RFID at Luke AFB

As I explained in a previous post (Helicopter and the risk of RFID hacks) RFID applications are spreading also within the world of aviation. The article I propose below deals with the implementation of an RFID inventory tracking system to manage the 56th FW storage warehouse at Luke AFB in Arizona to replace the old bar codes and to solve a series of bar code-related issues, among which also security ones. The warehouse is used to send out aircraft pallets carrying everything a combat unit deployed in theatre needs to survive for five days without base support: weapons, radio equipment, generators, food and water. The pallets must be assembled and ready to be shipped within 24 hours from the order. The RFID systems provides also alerts to warn base personnel if they have forgotten something on the readiness pallet.

RFID Improves Inventory Accuracy
Luke Air Force Base (AFB) manages mission-critical inventory in real time.

Integrated Solutions, October 2009
Written by: Brian Albright
Inventory accuracy is important no matter what business you’re in, but when your inventory is used to support military personnel and has to be deployed halfway around the world on short notice, the reliability of your inventory data can be the difference between life and death.

Luke AFB in Glendale, AZ is home to the Air Force’s 56th Fighter Wing. The 56th Security Forces Squadron (SFS) at Luke recently replaced a bar code tracking system in its 25,000-square-foot storage warehouse with an RFID (radio frequency identification) solution to better manage equipment inventory for staff on the base and personnel deployed abroad. The warehouse stocks two types of inventory. Supply inventory is used to support on-base staff and includes everything from pens and pencils to body armor, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and gun holsters.

Mobility inventory, on the other hand, is used to build 463L aircraft pallets that can hold up to 10,000 pounds of equipment and must be ready to ship within 24 hours. These “readiness pallets” are designed to support teams deployed in foreign battle zones and contain everything necessary to survive for five days without base support —weapons, ammunition, food, water, generators, fuel, radios, etc.

In 2003, the base deployed a batch bar code tracking system that fed inventory information into a stand-alone database application. This system did not allow staff to track routine maintenance and calibration schedules, didn’t provide real-time inventory visibility, and posed some security and accountability issues. “We were the only location using bar codes to track our gear and the deployment gear,” says Matthew Owen, resources advisor for security forces at Luke AFB. “Our headquarters at the Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio wanted to be able to see what each base has in real time, and we came up with an RFID tracking system to piggyback on what we’d already done with bar codes.”

In 2008, the SFS began investigating possible RFID solutions and teamed up with integrator American Barcode and RFID (AB&R) to find an appropriate system. After conducting a systems requirements study, AB&R recommended the CribMaster Accu-Port and Last-Point-Read Tracking Module, along with CribMaster inventory management software from WinWare.

Before the system went live, Owen organized a 12-person team to tag all 65,000 items in the warehouse with RFID labels containing an EPCglobal Gen 2-compliant Squiggle Tag from Alien Technology. Smaller items that couldn’t accommodate a label were placed inside tagged plastic bags for tracking.

Consumable items used on the base are primarily held inside a caged area in the warehouse. Staff access the storage area using a PIN. After picking up the items they need, they pass through a single Accu-Port RFID portal that matches the RFID tags to the PIN. The system generates an inventory list at the supply desk, which employees sign before leaving. By automatically matching supplies to personnel, the system provides full accountability and traceability of inventory and cuts down on the time needed to process and log inventory deductions. The system can also automatically trigger stock reorders. “That saves us time and also saves us money because we don’t overorder,” Owen says. “Eventually, the system will let us know how much material we’re actually consuming so we can adjust our inventory levels.”

Luke AFB utilizes a Motorola fixed-position RFID reader that tracks items too large for the caged supply area or items that have been moved outside for storage. The reader generates last-point-read information on those items so that staff can locate them more easily. Staff use Motorola MC9090 handheld RFID readers to scan goods that are loaded into the readiness pallets. The CribMaster application creates a location record that lists every item stored within each pallet. “The directions for loading the pallet are specific enough to tell you where each piece of equipment goes on the pallet,” Owens says. “We scan everything as it goes on to the container, and as soon as that pallet goes out the door it automatically deducts all of that equipment from our inventory.”

Because certain perishable items (like water and oil) are loaded onto the pallets just before shipment, the system also alerts staff if they’ve forgotten to load something. “If we tried to send a pallet out and we haven’t put those items in, the system lets us know,” Owens says. CribMaster also tracks routine maintenance schedules for items like generators or radios that have to be serviced periodically while in storage.

The system went live in January 2009, and Owen says the base is in the process of evaluating performance data to determine their cost savings. The Air Force expects the system to reduce purchasing costs and make building and issuing readiness pallets more efficient.

RFID has already cut down the time it takes to issue gear to base personnel. “Issuing equipment to a new arrival on the base used to take 45 minutes to an hour to do,” Owen says. “Now we can do it in 15 minutes and have them out the door and on their way.”

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.