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NASA tech-forward inventory system supports unique mission

Its mission requires NASA to keep a huge inventory of specialized items on hand; luckily, it has a long history of being on the forefront of technology.

NASA has a unique mission that requires it to keep a huge inventory of specialized and varied items on hand. Those can range from high-quality aircraft parts and bespoke spacecraft parts to perishable food products and biological research materials. Sharrief Wilson, deputy director of NASA’s logistics management division, said that inventory averages around $6 billion in value across the agency. As a result, NASA requires a robust warehousing system; luckily, the agency has a long history of being on the forefront of technology.

“We were an early adopter of RFID. So we’ve implemented that and we’ve been using RFID to do inventories, I believe, over the past ten years. So we’ve always looked for a new way. Even upgrades, even within that technology,” Wilson said on The Modernized Warehouse. “Our partners at Caltech – that’s at [Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] – they’re even going a little bit further with having readers that are attached to the warehouses. So it’s getting pinged as things are entering and leaving the warehouses. So we were looking at some case studies to see if that would work across the full agency. And then also NASA’s using RFID on the International Space Station. So they’re tracking inventories of the things on the space station using RFID as well.”

Other agencies are only just beginning to explore RFID and pilot its use in their warehouses. But NASA is already looking to next steps, beyond even integrated readers in the warehouses. NASA is looking into investing in the production of the technology itself, rather than simply remaining a consumer.

“Right now, we were purchasing from commercial vendors of tags. But then we’ve also started to get more advancements in the technologies where we’re creating our own tags and printing our own tags now,” Wilson told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “So we were looking to expanding that, one, as a way to centralize some of that capability, but also as a cost saving. We think that we could get a return on investment over the next 5 to 10 years. If we invested in creating our own tags, then we would save on new procurements of tags.”

Tracking the data

All of the data gathered from those RFID tags feeds into NASA’s enterprise inventory solution, SAP. That lets them track the items, their quantities and the total value of the property. From there, smaller subsystems plug into SAP to create a better front-end user experience. That gives everyone from end users to logistics teams to the chief financial officer and the Office of the Chief Information Officer the capability to enter, track and ensure the quality of the data.

That helps NASA maintain a full audit trail as well, because sometimes it has to do research for property accountability reasons. For example, if a part fails on a spacecraft, NASA needs to know everything about where that part came from and how it was manufactured to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Finally, it helps the agency better manage its supply stock, so it can anticipate the needs of its various components and laboratories.

“So we try to take an inventory of what our mission customers are using and then how much we should keep on hand to give them a very fast capability to get that from us,” Wilson said. “And then we manage to reorder points to ensure that we have the correct level of stocking of those supplies and parts of materials that they may need on a fast and regular basis.”

NASA’s unique requirements

NASA also has some specialized requirements for the way certain products are stored. While many agencies have perishable items that require cold storage, few have as low a tolerance for imperfections or contamination. After all, making repairs to something in space is extremely difficult and expensive; making repairs to something on another planet is downright impossible.

“We go through a lot of effort to ensure that we’re not degrading or damaging the property. Sometimes there’s other electrostatic sensitivities to property as well,” Wilson said. “So we go through a lot of detail to ensure that when we’re handling it … we’re protecting the property that supports the mission.”

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