] to see cargo in motion and react," he says.

Dias says it theoretically works like this: An official at a seaport in charge of monitoring shipments as they enter and leave a dock uses a handheld device to compare cargo data that is stored on an RFID tag to information in a database managed in a back-office location. He also ensures the items in the packages are in good condition by pulling data from internal sensors that monitor such things as temperature.

In addition, he might use the handheld's battery-powered printer to apply a new shipping label, after receiving an alert that the destination has changed. "Essentially, what he has in his hand is a computer that takes much of the human element out of the process," Dias says. "You're saving time and increasing accuracy." Of course, few agencies need all that technology all the time. At Defense, RFID technology is the primary technology used to track goods. A bar code system acts as a backup, but Defense is trying out other technologies.

RFID and bar codes are most effective when an agency already has set up a system that can process the information. If not, agencies can use other types of tags, including ones that send data to satellites or cellular towers, much like a Global Positioning System in a car or a person's mobile phone.

The technology an agency should use depends on a number of factors, including the route cargo travels and the level of visibility needed during transit. Sensitive materials might have to be monitored continuously, for example, which would require a satellite tracking system because cellular coverage can be spotty in certain areas.

Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Savi Technology Inc., which provides most federal agencies that move large cargoes with supply chain management solutions, recently developed an application for the Dow Chemical Co. to monitor the location and status of hazardous products traveling by rail. Using a combination of GPS, satellite communication systems and sensors attached to tank cars, the company receives automated alerts about possible threats such as security breaches, temperature change or damage to tank cars. Dow also can identify the nearest first responder station using satellite images.

"There's always a risk assessment," says David Shannon, senior vice president of marketing and strategy at Savi Technology. "If [cargo is] traveling in a relatively secure supply chain, say, the domestic United States, an RFID-based infrastructure that alerts me only when the asset doesn't pass critical points in the chain might be sufficient. But if it's traveling through an area of conflict, where I must be on continuous alert to someone trying to intercept cargo, it might make sense to expend the extra cost for continuous satellite tracking that can alarm more quickly."

The Defense Logistics Agency supplies troops with goods needed to fight wars and therefore must adapt to constant changes in surroundings, says David Falvey, executive director for DLA's enterprise solutions in its Information Operations Directorate. To track supplies in transit, "we'll ride an Army network if there is one available, but if there's no connectivity, we'll show up with our own satellite equipment," he says.

Regardless of how information is transmitted en route, DLA typically relies on a wireless network to communicate with back-office applications, making security essential. "As you move down to the lower level technologies-such as RFID, and even bar coding-full and genuine security becomes more challenging for a lot of reasons, including limited power and bandwidth," Shannon says. "It's one of those subtleties of this industry: move out to the edge, and you are in an environment that is more challenging to secure."

Agencies should limit information stored on chips to obscure identifiers that are meaningless when isolated. Mark Lieberman, DLA's automatic identification technology program manager, compares the strategy to license plate numbers. They reveal little about the car or driver without the associated information stored on computers at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The security of the applications on a network is typically more stable.

"As soon as you move up to where the data gets aggregated through the systems and networks, you hit the security regimes that are fairly mature," Shannon says. "Almost without exception, there will be a secure back haul-the route from wherever the [information is collected] back to where the monitoring and surveillance takes place."

If done right, Falvey says, the benefits of wireless technology in the supply chain far outweigh the risk. "The key is having the architecture that integrates technology, processes and the human factor to sustain the protection over time," he says. "It's not just about the technology; it's about being diligent. As long as we address the various aspects of mission assurance, from perimeter defense to access control to situational awareness and intrusion detection, we're reasonably managing risk."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec