Did you ever get an order from a customer to make up and engrave little metal or plastic tags to put on some piece of equipment? Now just imaging getting a phone call from a potential customer telling you they may need hundreds or thousands of custom tags this year and every year hereafter. Thats basically what the Pentagon just did by adopting an unprecedented program called UID!
UID, the newest acronym engravers should know about stands for Unique Identification and was created by the United States Government. It is the term used to describe the newest trend in U.S. government programsan effort to eventually label just about everything they own, use, drive or fly. The Unique Identification is the set of data for tangible assets that is globally unique and unambiguous, ensures data integrity and data quality throughout life, and supports multi-faceted business applications and users, according to government sources.
In 1998, the General Accounting Office (GAO) documented great concerns about the way the Department of Defense (DoD) was managing its resources and inventory of equipment. What they found was that the militarys reserve went beyond its wartime allotment in some areas and fell dangerously below peacetime reserves in others, especially in the area of spare parts. In other words, they didnt have a very good handle on what they had on hand and what they needed to order.
As a result, the GAO challenged the DoD to develop a system where they could better track every item under their control, thereby enabling them to move, report, maintain or support both war and peace time efforts around the world.
The system developed and adopted by the DoD went into effect on January 1, 2004, however, its only recently that its really gotten rolling. In short, it requires any item costing $5,000 or more and every item deemed to be a critical component (regardless of its value) to have a universally unique and unambiguous label attached to it that can be scanned as the item moves throughout the system.
Every time the item is moved to a new location or handled in any way, it must be scanned and the system updated as to the items location, condition, readiness, etc. Likewise, when an item is damaged, destroyed or deemed unserviceable, the items unique bar code is to be scanned into the system with its updated status.
This also includes some sub-assemblies within a device costing $5,000 or more and nearly every device or piece of equipment in the system requiring any form of maintenance. Special applications were also designed for vehicles, NASA and select other government departments. The requirement is for anything new entering the system, but it doesnt require immediate labeling of those items already in the system. Over a period of time, however, existing items also must be labeled or directly marked.
According to Unique Identification 101-The Basics a 20-page booklet published by the government, the items requiring UID coding are items meeting the following criteria:
1. Having a unit acquisition cost over $5,000.
2. Serially managed items.
3. Mission essential items.
4. Controlled inventory.
5. A consumable item or material where permanent identification is necessary.
Further research also includes items that require any kind of periodic maintenance plus any item already requiring identification such as aircraft parts. The Decision Tree chart in Figure 2 was taken from Unique Identification 101: The Basics and provides some understanding of what needs to be marked and what doesnt.
The Department of Defense is the largest business in America with 5.3 million people, including the military, retirees and their families. The equipment, tools, vehicles and other items within their control is mind-boggling. In short, the UID program offers R & I shops an amazing opportunity, the DoD is going to need a lot of labels. The question is, how can we, as an industry, get a piece of the action?
Before we run off bidding on jobs however, we need to understand more about the task at hand and the type of labeling required. The range runs from the mundane to the very brink of science fiction.
In order to develop a system that would meet the demands of the military and still fall within the production capabilities of the thousands of contractors and sub-contractors around the world, a great deal of flexibility has been built into the system. A part of that includes something called a Data Matrix or 2D Matrix (Fig. 3). This is something youve probably seen before on UPS labels and something that will become more and more common in business as well as in the government. The 2D Matrix is a type of bar code, but far more telling than the bar codes were accustomed to. Unlike a simple bar code consisting of parallel lines, the 2D matrix code can contain up to 2,335 alphanumeric or 3,116 numeric characters. This means it can provide 100 times more information than a traditional bar code.
Note that UID marking is only required for items purchased on contracts issued after UIDs effective date. That means that UID marking will grow as old purchasing contracts expire and new ones are issued.
Even more impressive than the information capacity is the fact that even when partially damaged, the 2D matrixs data can often be read. This is due to built in data correction. Reading the code is done with a simple (although specially designed) hand scanner that looks similar to what you see at the check out counter of many retailers.
