Wildcat supply tracking system produces purrs of approval

A new computerized supply tracking system designed by Georgia Institute of Technology engineers is helping the US Army’s supply redistribution system improve its efficiency and save millions of dollars.

The tracking system, called Wildcat, applies sophisticated commercial strategies and wireless technology to military needs. Wildcat was developed by engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

‘The communications part of this system is a unique solution,’ said Jim Coleman, a senior research engineer and Wildcat project director at GTRI. ‘But the biggest thing is that it saves money and improves the business process.’

The U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) Material Management Center is the military organization that is implementing the system. Wildcat uses technology never before tried in the military. It tracks supplies with hand-held mobile computers that transmit data using wireless technology similar to cellular telephones.

GTRI researchers used a Motorola cellular PC card to fit into a slot on Intermec Technologies’ hand-held computers the Army was already using. The computers have built-in scanning capabilities to gather data from bar codes on supply documents. Then GTRI researchers developed both interface and data communications software that allows supply personnel to send captured data to a central database via a wireless connection. The communications software also provides connectivity using local area network, dial up modem, and VHF wireless modem.

Before Wildcat, the Army had a self-acknowledged, longstanding problem with its supply system. Movement of items such as engines, transmissions, generators, nuts and bolts could only be tracked vertically, within an installation. If one Army installation unit had an excess supply of a particular part, it could not tell whether another unit on the same installation needed it. The inventory of each unit was essentially self-contained.

Needed parts had to be ordered from the Army’s wholesale system; excess parts could be sold back into that system, but at cut-rate prices. It was often difficult to determine where bottlenecks occurred in the supply system.

‘In the past, if we had a repair part excess to our needs at a particular site, we would have turned that part in to wholesale. It’s entirely possible that, on that very day, that same part might have been requisitioned by another unit on the same installation, or by another installation within the same major command, and that requisitioning organization would have paid full price for the part,’ said Oliver Thompson III, Wildcat’s civilian Army program manager. The Army viewed this situation as unacceptable.

So Les Cunningham, former chief of the FORSCOM Material Management Center, envisioned a cost-effective system. It tracked the issue, transport and receipt of repair parts, developed cost reporting and performance metrics, and instituted business process improvements.

‘Les Cunningham had the concept,’ Coleman said. ‘He didn’t know how he was going to do it; he just felt it could be done. What he said was, ‘Why don’t you turn this problem over to the research and development community?’ ‘

Researchers in GTRI’s Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory and the Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory took it from there in July 1997. Their major technical challenge was in developing the data communications interface that moved information from the handsets to the central database, Coleman said.

Since Wildcat’s development, it has been installed in its testbed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, and in 13 other U.S. military bases. The program was installed at Fort Hood last year to complement an automated supply system newly in place. That system, called the Standard Army Retail Supply System Objective, allows the redistribution of supplies from within an Army installation, between installations in a corps or from one corps to another.