National Air Forces are some of the biggest, most complicated customers spare parts providers can possibly deal with. Each command, base or unit will have its own very different culture, behaviours and systems in place that will affect and steer its provisioning efforts.
What's more, their hardware is among the most complicated and technically developed in the world in which quality control and accuracy is paramount.
There are enough suppliers and there's certainly enough demand. As military spending increases around the world (the US military alone spent $439bn in 2007) the problem is meshing the two together – one often off-the-shelf and modular, the other huge and unwieldy – to make sure the right material is in the right place at the right time.
It's an effort the US military has occasionally admitted it can't keep up with. The title of a June 2001 report from the General Accounting Office to US Congress was titled 'Air force inventory; parts shortages are impacting operations and maintenance effectiveness'.
Then there are the considerable geopolitical concerns of supplying to the air forces, as was widely reported in March 2008.
It was revealed and widely covered in the media that the US had mistakenly sent four nosecone fuses for intercontinental ballistic missiles to Taiwan – a delivery that should have been helicopter batteries. It took more than a year and a half for the error to come to light and the embarrassed US government assured the government of China the delivery was a mistake and they weren't arming the island country over which the US and China have a shaky relationship.
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An enquiry into the paper trail of the errant nosecones resulted in a 'lackadaisical' approach to security and provisioning at the base responsible.
OVERDUE FOR CHANGE
But the Taiwan incident was apparently symptomatic of an ongoing, forces-wide problem. At the time of the GAO report, the Air Force Journal of Logistics reported that 'under-funding and a decline in supply support have led to a significant drop in readiness. To rectify this potential hazard, the air force is in the process of implementing a major redesign of the spares supply process'.
The result was the 'spares campaign', a deep-level review of the air force procurement function that took four months and five teams of analysis.
One of the eight recommendations presented to the Office of Supply Chain Integration and Logistics Transformation was to adopt improved purchasing and supply management practices, thereby reducing purchasing costs and improving product quality and delivery.
A more recent initiative was the US Air Force's eLog21 an acronym meaning expeditionary logistics for the 21st century.
Dubbed a 'transformation campaign' to improve logistics to meet the new 'threat environment', eLog21 was a series of four effects that were sought to bring about logistics integration. The fourth was integrated technology.
In 2004, the same imperatives led to the formation of the Air Force Knowledge Service. The AFKS was a set of system methodologies and software that would identify, prioritise and de-conflict warehouse data and give Air Force commanders an up-to-the-minute glimpse of the combat readiness of units through the air force.
AFKS was such a resounding success at reporting aircraft uptime that in October 2004 Federal Computer Week reported that the air force was rolling the system across other areas of data reporting.
The notable aspect of AFKS was that it didn't redesign the entire logistics function from the ground up but integrated the many disparate systems together.
"If you wanted to look at maintenance data, you could see maintenance data, but if you wanted to look at maintenance data with supply data, you would have to take output from both systems and work it into your own Microsoft Excel or Access application," AFKS programme manager Eric Wilson told fcw.com, "it was very time-consuming."
"If I'm looking at what it takes for an airplane to be mission-capable, I'm looking at maintenance data, supply data and a host of other things. In the past we just haven't had the opportunity to get that data together."
As AFKS shows, aggregating existing data is much more cost effective than redrawing the road map from the ground up.
With clients such as the Air Force, where many supply systems are not only deeply entrenched in the culture of a certain command but might number in their thousands across the entire organisation, bringing existing data together is even more crucial.
Unsurprisingly, AFKS took its cues from the private sector, which had been leveraging business-wide data successfully lest it lose ground to competitors.
Prior to the launch of AFKS at the historical Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the development team visited – among other businesses – Wal-Mart which boasts one of the world's leading supply chains.
"We were impressed by the kind of analysis Wal-Mart was able to do to keep its supply chain moving," programme manager Mike Riley is quoted as saying. "The air force also needs to track a lot of parts and where things are in the maintenance pipeline. Wal-Mart was doing things in hours and days, but the Air Force was doing it in weeks."
The development process was huge and included top IT names such as NCR. The first terabyte of data cost $10m, and the result was data from US Air Force bases across the world pulled together and aggregated to give a real-time, constantly update view of fleet readiness according to datasets like parts and supply.
It's all bought together in dashboard view which shows all functions in one place, developed by Business Objects Inc. of San Jose, California. It's an interface that can execute system-wide queries. If a commander wants a certain squadron for action, he or she can immediately check the status of every aircraft in the fleet, including how many are ready to fly, how many are grounded for problems and maintenance, why, and how long it will be before they're airborne again.
After AFKS identified over $600m in excess parts and recouped $300,000 worth in its first week of operation, it's no surprise the air force is now applying it to everything from human resources to finance.
With projects of such size and scope available, the private sector is in a good position to capitalise on IT-based parts and supply chain solutions.
A good example is Sweden-based Systecon. Operating on a consulting basis, the company works with customers throughout the project life cycle by deploying several modular software-based products.
Opus 10 is the company's flagship product for parts optimisation and logistic support analysis, and Systecon promises that installing it will allow you to reduce stock and capital by up to 30%.
The software component of Opus 10 is a table-based input tool that can also be manipulated graphically, and which then produces the cost effectiveness curve to show you how your figures fare.
The analytical brains of Opus 10 calculates the input of inventory and reports on the best possible allocation across the client's system.
It's also possible to run concurrent models or alternate parts supply solutions side by side and get a quick visual idea of the best course of action.