To allow for as much flexibility as possible, this 2D Matrix or UID, which is mandatory, can be combined with other (optional) forms of identification as well, including linear bar codes and ordinary text. Codes that might be optionally used with the 2D matrix include the typical bar code called Code 128, PDF417, RSS and QR (Fig. 4). More about these in a future article. This means we will see a wide variety of codes being used in conjunction with the Matrix or UIDsome so small theyre almost invisible while others can be read from many feet away.
The marks making up the Matrix can be created using a variety of technologies including inkjet printing, dot peening, metal stamping, embossing, casting or forging, molding, engraving, electro-chemical etching, rubber stamps, decalcomania, metal or plastic tags and laser engraving. The method determined appropriate for each product would depend on a variety of issues including the life expectancy of the item, the environment of the product, its exposure to sunlight, water, chemicals and solvents, abuse, etc.
In some applications, the marking method must be such that it doesnt change the integrity of the product being marked. Banging away with a ball-peen hammer and metal stamps for instance, wouldnt be suitable for marking a sensitive electronic device packaged in a thin walled aluminum tube. Likewise, a paper label printed with an inkjet printer might be quite acceptable for an electronic device but obviously wouldnt be acceptable for marking an M-1 tank or nuclear-powered submarine.
To better understand the advantages of the newly adopted 2D Matrix marking code, heres a list of the requirements set forth by the GAO directive. The 2D Matrix is designed to meet or exceed all these requirements as reported in the RVSI document (www.uidmarkinginfo.com):
1. Can be read omni-directionally.
2. Can be damaged but still return accurate data.
3. Can be scaled up or down to fit within available marking space.
4. Can contain more than 100 times as much data in the space used to apply a typical bar code.
5. Can be produced using square or round data cells.
6. Can be square or rectangular in shape.
7. Can read symbols to surface contrast levels as low as 20%.
The new system is not without its critics. Some point out the cost of this system and the impracticality of marking some products. Others identify the incredible computing power and interconnectivity required for maintaining a database with such a huge amount of information. Still others point out the reality that imprinting a code on an item and reading it years later after a life of normal wear, abuse, exposure to the elements, etc., are two totally different things.
In spite of the critics, however right or wrong they may be, this is the law of the land and although it will undoubtedly be expanded upon and revised countless times, it will be around for a very long time. Likewise, it has contractors and sub-contractors scrambling to understand the new directive, develop codes and systems that will work within the confines of their manufacturing procedures and meet government requirements.
The code can be generated using simple, common software such as BarTender, a piece of software engravers and contractors alike are familiar with (Fig. 5). There are, of course, many other programs, including several highly proprietary software programs struggling to get a piece of what they know will be a very lucrative market. They know too, the companies that step in early to help manufacturers meet these new demands will likely be the big winners overall.
The same is true with R & I professionals. This new market is not for everyone. In fact, Im not sure exactly who it is for. It probably wont impact the average trophy shop but will more likely fall into the realm of the industrial engraver who is willing to make a serious investment in time and money, learning the regulations, calling on a variety of defense contractors and asking a lot of questions.
This scenario reminds many of the introduction of the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) laws requiring Braille and tactile lettering on all signs used in proximity with the general public. While many engravers whined and bemoaned the fact that traditional engraved signs (with incised lettering) could no longer be used, a select few went out and built an entire industry out of ADA compliant signage. This new market wont be without its risks, but for those who persevere, it may also be very lucrative.
Exactly what shape or form these new business models will take is hard to imagine. Some contractors will, or have already, installed laser engravers and dot peen printers as a part of their production lines. Many, however, may find that outsourcing this part of the business will be a wiser move and those are the ones we want to identify and court.
If youre interested in knowing more about this new market and where to begin your research, Ill try to provide that in the next installment. In Part 2, well look at how to get started, consider some of the problems you can expect to encounter and some advice about how to actually go out and find jobs. In Part 3, well consider some of the materials that can be used for making labels. Its a tall orderPart 2, coming next month.
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