Keeping track of military property can be a nightmare. But a small company with about 120 employees has the capability to do just that.
Based in Huntsville, Ala., Gleason Research Associates provides software, training, weapons systems engineering and operational support to the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. Among GRA's key offerings is a system for tracking and managing U.S. Army inventories. Items under its care include everything from desks and computers to tanks and Humvees.
In the mid-1990s, GRA developed Web-based software to automate the tracking of government property. The old, manual system was especially deficient when it came to keeping tabs on sub- and temporary hand receipts, which are required for all durable items, and are needed to assign property at the user level. In a process that relied on paper and pencil, errors were commonplace.
"What was lacking was the end user having any type of asset-tracking [capability] whatsoever," says Sharlene Hick's, GRA's vice president of business services and systems.
GRA's proprietary software was dubbed ASTS, for Auto Scan Tracking System. The tool interfaced with DOD's own Web-based DPAS, for Defense Property Accountability System, then eventually with the Army combat-service support app called PBUSE, which stands for Property Book Unit Supply Enhanced.
Painful acronyms aside, the system had a simple goal: to slash the time needed to conduct inventories, and boost the accuracy of property transactions.
GRA took care of the software side of the equation, but needed an outside partner to supply the barcode-scanning devices. An early vendor didn't measure up, says Hicks.
The original hardware simply wasn't rugged enough for conditions in the field. As a result, it was failing repeatedly. "We found ourselves scratching our heads," recalls Hicks. "How could we find a barcode scanner and mobile computer vendor that offered a quality product, and stood the test of time?"
The Right Partner
After conducting extensive research into potential suppliers, GRA selected the rugged mobile computers of Intermec Technologies Corp. With 40 years of experience in selling to the DOD and other government agencies, the vendor was no stranger to the public sector. "Since we've been in the federal space for so long, we pretty well understood what the requirements were going to be," says channel sales executive Pete Rouse.
GRA packaged its software application with Intermec's CN3 rugged mobile computer. (More recently, it added the ultra-rugged CN70 model, designed for the most demanding environments.) The program automatically generates some 25 government-standardized forms, using data stored in the system. It's designed to spot any exceptions to monthly and annual physical inventories.
GRA's system coordinates with hand-receipt holders, scans all items and uploads the information to the ASTS database for reconciliation. The scanners can identify items either through barcodes or serial numbers, ensuring continuity even if the barcode has been removed or has fallen off. In addition, a picture can be generated of any item in inventory.
"Having a customized mobile program enables real-time corrections to items," says Hicks.
The Army's requirements called for devices that could withstand heavy use in difficult environments. Rouse says the hardware was expressly designed for deployment in the field, including the ability to withstand multiple drops to steel or concrete.
Rollout of the GRA software and Intermec mobile computers for the Army took about three months. GRA created a program that was simple to use, but complied with strict user guidelines. (The Army issues certificates of "networthiness" to its trusted providers of automation technology.) Today, the "cradle-to-grave" tracking system provides full visibility into each inventory item, including entry into stock, usage, location and ultimate disposal.
Audit Times Slashed
For the Army, the benefits of automation have been substantial. It has experienced an 85-percent reduction in the time required to conduct property inventories. Under the old system, a complete cycle count might take six months to complete. The GRA software and Intermec mobile computers can do the job in around seven days, says Hicks.
At the same time, inventory errors have been drastically reduced. Hicks says GRA has received no complaints by users. None has failed an inspector general audit since implementing the system. Intermec, she adds, was "able to provide excellent customer support."
There are side benefits as well. Automation generates additional data that can help the user to plan future inventory needs. Under the old manual system, the Army had access to only a small amount of basic information, Hicks says. Now, when hand receipts are downloaded into the scanner, there are some 20 data fields associated with any given item.
The optimization of inventory can uncover problems that were invisible when things were done manually. Hicks recalls one GRA customer that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on maintenance fees that it had been paying out for an excessive amount of stock.
Another customer that embraced automation found 200 19-inch, flat-panel monitors stashed away in a warehouse. But the time the equipment was discovered, it was obsolete. Tighter tracking of inventory would prevent such oversights from occurring in future.
GSA is looking to Intermec for additional support, Hicks says. It is particularly interested in acquiring phone-type mobile computers. Ben Robbins, who oversees ASTS sales and business development for GRA, says the firm is also talking to Intermec about developing ruggedized versions of iPads and Android tablets.
Hicks says Intermec's mobile computers have opened up additional sales possibilities for GRA. Recently the company acquired a new customer, the U.S. Navy's NAVAIR 4.5X engineering group, which works on projects such as ground surveillance systems.
"GRA invests a pretty significant amount of IRAD [independent research and development] to maintain and improve its software, and look at new products," says Hicks. "Having that partnership [with Intermec], we're very excited about where we go in the future."
Keywords: supply chain, supply chain management, defense supply chain, inventory management, inventory control, global logistics, logistics management, warehouse management, supply chain planning
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